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Chapter 21:

  • Of our officers generally
  • -- regimental officers -- surgeons and Parsons -- Episcopalian ministers -- Roman Catholic priests -- Jesuits on the field of battle.

An army so suddenly gathered as ours, will always abound in incompetent officers. The privilege of volunteers to elect their own officers may seem at first like an excellent provision for the selection of the most competent, but-experience has proved that this privilege, uncontrolled by some competent authority, is the parent of many abuses, and countenances great incapacity. The question with the men is, not “who is the best soldier,” or “the most experienced among us,” but “whom do we like best?” Hence the most wealthy are usually selected for offices of importance and trust, although experience almost invariably proves that the greatest amount of talent is found in the modest and unpretending.

We had not been in service long ere this was.apparent to all, and though many officers were nothing but an incumbrance, pride and love of power would not permit them to resign the gilded stars or shoulder-straps of office. Murmurs and complaints indeed were not wanting against some in every corps who had been elevated by momentary popularity, nor did this discontent arise from that.unhappy habit of murmuring so prevalent among newly raised troops. What the capacity of our Generals might be, none dared to inquire — it was enough that the Administration, or General-in-Chief, had selected and intrusted them with commands, and the men were far too patriotic to question their discretion and choice. But in regard to regimental officers the men were not so delicate; they were criticised unmercifully, and their deficiencies magnified tenfold.

In regard to the medical staff, Government had unconsciously, perhaps, yet grievously erred. How so great a multitude of incompetents could have cajoled the Medical Board is to me a [194] profound mystery. In every regiment there were not less than a dozen doctors, from whom, for the most part, our men had as much to fear as from their Northern enemies. Our company boasted of six who put M. D. to their names by virtue of diplomas from some far-distant college or other; but if shaken all together, their medical knowledge would not have sufficed to prescribe with safety a dose of simples! This is truth; and were I to lengthen the subject by adverting to the terrible loss arising from malpractice in, or profound ignorance of, the fundamentals of surgery, as evidenced on the plains of Manassas, I might sorrowfully exclaim with the celebrated Dr. Stone of New-Orleans: “Our army has suffered infinitely more from surgical ignorance than from shot or steel of the enemy.” Such fearful havoc I could never have imagined, as occurred from medical incompetency. Dead were being daily buried in scores; hundreds, if not thousands, were lost to our little army before and after Manassas, from the blind stupidity and culpable pride of medical pretenders. But how could we expect otherwise? The young delighted in this fine field of practice, and became expert at the expense of the living; their elders (I cannot say betters) would lounge about and discourse pompously of every thing but their profession, while the hospital stores gave abundant opportunities for indulging in their favorite habits of intoxication. Time certainly improved this state of things, as it afforded the younger opportunities of improvement, but at what an expense of life and limb was their professional education completed!

Another class who patriotically rushed to Richmond and obtained salaries to which they were unaccustomed, was a race of long-jawed, loud-mouthed ranters, termed for courtesy's sake ministers of the Gospel. With profound respect for a class “called of heaven” for the administration of holy offices, I may be allowed to observe that, taken as a whole, these long-bodied individuals who were saddled on our regiments simply considered themselves “called” to receive one hundred and twenty dollars per month, with the rank of captain, and the privilege of eating good dinners wherever chance or Providence provided — to be terribly valiant in words, and offensively loquacious upon every topic of life, save men's salvation. Where [195] they all came from, none knew or cared to know, especially as but little was seen or heard of them, save when some fortunate “mess” had turkey or chickens, and then, of course, the minister was sure to put in his appearance, and fuss about until invited to dine. Most of these gentlemen were particularly condescending in their small talk, could wink at “trifles” after a few weeks' residence, and sometimes betrayed alarming proficiency in handling cards at a social game of poker.

The sermons preached to us were decidedly original. On one occasion I was almost petrified to hear one of the most popular of these camp-preachers confess before an audience of a thousand intelligent beings that “it has never yet been positively known whether Christ came down from heaven to save the body or the soul of a man!” I also remember having heard such words of wisdom from the lips of some of these worthies as the following: “It is certain that God is infinite, and therefore He requires some infinite habitation-therefore space is infinite, and was possibly prior to God.” Another quietly remarked to his hearers: “Man cannot fulfil the law-all you have to do is to believe, trust to God for and in all things, and as to the rest you may do as you please.” Again, another said: “If I disagree with my brother upon points of religion, it is not much matter; he may believe in universal salvation; another denies that Christ was God; one believes in infant baptism, and another does not; but all these little things are not of much consequence, my brethren; all are trying to get to heaven as best they can, and all no doubt will finally reach there-at least, we hope so!”

It is hardly necessary to say that little or no good was effected in the army by these “gospel ministers,” (as they termed themselves;) their conduct was not as correct as it might be; and they seemed so eaten up with indolence that they were usually considered as bores and drones. They were seldom or never found administering to the sick or dying; service was offered occasionally; but in time of battle or in the hour of anguish at the hospital, they were looked for in vain. Little, however, could be expected from such a class of men. The majority had received “calls” to retire from blacksmiths or wood-chopping to preach the Gospel, and as they enjoyed but little celebrity or [196] remuneration at home, they patriotically offered their services to Government, and were assigned duty among us. The proof of their “divine vocation” is seen in their subsequent conduct, for when Government, in its calmer moments, reduced their salaries, these spiritual heroes for the most part resigned, alleging as reasons that eighty dollars per month and rations was insufficient remuneration (!)

Nevertheless, truth compels me to add by day of exception to this general condemnation, that many good and true men were to be found, who, by their upright conduct, self-denial, and zeal, counterbalanced much of the evil here adverted to. Among others who were distinguished for their correct deportment, persevering industry, unaffected piety, restless activity, and sound moral instruction, I would mention the Episcopalians and Roman Catholic priests. The latter, especially, were remarkably zealous; their services were conducted every morning in tents set apart for the purpose; and on Sunday large crowds of the more Southern soldiery were regular in their attendance and devout in their behavior; and I have not unfrequently seen General Beauregard and other officers kneeling with scores of privates at the Holy Communion Table. Such an instance occurred on the morning of Manassas, and I could not help remarking it, as I rode past in the twilight on that eventful occasion.

The Jesuits were perfect soldiers in their demeanor; ever at the head of a column in the advance, ever the last in a retreat; and on the battle-field a black cassock, in a bending posture, would always betray the disciple of Loyola, ministering to the wounded or dying. No hospital-could be found wherein was not a pale-faced, meek, and untiring man of this order. Soldierly in their education and bearing, they are ready for any thing — to preachy prescribe for the sick, or offer a wise suggestion on military or social affairs. It is to the foresight and judgment of one of them that Beauregard and Johnston escaped death or capture at Manassas, for had they not met one of these missionaries during the heat of the conflict, and heeded his modest advice, one or other of these calamities must have inevitably ensued.

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