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Chapter 24: fatal mistake of the Confederate military authorities

  • The love of glory the inspiration of a soldier
  • -- prompt promotion the life of an Army -- how Napoleon applied these principles -- how the controlling military authorities of the Confederacy Ignored them -- the material of the Confederate armies superb, their development as soldiers neglected -- decoration for gallantry, and promotion on the field unknown in the Confederate service -- Lee himself without authority to confer such promotion or distinction -- contrasted spirit and practice of the Federal authorities and armies -- grotesque absurdity of an Elective roll of military honor.

If asked what I regarded as the most fatal mistake of the military authorities of the Confederacy, I should unhesitatingly answer-their utter and amazing failure to appreciate the distinctive inspiration of the soldier, the informing spirit of an army. That spirit, that inspiration, is best expressed in the one word “Promotion” --promotion on the spot, “on the field;” instant, responsive, rapid promotion.

I do not deny the existence of other great principles and forces, fundamental and formative, in the life of the soldier. On the contrary, I thoroughly believe in and appreciate them, and shall take pleasure in pointing them out in the last chapter of this work; but I do say that the great element of progress and development in the military life is the desire for promotion, or at least, for honorable distinction in the profession.

I do not hesitate to say the soldier cannot be highly developed without this influence. The true soldier is ever looking for opportunities to earn promotion or distinction, and the true general ever on the lookout to reward men who have well earned the one or the other. This is the way-I [337] am willing to say, the only way — to make a soldier or an army and to develop both to the highest point of effectiveness.

Probably the greatest master of the art of war, in ancient or modern times, was the first Napoleon, and his army --if not the best that ever marched or fought-certainly reached a height of resistless power that alarmed and for a time dominated Europe.

It is well known how largely he made use of and relied upon the element we are now considering, and which we may as well characterize plainly as the love of glory. Countless stories are told illustrating how he stimulated this natural desire, until it became the one passionate thirst of his soldiers. They enjoyed the privilege of unrestrained access to him at all times, and he encouraged them to address him as “Sire.”

In one of his greatest battles he occupied a commanding height from which, mounted on his favorite war horse and surrounded by a magnificent staff, he overlooked the drawn fight that hung in the balance on the plain below; striving, through the battle smoke, to analyze the field and to determine where to deliver his final blow. He was sitting deep in the saddle and deeply absorbed, when a young infantry soldier, from one of his favorite regiments, pressed through the gorgeous uniforms and prancing steeds of the staff until, pale, haggard, bloody, powder-begrimed, he reached the Emperor's side, and slapping his hand smartly upon his thigh, pointed eagerly to a particular part of the field and said: “Sire, send a strong column there, and the day is ours!”

Napoleon, startled from his reverie, turned and looked upon the hatless, breathless, but inspired boy; then breaking into a smile of appreciation and delight, and shaking his finger at him, burst out: “You little devil! Who told you my secret? Go back to your regiment, sir!”

The column was hurled upon the weak point the two Napoleons had detected; the victory was won, and the victor rode over to the spot where the fatal thrust had been made-and there, just where the head of the French column had pierced [338] the hostile line, lay that peerless youth with a bullet through his brain, but the light of battle and of victory glorifying his countenance. The Emperor turned pale and reeled in his saddle, but quickly recovering, gazed yearningly at the dead hero, and with bitter emphasis exclaimed, “But for that accursed bullet, there lies a Marshal of France!”

Another illustration occurs to me.

On a rapid march through an unfamiliar region the head of his column halted on the bank of a river, and the Emperor, turning to the ranking engineer officer present, demanded to know its width. The colonel said he could not tell; but the Emperor instantly replied:

But I must know.

“The instruments are in the rear, sire. I cannot tell without the instruments.”

“I said nothing about instruments; I asked the width of this river, and I must be told.”

“Sire, no one can tell without the instruments,” said the colonel.

At this moment a young lieutenant of engineers stepped forward and saluted, saying:

Sire, I think I can tell you near enough for all practical purposes, the width of the stream.

“Tell me then, sir!”

The lieutenant advanced to the edge of the water and faced the other shore. Drawing down the visor of his cap until it just cut the further brink, he turned his head-taking care to keep his chin at the same level-until the cap brim struck the bank they were on. Then, again addressing the Emperor, he said:

Sire, let them measure the distance from here to yonder barn and you will have approximately the width of the river.

Recognizing the resource and quickness of the young officer, Napoleon ordered the immediate exchange of rank, making the lieutenant a colonel and the colonel a lieutenant, on the spot.

These incidents require not one word, by way either of explanation or of emphasis. It is easy to see, indeed it [339] would seem impossible not to see, how such instant, responsive, public recognition and reward of merit and of service must inspire and develop an army.

What I mean to assert is that the Confederate military authorities — that is, the governing authorities — did absolutely nothing, in this general direction; that we did not have, as General Hooker and other Federal generals testified, material originally inferior which we toned up by admirable training and discipline; but, on the contrary, that the material of our armies, the bulk of our rank and file, was as fine as the world ever saw, as full of military capacity and aptitude and ambition, and that we steadily toned down this superb material by habitual neglect of what is most essential to the development of the soldier.

