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Chapter 26: analysis of the soldier-life

My story is told. If it has failed to interest and to stir you deeply, the fault is in the telling. And yet I cannot but hope — that, in spite of feeble and inadequate portrayal, the great outlines of the picture have so impressed themselves upon you that you are ready to admit the life of Marse Robert's boys, from 1861 to 1865, to have been a higher and greater life than you had imagined.

It would seem as if this must be so, if you have credited the writer with a fair average of intelligence and conscientiousness. I can well understand, however, that, without reflecting upon me in any offensive sense, some of those who have done me the honor to read these reminiscences may feel that I have unconsciously and very naturally idealized my comrades of the long ago and the vivid life we lived together in our golden youth.

It is difficult to meet such a suggestion. I believe the strongest and most satisfactory way to meet it and, at the same time, the fittest way to end this book, will be to close with an analysis of the Soldier-Life, from which it will appear how natural and normal it is, that elements and forces, such as characterize that life, should produce men and deeds and scenes and incidents such as I have endeavored to portray in the foregoing pages.

It is also, just now, specially to be desired that the essential character and training of the military life should be better and more generally understood. However we may differ as to the advisability of the new career of foreign complication and conquest upon which this country seems to have entered, and which has resulted and must necessarily result in such an expansion of its military establishment, yet we [359] must all agree that it is well the growing multitudes of young men who are entering and to enter the military service should have high and clear conceptions of that great life to which they have devoted themselves — a life, by the way, which, notwithstanding the horrors that often attended it, grew upon me every day I lived it; and to which, if the war had resulted in the establishment of the Southern Confederacy, I should have consecrated myself with whole-hearted devotion.

It will not be forgotten that I claim for the Army of Northern Virginia some peculiar characteristics, as well as a fuller and finer development of the soldierly character in general, because of the circumstances under which that army fought, and especially the leader, whose banner it followed; but, after all, the heroic story I have told is in no small degree the normal product and outcome of a grand system of physical, mental and moral training, which has been little understood and grossly misconceived and misrepresented.

What, then, is the training and what are the formative elements and forces of the Soldier-Life? I answer:

  • The essential character of the Soldier-Life is “Service;”
  • Its every employment, its all-pervading law, is “Duty;”
  • Its first lesson-Obedience unquestioning;
  • Its last lesson-Command unquestioned;
  • Its daily discipline-Accountability unceasing;
  • Its final burden-Responsibility unmeasured;
  • Its every-day experience-Hardships, Perils, Crises unparalleled;
  • Its social atmosphere-Freedom from Social Shams;
  • Its compensation-Fixed pay;
  • Its inspiration-Promotion from Above.

If you have measured these elements as I have mentioned them, there can be little need of elaboration or of argument. The compact analysis makes ample impression at [360] once of theoretical soundness and of practical power. Beyond a doubt these are the essential elements and forces of the military life; they are such as must of necessity be unceasingly operative, and their influence in the development of character can scarcely be exaggerated. Let us briefly consider them.

The essential character of the soldier-life is “Service.”

Can this be questioned? When a man enters the military profession, whether as an officer or a private soldier, by that very act he is cut off from the pursuit of his personal aims and purposes and devoted to the service of his country. Thereafter he has no home, no farm, no workshop, no business. He knows no self-directed future, attempts nothing, expects nothing, for himself. Every man outside the army regards him, and he regards himself, as a man relieved, separated from the entanglements and opportunities of the business world, and consecrated to a service which may at any time demand the sacrifice even of his life. OurEnglish Bible, upon this, as upon so many practical phases of our human experience, rings wondrous true. Wrote the great apostle: “No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life; that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier.”

The keynote which inspires and dominates and regulates all this life of “Service” is the single, simple majestic law of “Duty.” No employment of the soldier is too trivial and none too great to be included in this all-embracing term and regulated by this all-pervading law.

