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Chapter 13: the leaders and the led.

  • General Lee comes to the front
  • -- Mr. Davis' labors and responsibilities -- his personal popularity -- social feeling at the new Capital -- Pawnee Sunday “panic” -- Richmond society -- an after-dinner object lesson -- how good blood did not lie -- western Virginia -- society's pets go to the front -- “the brave at home.”
    Thus much of detail arranged, General Lee was, for the present, detained in Richmond by the President, as consulting and organizing officer; and to aid the Adjutant-General-Samuel Cooper, senior general of the five--in the location of armies, distribution of troops, and assignment of officers. General Lee's perfect knowledge of the materiel of the Virginia army and of the topographical features of the state, peculiarly fitted him for this work; but every step was taken subject to the decision of Mr. Davis himself. The appointments of officers, the distribution of troops — in fact, the minutiae of the War Department--were managed by him in person.

    He seemed fully alive to the vital importance of making the groundwork of the military system solid and smooth. Real preparations had begun so late that only the strong hand could now avail; and though Mr. Walker still held the empty portfolio of the secretaryship, he, and the army, and the country knew who, in fact, did the work. But to do Mr. Davis justice, he did not make his fantoccini suffer if he pulled the wires the wrong way. He was not only President and secretary of five departments — which naturally caused some errors; but that spice of the dictator in him made him quite willing to shoulder the responsibilities of all the positions.

    Now, as in Montgomery, I wondered that the frail body-that could not bend-did not break beneath the load of anxiety and bodily labor he imposed upon it. His energy and industry were untiring; and every afternoon the declining sun found him in the saddle, inspecting and reviewing the troops, at one of the many camps near town. Sometimes the hard, stolid face of the Postmaster-General appeared at his side; again Senator Wigfall galloped along, with his pants stuck in his boots and seeming to enjoy the saddle much more than the curule chair; and often “Little Jeff” the Benjamin of Mr. Davis' household-trotted at his side. But there was never a suite, seldom a courier; and wherever he went, [103] plain, stirring syllables of cheer-and strong, grave words of incentive-dropped from his lips among the soldiery. They were treasured as the truth, too, by that rough auditory; for as yet, Mr. Davis was in the zenith of his popularity — a perfect idol with army and people. The first sight of the tall, erect figure, swaying so easily to the action of the powerful gray, was a signal for the wildest cheers from the camps; and the people in the streets raised their hats and stood uncovered while the representative man passed.

    Cavil, jealousy and partisan intrigue, in which he and the cause finally went down together, had not yet done their work. There were many murmurers at real, many growlers at supposed, errors; but no opposition party-truer to itself and its interests than to the cause --had yet been organized on a basis strong enough to defy and thwart “the man.”

    Every one connected with the government remarked the vast difference of its reception by the Richmond and Montgomery people. The Alabamians came forward with decision and alacrity to offer their lives and fortunes to the cause. They made any sacrifices to the government, as such; but, privately, they regarded the individuals connected with it as social brigands come to rob their society of all that was good and pure in it.

    Richmond, on the contrary, having given the invitation, made the best of it when accepted. The people united in sincere effort to show a whole-souled hospitality to all strangers deserving of it. Gentlemen in the government were received with frank and free-handed kindness; and even a wretch, who had wintered in the shade of the Washington upas, was allowed to flutter about and not be gunned for by the double-barreled spectacles of every respectable dowager!

    Richmond was always a great place for excitements; but with the great addition of inflammable material recently, it required but a very small spark to raise a roaring, if not dangerous, flame.