It is needless to say that the Army of Northern Virginia was under a leadership in the field as developing and uplifting as soldiers ever followed; but, with this exception, all things were against us. The controlling military authorities seem to have relied entirely upon the patriotism and character of the individual men, and did nothing to make them soldiers, or to make the aggregation of them an army. Any one of us might perform prodigies of valor, no one ever noticed it; or exhibit the most decided and even brilliant capacities for command or advancement, the advancement or command might never come.

Take the case of Lieutenant Falligant at Cold Harbor, already mentioned. Our battalion report set forth his splendid conduct in detail; General Kershaw, commanding our division, was full of enthusiastic admiration, and promised --and I have no doubt fulfilled his promise — to press Falligant's promotion; yet no notice was ever taken of the matter. If Falligant had done in Napoleon's army precisely what he did in the Army of Northern Virginia I have no doubt he would have been decorated on the field and promoted to be full colonel of artillery. He was a second lieutenant when he rendered his superb service at Cold Harbor, 1864. If I mistake not, he was a second lieutenant at Appomattox.

I think it was at Suffolk that a private soldier in one of the regiments of the Confederate force investing the place [340] proposed, and alone and single-handed, executed a brilliant and daring plan, which completely rid the investing force of the galling fire of sharpshooters concealed in tall, dry grass on the other side of a deep stream.

This gallant and ingenious fellow, when the wind was blowing from our side toward the enemy's, procured a long, thick plank, with which he entered the water, lying breast down on one end of the plank, which of course inclined the other end upward, making a sort of protection for him and especially for his head. Thus equipped, he paddled across the stream to a point projecting out toward our shore, and where the dry grass stood high above water so deep that the sharpshooters could not approach near it, and there, and as far up and down the stream as he could venture, he set fire to the grass. The flames spread rapidly, and the daring incendiary, taking advantage of the flight and confusion of the sharpshooters, swam safely back to our side of the stream.

The force was entirely relieved from the annoying and destructive fire, but their heroic deliverer was, as usual, overlooked and neglected.

I am not sure that the Federal military authorities fully recognized the principles we have been discussing, but they certainly contrasted very strongly with ours in this respect.

After the battle of Chickamauga Longstreet sent to Richmond a number of Federal flags captured by his men in the engagement, in charge of a party consisting of several private soldiers, two or three non-commissioned officers, and a lieutenant or two, who had specially distinguished themselves in the capture of the banners. They were met at the depot by a negro with a one-horse wagon, into which the captured banners were dumped, and in which they were hauled to the Capitol-and the men received transportation back to the army. Of course they were laughing-stocks to their fellows, and felt the deep sting of the lesson that gallant conduct is a matter beneath notice.

About the same time I read in the Northern papers an account of the reception accorded a similar party of Federal soldiers, sent upon a like errand, to Washington. As [341] I remember, they were received by the full Cabinet, assembled in the War Department. The line officers were made majors and colonels, the non-commissioned officers received commissions, and the privates had the chevrons of sergeants and corporals sewed upon their coatsleeves. Of course they returned to their army, themselves heroes and inspirers of heroic deeds among their comrades.

When I was captured and passed through Grant's Army I felt as if I had entered a new world. The non-commissioned officer who was first to reach me, as we were walking to find the Federal officer commanding on that part of the line, rattled off to me his military history, which was at his tongue's end.

Major,” said he, “you've helped me to my shoulder straps. You make the fifth field officer I've been the first man to reach; twice my hand has been first on captured cannon. You see that man yonder? He's a private soldier still, because he hasn't the mind or education to make an officer, and he knows it and don't want a commission; but look at his medals and decorations. There ain't a general officer in the corps but touches his hat to him.”

And so it seemed to be with all the men I saw. Each appeared fully aware of the amount of good conduct laid up to his credit, and yearning for opportunity to win further distinction.

There was nothing approximating this in our service. I can truly say,--and thousands of my old comrades can say with me,--I never saw or heard of a medal or a ribbon being pinned on a man's jacket, or even so much as a man's name being read out publicly in orders for gallantry in battle. With some of us, at least, it would have gone far to atone for having nothing put inside our stomachs if we had had a red ribbon or some such thing pinned outside our jackets. Not only did I never see or hear of a promotion on the field, but I do not believe such a thing ever occurred in any army of the Confederacy, from the beginning to the end of the war. Indeed, I am confident it never did; for, incredible as it may appear, even Lee himself did not have the power to make such a promotion. On page 147 of his book, Colonel Taylor, the Adjutant-General of his army, says: [342]

General Lee should have been supreme in all matters touching the movements and discipline of his Army; whereas, under the law and the regulations of the Department of War made in conformity thereto, he had not even the power to confer promotion on the field of battle.

I have myself heard other prominent Confederate leaders complain of their utter powerlessness in this regard, and it is generally understood that Jackson more than once threatened to resign if he should be further interfered with in “putting down one and setting up another” of the officers and men of his command.