Descriptive names and phrases express and impress conceptions, and thus frequently constitute a sort of connecting link between causes and effects, principles and results. “Service ;” “the service ;” “entered the service ;” “discharged from the service;” “promoted for gallant and meritorious service ;” “duty ;” “on duty ;” “off duty ;” “present for duty ;” “absent from duty ;” “shot to death for absence from duty” --how many times, during the four years from 1861 to 1865, do you suppose I read, wrote, uttered, heard these and kindred expressions? Is it not clear that, by his everyday's experience and intercourse, this one great figure-his [361] life a “service,” its employment “duty” --is burned in upon the soldier's soul?

In the light of these principles, and of his lifelong training, we gain a new conception of that sublime sentence in General Lee's letter to his son, “Duty is the sublimest word in the English language;” and of that groan of his mighty soul in the crisis and agony of defeat, “It is my duty to live.”

The first lesson of the soldier-life is unquestioning Obedience.

No one will deny the justness of the analysis here. Undeniably, the first lesson of the soldier's life, logically and chronologically, is obedience. There is no department, no business, no station, in which instant, implicit, blindfold obedience is so vital to safety and success, or enforced by such terrible sanctions. In military matters hesitation is disobedience, disobedience is mutiny, mutiny is death.

The principle of the soldier's obedience is the principle of obedience, a principle very little understood and very much contemned in this day and land. It is this: authority is to be obeyed, not because it commands what is right, but because it has the right to command. One under rightful authority is therefore absolved from responsibility as to the policy or propriety or consequences of the command; his sole dignity, as well as duty, is to obey with unquestioning alacrity. This principle is not palatable to the republican sovereigns of this country, yet it is a principle notwithstandingnot exclusive, nor of universal application, but it has its place, and, in its place, is of vital importance. It is the principle on which God governs the world, the father his family, the soldier his subordinates; and it has other, many other, applications.

Its direct antagonism is “higher laze,” that is, a law higher than the commands of rightful authority; in other words, authority is to be obeyed, not because it has the right to command, but because it commands what is right. This principle, too, has its applications, but it is not applicable to a subordinate under rightful authority. The harmony between the two is found, I think, in a limitation upon the principle of obedience. We pass from the law of obedience [362] to the higher law when, but only when, the command is so palpably and grossly wrong that the authority can no longer be rightful and subjection to it no longer endured. This is the right of revolution, and is applicable by way of exception to every human relation and authority.

The soldier, however, has very little sympathy with the right of revolution, or any modification of or exception to the law of unquestioning obedience. His theory and practice in this regard find apt illustration in the reply of General Jackson to the brigade commander, who gave excellent reasons for having modified the order of march: “Sir, you should have obeyed the order first and reasoned about it afterwards. Consider yourself under arrest.”

The last lesson of the soldier-life is unquestioned Command.

This analysis of the life and its lessons is not original with me; it is at least nineteen hundred years old, and rests on the authority of one who was a superb development of the most military nation of history, that grand old Roman centurian whose interview with the Son of God is perhaps the most striking of the Gospel narratives. Said he: “I also am a man set under authority, having under me soldiers, and I say unto one, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh.” Here are the two great correlative lessons of the life, obedience and command, and both are absolute. This is the soldier, not ashamed to obey, not afraid to command; knowing how to render, and thus learning how to exact, obedience.

The daily lesson of the life is unceasing Accountability.

The soldier breathes, as it were, an atmosphere of accountability. His daily routine is made up of inspections and reports. What he is, what he has, what he does, his person, his possessions, his conduct, are constantly passing under a scrutiny so searching that nothing escapes, however trivial, and all must conform to unvarying “Regulations.” This is perhaps the most prominent and impressive feature of the life. I need not enlarge upon it. The fact is patentcan its influence be doubted? Apart now from your impression [363] as to what the soldier is, what ought he to be as the result of such training? Can you conceive of anything tending more to develop regularity, reliability, promptness, accuracy, even in the smallest details?

In the upper grades of the soldier-life, mark how this accountability is retained and developed into Responsibility, which, in the case of the commander-in-chief, becomes absolutely awful, unmeasured and unmeasurable.