    On a bright Sunday in April, when

    The beams of God's own hallowed day
    Had painted every spire with gold,
    And, calling sinful men to pray,
    Long, loud and deep the bell had tolled--

    the citizens were worshipping quietly and a peaceful stillness reigned everywhere. Suddenly, as if a rocket had gone up, the rumor flew [104] from mouth to mouth that the “Pawnee” was steaming up the river to shell the city. The congregations, not waiting to be dismissed, rushed from the churches with a single impulse; the alarm bell in the Square pealed out with a frightened chime. For once, even the women of Richmond were alarmed. The whole population flocked toward “Rocketts” --every eye strained to catch a first glimpse of the terrible monster approaching so rapidly. Old and young men, in Sunday attire, hastened along with rusty muskets and neat “Mantons” on their shoulders; groups of bareheaded ladies were at the corners, asking the news and repeating every fear-invented tale; and more than one of the “solid men” was seen with hand-baskets, loaded with rock, to dam the river! Late in the evening, the veterans of six hours were dismissed, it turning out that there was no cause whatever for the alarm ; and when after events showed them that vessel --so battered and badgered by the river batteries-“Pawnee Sunday” became a by-word among the citizens.

    Richmond was not cosmopolitan in her habits or ideas, and there was, in some quarters, a vague, lingering suspicion as to the result of the experiment; but the society felt that the government was its guest, and as such was to be honored. The city itself was a small one, the society was general and provincial; and there was in it a sort of brotherly-love tone that struck a stranger, at first, as very This was, in a great measure, attributable to the fact that the social circle had been for years a constant quantity, and everybody in it had known everybody else since childhood.

    The men, as a general thing, were very cordial to the strangers, and some very delightful and some very odd acquaintances were made among them. Chief among the latter was one, whom we may callas he would say “for euphony” --Will Wyatt; the most perfect specimen of the genus man-about-town in the city. He was very young, with wealth, a pleasing exterior, and an absolute greed for society. His naturally good mind had been very prettily cultivated-by himself rather than his masters-and he had traveled just enough to understand, without despising, the weaknesses of his compatriots. He and the omniscient Styles were fast friends, and a card to Wyatt, signed “Fondly thine own, S. S.,” had done the business for me. His house, horses and friends were all at my service; and in the few intervals that anxiety and duty left for ennui, he effectually drove the monster off. [105]

    “I'm devilish sorry, old man,” he said, one day, after we got well acquainted, “that there's nothing going on in the social line. Drop in on me at six, to dinner; and I'll show you a clever fellow or two, and maybe have some music. You understand, my dear boy, we don't entertain now. After all, it's so late in the season there'd be little doing in peace times; but this infernal war has smashed us up completely. Getting your nose red taking leave of your tender family is the only style they vote at all nobby now--À diner!”

    The dinner and music at Wyatt's were not warlike-and particularly was the wine not of that description; but the men were. Over cigars, the conversation turned upon the organization of the army; and, accustomed as I was to seeing “the best men in the ranks,” the way these young bloods talked rather astounded me.

    Private in ‘ Co. F,’ ” answered John C. to my query-he represented one of the finest estates on the river-“You've heard of ‘F,’ of course. We hang by the old company. Wyatt has just refused a captaincy of engineers to stick as third corporal.”

    “ Neat that, in John,” put in Wyatt, “when he was offered the majority of a regiment of cavalry and refused it to stay in.”

    “And why not?” said George H. shortly. “Pass the Madeira, Will. I would'nt give my place in ‘F’ for the best majority going. As far as that goes it's a mere matter of taste, I know. But the fact is, if we of the old organizations dodge our duty now by hunting commissions, how can we hope that the people will come to time promptly?” George H. had a quarter of a million to his credit, and was an only son-“Now, I think Bev did a foolish thing not to take his regiment when Uncle Jeff offered him the commission.”

    “ I don't see it,” responded Beverly I. in an aggrieved tone. “You fellows in ‘ F’ were down on your captain when he took his colonelcy; and I'm as proud of my junior lieutenancy in the old First, as if I commanded ‘ F’ company itself!”

    “ But is it usual,” I queried, “for you gentlemen to refuse promotion when offered — I don't mean to not seek it — to remain with your old companies? Would you stay in the ranks as a private when as a captain or major you might do better service?”

