A Rebel's Recollections
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PREFACE TO THE FOURTH EDITION
"A Rebel's Recollections" was published in 1874. It has ever since enjoyed a degree of public favor that is perhaps beyond its merits.
However that may be, my friends among the historians and the critical students of history have persuaded me that, for the sake of historical completeness, I should include in this new edition of the book the prefatory essay on "The Old R?gime in the Old Dominion," which first appeared in the Atlantic Monthly for November, 1875.
I am doing so with the generous permission of Messrs. Houghton, Mifflin, & Co., publishers of the Atlantic Monthly.
The scholars have said to me and to my publishers that during its thirty years of life the book has become a part of that body of literature to which historians must look as the sources of history. They have urged that the introductory chapter, now for the first time included in the volume, is an essential part of that material of history.
The story of the book and of this introductory chapter may, perhaps, have some interest for the reader. In that belief I tell it here.
In the year, 1873, I was editing the weekly periodical, Hearth and Home. I went to Boston to secure certain contributions of literary matter. There, for the first time, I met Mr. William Dean Howells, then editor of the Atlantic Monthly, – now recognized as the foremost creative and critical writer of America.
In the course of our conversation, Mr. Howells asked me why I should not write my reminiscences of life as a Southern soldier. At that time war passions had only just begun to cool, and so I answered that it would be hardly fair to the publishers of Hearth and Home for me in that way to thrust upon the readers of that periodical the fact that its editor had been a Rebel soldier.
"Oh, I didn't mean," answered Mr. Howells, "that you should write your reminiscences for Hearth and Home. I want you to write them for the Atlantic."
I put the matter aside for a time. I wanted to think of it, and I wanted to consult my friends concerning the propriety of doing what Mr. Howells had suggested. Then it was that I talked with Oliver Johnson, and received from him the advice reported in the preface to the first edition of this book, which is printed on another page.
An arrangement was at once made with Mr. Howells that I should write seven of the nine papers composing the book, for publication in the Atlantic, the two other papers being reserved in order to "give freshness" to the volume when it should appear.
After the first paper was published, Mr. Howells wrote me that it had brought a hornets' nest about his ears, but that he was determined to go on with the series.
After the second paper appeared, he wrote me a delightful letter, saying that the hornets had "begun to sing psalms in his ears," in view of the spirit and temper of my work.
After all the papers were published, and on the day on which the book, with its two additional chapters, appeared, there was held at the Parker House in Boston a banquet in celebration of the fifteenth anniversary of the founding of the Atlantic.At that dinner, and without warning, I was toasted as the author of the latest book of Civil War reminiscences. I made a feeble little speech in reply, but I found that the spirit in which I had written "A Rebel's Recollections" had met with cordial response from the New England audience. A company of "original abolitionists" had even planned to give me a dinner, all my own, with nobody present but original abolitionists and my Rebel self.
In the same way the book was received by the press, especially in New England, until I was satisfied that my work had really ministered somewhat to that reconciliation between North and South which I had hoped to help forward.
Some months later, in 1875, I wrote the article on the old Virginian life, and sent it to Mr. Howells. Mindful of his editorial injunction to confine articles to six magazine pages in length, I condensed what I had to say into that space. Then for the first time in my life I had an experience which has never since been repeated. Mr. Howells sent the article back to me with a request that I should double its length.
Some years later, the Authors Club gave a reception to Mr. Howells as our foremost living novelist, and it fell to me, as the presiding officer of the club's Executive Council, to escort the guest of the evening to the club. The war papers of the Century Magazine were at that time attracting a country-wide attention. As we drove to the club, Mr. Howells said to me:
"It was you and I who first conceived the idea of 'War Papers' as a magazine's chief feature. We were a trifle ahead of our time, I suppose, but our thought was the same as that which has since achieved so great a success."
In view of all these things, I inscribe this new and expanded edition of "A Rebel's Recollections" to the true godfather of the book, – to
WILLIAM DEAN HOWELLS,
with admiration for his genius, with a grateful recollection of his helpfulness, and with personal affection.
Lunching one day with Oliver Johnson the best "original abolitionist" I ever knew, I submitted to him the question I was debating with myself, namely, whether I might write this little volume of reminiscences without fear of offending excellent people, or, still worse, reanimating prejudices that happily were dying. His reply was, "Write, by all means. Prejudice is the first-born of ignorance, and it never outlives its father. The only thing necessary now to the final burial of the animosity existing between the sections is that the North and the South shall learn to know and understand each other. Anything which contributes to this hastens the day of peace and harmony and brotherly love which every good man longs for."
Upon this hint I have written, and if the reading of these pages shall serve, in never so small a degree, to strengthen the kindly feelings which have grown up of late between the foemen of ten years ago, I shall think my labor well expended.
I have written chiefly of the things I saw for myself, and yet this is in no sense the story of my personal adventures. I never wore a star on my collar, and every reader of military novels knows that adventures worth writing about never befall a soldier below the rank of major.