Responsibility! I had almost said no other human being can have any adequate conception of the meaning of the term. Responsible for what? For the lives of his followers, for the future of their bereft families; but it is not life or death, not victory or defeat alone, that trembles in the balance of his battles. It is the life and honor of his country, the weal or woe of millions yet to be. He orders the charge, and liberty and destiny and history flicker in the gleam of his bayonets.

The experiences of the life are unparalleled Hardships, Perils, Crises.

It would be superfluous to enlarge upon these, the most external and palpable features of a soldier's life, so shortly after a war which has overspread a continent and filled a land with veterans. Nor will we stay to prove what no one will deny, that robustness of character, dauntless determination, courage that saves from, if it does not hide, a multitude of sins, and a composure and balance of soul that no excitement can disturb, no terror overwhelm, are the legitimate fruits of the soldier training.

The social atmosphere of the soldier-life is Freedom from Social Shams.

The unconventionality and candor of student life are proverbial, and yet, though I stepped from the hearty, ideal student life of Old Yale into the ranks of the Confederate soldiery, it was not long before I felt that I had never before realized how unstudied, Unconventional, and absolutely sincere human life could be. It was almost startling, the degree to which I knew other men, my comrades, and felt that 1 was known by them. All the little shams, insincerities, and [364] concealments of ordinary society disappeared; until, for the first time in our lives, we seemed to be stripped bare of the disguises under which we had theretofore been accustomed to hide our real characters, not only from the world in general and from out most intimate associates and companions, but even from ourselves.

It was this which imparted to the religious life of the army a power and thrill unattainable, even unapproachable, in ordinary life. So close did men get to each other that I experienced no difficulty and no embarrassment in conversing with every man in the company on the subject of personal religion, and in these conferences have often felt that I was playing upon a naked human soul, between whom and myself there was absolutely no barrier and no screen. It was an experience thrilling and tremendous indeed. In view of it, I have more than once remarked that if my Maker should reveal to me that I had but a short time to live, and should permit me to choose a position in which I could accomplish most for the regeneration of my fellow-men, I should unhesitatingly say, “Let me be an officer in an army, in a time of active service.”

The compensation of the soldier-life is Fixed pay.

The importance and influence of this feature cannot be estimated until you have answered this question: What is the most demoralizing of all human desires and pursuits? I know not how you will better answer than in the words of Holy Writ; for the wisdom of God has embodied the answer in a proverb, “The love of money is the root of all evil.” And the context is most impressive! “They that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition.” A proposition thus enunciated needs no enforcement, and no one will contend that this terrific indictment is less true or less applicable to-day than when the noble apostle warned his “son Timothy” against this the greatest of all the lures of the tempter. And, so surely as opportunity makes temptation, the soldier, looking securely to his sufficient but fixed compensation, having his undivided services demanded and paid for by his country, and being [365] consequently unable to devote himself to any lucrative employment, must be in great measure protected against the debasing passion of avarice.

The inspiration of the life is Promotion from Above.

Evidently the soldier's compensation is not the inspiration of his calling; and it is perhaps more true of him than of any other man that his chief inspiration is honorable advancement in his profession. Call it love of glory, if you please; even at that it is almost infinitely more elevating and ennobling than love of money, which is the ruling motive of much the larger part of mankind, certainly in this age and land. But the soldier does not call it love of glory. He is no moral philosopher or theorist; he is a practical man, and his inspiration, that of which he talks and dreams, that for which he serves and strives, is all embodied in one word -promotion. This is “the life of the service.” So peculiarly true is this that the soldier's progress has well nigh appropriated. the term “promotion,” as the soldier's life has appropriated the title “service.”

But it is not the desire for promotion, however inspiring, to which I wished chiefly to ask your attention, but rather the peculiar law of military promotion, namely, that it is promotion from above. Before you estimate the importance of this feature, let me ask you another question: What is the second great demoralizing influence of our age, and particularly of our country? I have not here the Word of God for answer; but in these days of unblushing demagogism I am sure of your concurrence when I say, it is flattery and service of the mob, cowardly concession to it, in order to secure promotion from below. I mean no reflection upon the right or principle of suffrage; but the practice of suffrage, and the means commonly resorted to to control it for personal ends are at once a disgrace to free government and a degradation of the candidate and the voter. No honest man can now pass through a political contest without being disgusted, if happily he be not also surprised, at the means employed against him.