    “ Peut-être for the present,” responded Wyatt-“Don't misunderstand us; we're not riding at windmills, and I sincerely hope you'll see us all with wreaths on our collars yet. But there's a tacit agreement [106] that just now we can do more good in the ranks than anywhere else. For myself, I don't delight in drill and dirt, and don't endorse that sentimental bosh about the ‘post of honor.’ But our duty is where we can do most good, and our example will decide many doubtful ones and shame the laggard.”

    “And we'll all go out after a few fights, if we don't get popped off,” put in George H., “and then we'll feel we've won our spurs!”

    “Well, I'm not too modest to say that I think we are pretty expensive food for powder,” said John C., “but then we're not worth more than the ‘Crescents,’ the ‘Cadets,’ or ‘Hampton's Legion.’ The colonel's sons are both in the ranks of the Legion, and refused commissions. Why should the best blood of Carolina do more than the best blood of Virginia?”

    “And see those Baltimore boys,” said Adjutant Y., of a Georgia legion. “They've given up home, friends and wealth to come and fight for us and the cause. They don't go round begging for commissions! If my colonel didn't insist I was more useful where I am, I'd drop the bar and take a musket among them. That sort of stock I like!” But if Lieutenant Y. had taken the musket, a stray bullet might have spoiled a most dashing major-general of cavalry.

    “I fear very much,” I answered, “that the war will be long enough for all the really good material to come to the surface. The preparations at the North are on a scale we never before dreamed of, and her government seems determined to enforce obedience.”

    “ God forbid!” and Wyatt spoke more solemnly than I ever heard him before. “But I begin to believe as you do. I'd sooner risk my wreath than that ‘the good material’ you speak of should have the ‘ chance to come to the surface.’ Think how many a good fellow would be under the surface by that time!”

    “It sometimes sickens me on parade,” said George H., “when I look down the line and think what a gap in our old set a volley will make! I think we are pretty expensive food for powder, John. Minies are no respecters of persons, old fellow; and there'll be many a black dress in Richmond after the first bulletin.”

    “God send we may all meet here after the war, and drink to the New Nation in Wyatt's sherry!” said Lieutenant Y. “It's better than the water at Howard's Grove. But the mare'll have hot work to get the adjutant into camp before taps. So, here's how!” and he filled his glass and tossed it off, as we broke up. [107]

    I have recorded the spirit of a private, every-day conversation, just as I heard it over a dinner-table, from a party of giddy young men. But I thought over it long that night; and many times afterward when the sickening bulletins were posted after the battles.

    Here were as gay and reckless a set of youths as wealth, position and everything to make life dear to them could produce, going into a desperate war — with a perfect sense of its perils, its probable duration and its rewards-yet refusing promotion offered, that their example might be more beneficial in calling out volunteers.

    And there was no Quixotism. It was the result of reason and a conviction that they were only doing their duty; for, I believe every man of those I had just left perfectly appreciated the trials and discomforts he was preparing for himself, and felt the advantages that a commission, this early in the war, would give him!

    It may be that this “romance of war” was not of long duration; and that after the first campaign the better class of men anxiously sought promotion. This was natural enough. They had won the right to it; and the sacrifice of their good example had not been without effect. But I do think it was much less natural that they should have so acted in the first place.

    Industry and bustle were still the order of the day in camp; and, in town, the activity increased rather than abated. There were few idlers about Richmond, even chronic “do-nothings” becoming impressed with the idea that in the universal work they must do something.

    The name of Henry A. Wise was relied upon by the Government as a great power to draw volunteers from the people he had so frequently represented in various capacities. The commission of brigadier-general was given him, with authority to raise a brigade to be called the “Wise Legion,” to operate in Western Virginia. Though there was no reason to think Wise would make a great soldier, his personal popularity was supposed to be sufficient to counterbalance that objection; for it was of the first importance to the Government that the western half of the State should be saved to the Confederate cause. In the first place, the active and hardy population was splendid material for soldiers, and it was believed at Richmond that, with proper pressure applied, they would take up arms for the South in great numbers; otherwise, when the Federal troops advanced into [108] their country, they might go to the other side. Again, the products of the rich western region were almost essential to the support of the troops in Virginia, in view of contracted facilities for transportation; and the product of the Kanawha Salines alone — the only regular and very extensive salt works in the country — were worth a strenuous effort. This portion of Virginia, too, was a great military highway for United States troops, en route to the West; and once securely lodged in its almost impregnable fastnesses, their ejection would be practically impossible.