In short, the error and defect upon which I am commenting was too glaring to be denied, but I have heard it apologized for upon the ground that deeds of gallantry were so common in the Confederate armies and especially in the Army of Northern Virginia, that they could not with propriety be recognized or rewarded as “distinguished.” This is worse than absurd. No matter how high the average, some men and some deeds necessarily rose above it. Besides, men were sometimes promoted for gallantry in our service, and even in Lee's glorious army; but the point is, the promotion lagged and followed afar off-so far that, before the tardy recognition came, men had forgotten the heroic deeds that forced it, and the effect was almost, if not altogether, lost.

May I be pardoned for referring to my personal experience in this regard, amongst the bitterest of my life. I was recommended for promotion for conduct at “The Salient,” that is, “The Bloody Angle,” of Spottsylvania, of the 12th of May, 1864; and the promotion came, but more than six months later, and then the commission gave me rank, not from the date of the engagement, but from the date of its issue; nor was there upon its face the slightest reference to or connection with the glorious 12th of May. I do not think I was ever so disappointed and indignant. I never saw the commission again; my recollection is that I tore it to tatters. I presume it is, in part at least, to the delay in issuing this commission that I am indebted for the additional wrong that my name is not mentioned in the only published list, so far as I know, of the field officers of the Confederate armies. [343]

If anything were needed to accentuate the dismal failure of the military authorities of the Confederacy, in the general field of the inspiration and development of the soldier, it would be abundantly supplied by the remarkable record of the only attempt they ever made, so far as I am informed, in that direction. This attempt was embodied in an Act of the Congress of the Confederate States, approved October 13, 1862, and several orders of the Adjutant and Inspector-General's office: No. 93, of November 22, 1862; No. 31, of October 3, 1863, and No. 64, of August 10, 1864-all to be found in War Records, Series I., Vol. XXX., Part 2, Reports, pages 532 and 533.

The title of the Act is promising, and is as follows: “An Act to authorize the grant of medals and badges of distinction, as a reward for courage and good conduct on the field of battle;” but the outline of the scheme is grievously disappointing.

“The President,” and not the general commanding in the field, was authorized to confer the medals and badges; so that, even without the distinct reference in the orders to “the regular channels,” it is obvious that, in practical operation, the plan would fail utterly of that rapid, responsive recognition and reward wherein consist the life and power of decoration and promotion “on the field.”

Again, the Act provided for conferring “a badge of distinction upon one private or non-commissioned officer of each company, after every signal victory it shall have assisted to achieve.” Thus, by reason of the number to be decorated, the decoration would, of necessity, cease to be a distinction, and the scheme must, as it did, break down of its own weight, to say nothing of its other inherent defects.

Perhaps the most glaring of these was the mode of selecting the men who were to be recipients of the badges. It is expressly provided in the Act that: “The non-commissioned officers and privates of the company who may be present on the first dress-parade thereafter (that is, ‘after every signal victory’ ) may choose, by a majority of their votes, the soldier best entitled to receive such distinction.” Could there be devised a more shocking travesty upon the essential [344] law and character of military promotion or reward and the appropriate mode of conferring it? Such promotion or recognition means, of course, and exclusively, recognition or promotion from above; by the determination, that is, of one's superior or commanding officer. To substitute in place of this the ballot of one's fellows is a monstrous perversion-so monstrous as to be incredible but for the absolute proofs we have submitted. It was bad enough to provide for election to military office; but to elect the bravest man in the command is an incongruity still more extreme.

And yet there is one feature of this remarkable statute even more exaggerated and grotesque. The entire scheme had been delayed a year or more because of the difficulty or expense of procuring the medals and badges, and an elective “Roll of honor” was the ingenious substituted device of someone to bridge over the difficulty. In the order of August 10, 1864, it was provided that: “Should more than one soldier hereafter be selected by a company as equal in merit, the name to be entered upon the roll will be determined by lot.” The imagination staggers at the task of picturing the scene where two elected heroes proceeded to draw straws to determine which of the twain should be enrolled among the immortals.

Was there ever enacted by a legislative body, or carried into effect by an executive office, a more utterly impotent scheme or as grim a farce? It seems almost beyond belief, but there it is, in black and white; and it was actually put into operation in some of our armies. It may have been to some extent operative in the Army of Northern Virginia; but I have yet to meet a soldier of that army who claimed the honor of having had his name entered upon this Elective Roll of Honor, this Roll of Elected Heroes, or who had even so much as heard of such a roll, although it was expressly ordered that the roll be read “at the head of every regiment in the service of the Confederate States.”

I say again, the invention of such a scheme only accentuates the pitiful failure of the Confederate military authorities to put into operation the noble, healthful, inspiring law and practice of genuine military recognition and promotion [345] on the feld. And I say further, that I believe this failure had as much to do with the failure of our cause as any other --yes, even more, than any and all other forces and influences, save and except, perhaps, the overwhelming material force arrayed against us.

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