THE OLD R?GIME IN THE OLD DOMINION
It was a very beautiful and enjoyable life that the Virginians led in that ancient time, for it certainly seems ages ago, before the war came to turn ideas upside down and convert the picturesque commonwealth into a commonplace, modern state. It was a soft, dreamy, deliciously quiet life, a life of repose, an old life, with all its sharp corners and rough surfaces long ago worn round and smooth. Everything fitted everything else, and every point in it was so well settled as to leave no work of improvement for anybody to do. The Virginians were satisfied with things as they were, and if there were reformers born among them, they went elsewhere to work changes. Society in the Old Dominion was like a well rolled and closely packed gravel walk, in which each pebble has found precisely the place it fits best. There was no giving way under one's feet, no uncomfortable grinding of loose materials as one walked about over the firm and long-used ways of the Virginian social life.
Let me hasten to say that I do not altogether approve of that life by any means. That would be flat blasphemy against the god Progress, and I have no stomach for martyrdom, even of our modern, fireless sort. I frankly admit in the outset, therefore, that the Virginians of that old time, between which and the present there is so great a gulf fixed, were idle people. I am aware that they were, when I lived among them, extravagant for the most part, and in debt altogether. It were useless to deny that they habitually violated all the wise precepts laid down in the published writings of Poor Richard, and set at naught the whole gospel of thrift. But their way of living was nevertheless a very agreeable one to share or to contemplate, the more because there was nothing else like it anywhere in the land.
A whole community, with as nearly as possible nothing to do, is apt to develop a considerable genius for enjoyment, and the Virginians, during somewhat more than two centuries of earnest and united effort in that direction, had partly discovered and partly created both a science and an art of pleasant living. Add to idleness and freedom from business cares a climate so perfect that existence itself is a luxury within their borders, and we shall find no room for wonder that these people learned how to enjoy themselves. What they learned, in this regard, they remembered too. Habits and customs once found good were retained, I will not say carefully, – for that would imply effort, and the Virginians avoided effort always, – but tenaciously. The Virginians were born conservatives, constitutionally opposed to change. They loved the old because it was old, and disliked the new, if for no better reason, because it was new; for newness and rawness were well-nigh the same in their eyes.
This constitutional conservatism, without which their mode of life could never have been what it was, was nourished by both habit and circumstance. The Virginians were not much given to travelling beyond their own borders, and when they did go into the outer world it was only to find a manifestation of barbarism in every departure from their own prescriptive standards and models. Not that they were more bigoted than other people, for in truth I think they were not, but their bigotry took a different direction. They thought well of the old and the moss-grown, just as some people admire all that is new and garish and fashionable.
But chief among the causes of that conservatism which gave tone and color to the life we are considering was the fact that ancient estates were carefully kept in ancient families, generation after generation. If a Virginian lived in a particular mansion, it was strong presumptive proof that his father, his grandfather, and his great-grandfather had lived there before him. There was no law of primogeniture to be sure by which this was brought about, but there were well-established customs which amounted to the same thing. Family pride was a ruling passion, and not many Virginians of the better class hesitated to secure the maintenance of their family place in the ranks of the untitled peerage by the sacrifice of their own personal prosperity, if that were necessary, as it sometimes was. To the first-born son went the estate usually, by the will of the father and with the hearty concurrence of the younger sons, when there happened to be any such. The eldest brother succeeded the father as the head of the house, and took upon himself the father's duties and the father's burdens. Upon him fell the management of the estate; the maintenance of the mansion, which, under the laws of hospitality obtaining there, was no light task; the education of the younger sons and daughters; and last, though commonly not by any means least, the management of the hereditary debt. The younger children always had a home in the old mansion, secured to them by the will of their father sometimes, but secure enough in any case by a custom more binding than any law; and there were various other ways of providing for them. If the testator were rich, he divided among them his bonds, stocks, and other personal property not necessary to the prosperity of the estate, or charged the head of the house with the payment of certain legacies to each. The mother's property, if she had brought a dower with her, was usually portioned out among them, and the law, medicine, army, navy, and church offered them genteel employment if they chose to set up for themselves. But these arrangements were subsidiary to the main purpose of keeping the estate in the family, and maintaining the mansion-house as a seat of elegant hospitality. So great was the importance attached to this last point, and so strictly was its observance enjoined upon the new lord of the soil, that he was frequently the least to be envied of all.