    General Garnett--an old army officer of reputation and promisewas already in that field, with a handful of troops from the Virginia army; among them a regiment from about Richmond, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Pegram. The Federals, grasping at once the full importance of this position, had sent to meet this demonstration an army under General McClellan, with Rosecrans commanding the advance. There had been no collision, but its approach could not be long delayed; and the South wanted men.

    In this posture of affairs, General Wise received his commission and orders. The old politician donned his uniform with great alacrity; called about him a few of the best companies of Richmond, as a nucleus; and went to work with all the vim and activity expected by those who knew him best. The “Richmond light infantry Blues” --the oldest company in Richmond, commanded by his son — was foremost among them. Co. F was to go West, too; and though its members, one and all, would have preferred a more promising sphere of duty, at Yorktown, or on the Potomac, every man acquiesced with cheerful spirit.

    “Sair was the weeping” of the matrons and maidens of Richmond, when told their darlings were to go; but their sorrow did not prevent the most active demonstrations toward the comfort of the outer and inner man.

    “Not a pleasant summer jaunt we're to have, old man,” Wyatt said when he bade me good-bye. “I've been to that country hunting and found it devilish fine; but 'tisn't so fine by half when you're hunting a Yank, who has a long-range rifle and is likewise hunting for you. Then I've an idea of perpetual snow-glaciers-and all that sort of thing. I feel like the new John Franklin. But I'll write a book--Trapping the Yank in the ice-fields of the South. Taking [109] title, eh? But seriously, I know we can't all go to Beauregard; and there'll be fighting enough all round before it ‘holds up.’ God bless you! We'll meet somewhere; if not before, when I come down in the fall to show you the new stars on my collar!”

    Thus Co. F went into the campaign. Its record there is history. So is that of many another like it.

    As I have tried to show, this spirit pervaded the whole South to an almost universal extent. Companies like these, scattered among the grosser material of the army, must have been the alloy that gave to the whole mass that true ring which will sound down all history! The coarse natures around could but be shamed into imitation, when they saw the delicately nurtured darlings of society toiling through mud knee deep, or sleeping in stiffening blankets, without a murmur! And many a charge has been saved because a regiment like the First Virginia or the Alabama Third walked straight into the iron hail, as though it had been a carnival pelting!

    The man who tells us that blood has little effect must have read history to very little purpose; or have looked very carelessly into the glass that Nature hourly holds up to his view.

    Wyatt was right when he said “there was nothing doing” socially. But there was much doing otherwise. The war was young yet, and each household had its engrossing excitement in getting its loved ones ready for the field. The pets of the ball-room were to lay aside broadcloth and kids; and the pump-soled boots of the “german” were to be changed for the brogan of the camp.

    The women of the city were too busy now to care for society and its frippery; the new objects of life filled every hour. The anxieties of the war were not yet a twice-told tale, and no artificial excitements were needed to drive them away. The women of Virginia, like her men, were animated with a spirit of devotion and self-sacrifice. Mothers sent their youngest born to the front, and bade them bear their shields, or be found under them; and the damsel who did not bid her lover “God speed and go!” would have been a finger point and a scoff. And the flags for their pet regiments-though many a bitter tear was broidered into their folds — were always given with the brave injunction to bear them worthily, even to the death!

    The spirit upon the people-one and all — was “The cause-not [110] us!” and under the rough gray, hearts beat with as high a chivalry as---

    In the brave, good days of old,
    When men for virtue and honor fought
    In serried ranks, ‘neath their banners bright,
    By the fairy hands of beauty wrought,
    And broidered with “ God and Right!”

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