The true soldier knows nothing of such contests or influences. He never dreams of promotion by any other power [366] than that of his superiors, or on any other ground than gallant and meritorious service. No! the soldier's principle, the soldier's inspiration, is promotion from above, and it cuts off a world of temptation and demoralization thus to lift a man's eyes and efforts up for personal elevation and advancement.

We have finished our review of the root forces of the Soldier-Life. Where will you find principles of greater power for the development of character?

Is it objected that the soldier, as we see him in actual life to-day, fails to exhibit any close conformity to these elevated principles and lofty ideals? I answer that the like failure marks the embodiment among men of the principles and ideals of every lofty life-even of our holy religion. But balanced men do not on this ground question either the truth and beauty of these principles and ideals, or the sincere adoption of them by the followers of the Christ, or their moulding influence for good upon those who adopt them.

Is it objected further that, only the highest class of recruits could be expected to appreciate the philosophy of such a system? True, but the same is true of every high vocation — that only a few choice souls thoroughly grasp the inner philosophy, the root principles, the formative forces of the calling to which they have devoted their lives. But it is also true that intellectual appreciation, however much to be desired, is not indispensable to the operation and the moulding power of formative forces such as we have discussed. A young man who enters the military service and is subjected to its discipline and training may not have intellectual life and interest enough even to inquire what it is that is making a new man of him; notwithstanding, being compelled to conform his conduct to the regulations and to live the strenuous life we have just sketched, new habits will gradually be formed and the new man will unconsciously be made.

A touching and beautiful illustration of the justness of this soldier analysis, and the character-moulding power of its principles, occurred the first time I made use of it in public [367] speech, applying it in that instance to a great soldier of the Confederacy, and showing how the mould prefigured the man. At the close of the address the son of another and one of the very greatest of our Confederate leaders, who had fallen in battle early in the war, pressed his way to my side, saying, with the deepest feeling: “Major, you have, in a very just sense, introduced my own father to me to-day. I have always admired the majestic outline of his perfect manhood, but never until I heard you just now have I realized where his qualities came from, nor sympathized, as I should have done, with my father's almost passionate love and reverence for his profession. It is all clear to me now.”

I am not a blind enthusiast. I admit that the almost enforced idleness of the camp in time of peace, the absence of women and children and the lack of other refining and elevating influence of home, are blemishes in the life of the soldier. Nevertheless, I think we may, in the light of our analysis, begin to comprehend why great soldiers-Sir Philip Sidney, Henry Havelock, Hedley Vicars, Chinese Gordon, Stonewall Jackson, Robert Lee — have exhibited an almost unrivaled elevation, strength, and perfection of character, both as men and as Christians. The late Dr. T. De Witt Talmage never penned a truer or a stronger paragraph than the following:

The sword has developed the grandest natures that the world ever saw. It has developed courage — that sublime energy of the soul which defies the universe when it feels itself to be in the right. It has developed a self-sacrifice which repudiates the idea that our life is worth more than anything else, when for a principle it throws that life away, as much as to say, ‘It is not necessary that I live, but it is necessary that righteousness triumph.’ There are thousands among the Northern and Southern veterans of our Civil War who are ninety-five per cent. larger and mightier in soul than they would have been had they not, during the four years of national agony, turned their back on home and fortune, and at the front sacrificed all for a principle.

In the light of all this, we begin also to understand why the writers of the Sacred Canon make use of the life of the [368] soldier more frequently perhaps than of any other, as a figure of the Christian life. Nor can it do harm in this connection to note that when the Son of God “marveled” at a Roman soldier's faith, pronouncing it the greatest he had found on earth, the man himself traced this faith to the teachings of his military life, saying substantially, with us-I have learned as a soldier the two great lessons of subjection and supremacy, of obedience and command; do you but issue the order, “Speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed.” [369] [370]

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