I remember a case in which a neighbor of my own, a very wealthy gentleman, whose house was always open and always full of guests, dying, left each of his children a plantation. To the eldest son, however, he gave the home estate, worth three or four times as much as any of the other plantations, and with it he gave the young man also a large sum of money. But he charged him with the duty of keeping open house there, at all times, and directed that the household affairs should be conducted always precisely as they had been during his own lifetime. The charge well-nigh outweighed the inheritance. The new master of the place lived in Richmond, where he was engaged in manufacturing, and after the death of the father the old house stood tenantless, but open as before. Its troops of softly shod servants swept and dusted and polished as of old. Breakfast, dinner, and supper were laid out every day at the accustomed hours, under the old butler's supervision, and as the viands grew cold his silent subordinates waited, trays in hand, at the back of the empty chairs during the full time appointed for each meal. I have stopped there for dinner, tea, or to spend the night many a time, in company with one of the younger sons who lived elsewhere, or with some relative of the family, or alone, as the case might be, and I have sometimes met others there. But our coming or not was a matter of indifference. Guests knew themselves always welcome, but whether guests came or not the household affairs suffered no change. The destruction of the house by fire finally lifted this burden from its master's shoulders, as the will did not require him to rebuild. But while it stood, its master's large inheritance was of very small worth to him. And in many other cases the preference given to the eldest son in the distribution of property was in reality only a selection of his shoulders to bear the family's burdens.
In these and other ways, old estates of greater or less extent were kept together, and old families remained lords of the soil. It is not easy to overestimate the effect of this upon the people. A man to whom a great estate, with an historic house upon it and an old family name attached to it, has descended through several generations, could hardly be other than a conservative in feeling and influence. These people were the inheritors of the old and the established. Upon them had devolved the sacred duty of maintaining the reputation of a family name. They were no longer mere individuals, whose acts affected only themselves, but were chiefs and representatives of honorable houses, and as such bound to maintain a reputation of vastly more worth than their own. Their fathers before them were their exemplars, and in a close adherence to family customs and traditions lay their safety from unseemly lapses. The old furniture, the old wainscot on the walls, the old pictures, the old house itself, perpetually warned them against change as in itself unbecoming and dangerous to the dignity of their race.
And so changes were unknown in their social system. As their fathers lived, so lived they, and there was no feature of their life pleasanter than its fixity. One always knew what to expect and what to do; there were no perplexing uncertainties to breed awkwardness and vexation. There was no room for shams and no temptation to vulgar display, and so shams and display had no chance to become fashionable.
Aside from the fact that the old and the substantial were the respectable, the social status of every person was so fixed and so well known that display was unnecessary on the part of the good families, and useless on the part of others. The old ladies constituted a college of heralds and could give you at a moment's notice any pedigree you might choose to ask for. The "goodness" of a good family was a fixed fact and needed no demonstration, and no parvenu could work his way into the charmed circle by vulgar ostentation or by any other means whatever. As one of the old dames used to phrase it, ostentatious people were thought to be "rich before they were ready."
As the good families gave law to the society of the land, so their chiefs ruled the State in a more positive and direct sense. The plantation owners, as a matter of course, constituted only a minority of the voting population, at least after the constitution of 1850 swept away the rule making the ownership of real estate a necessary qualification for suffrage; but they governed the State nevertheless as completely as if they had been in the majority. Families naturally followed the lead of their chiefs, voting together as a matter of clan pride, when no principle was involved, and so the plantation owners controlled directly a large part of the population. But a more important point was that the ballot was wholly unknown in Virginia until after the war, and as the large landowners were deservedly men of influence in the community, they had little difficulty, under a system of viva-voce voting, in carrying things their own way on all matters on which they were at all agreed among themselves. It often happened that a Whig would continue year after year to represent a Democratic district, or vice versa, in the Legislature or in Congress, merely by force of his large family connection and influence.
All this was an evil, if we choose to think it so. It was undemocratic certainly, but it worked wonderfully well, and the system was good in this at least, that it laid the foundations of politics among the wisest and best men the State had; for as a rule the planters were the educated men of the community, the reading men, the scholars, the thinkers, and well-nigh every one of them was familiar with the whole history of parties and of statesmanship. Politics was deemed a necessary part of every gentleman's education, and the youth of eighteen who could not recapitulate the doctrines set forth in the resolutions of 1798, or tell you the history of the Missouri Compromise or the Wilmot Proviso, was thought lamentably deficient in the very rudiments of culture. They had little to do, and they thought it the bounden duty of every free American citizen to prepare himself for the intelligent performance of his functions in the body politic. As a result, if Virginia did not always send wise men to the councils of the State and nation, she sent no politically ignorant ones at any rate.
It was a point of honor among Virginians never to shrink from any of the duties of a citizen. To serve as road-overseer or juryman was often disagreeable to men who loved ease and comfort as they did, but every Virginian felt himself in honor bound to serve whenever called upon, and that without pay, too, as it was deemed in the last degree disreputable to accept remuneration for doing the plain duty of a citizen.
It was the same with regard to the magistracy. Magistrates were appointed until 1850, and after that chosen by election, but under neither system was any man free to seek or to decline the office. Appointed or elected, one must serve, if he would not be thought to shirk his duties as a good man and citizen; and though the duties of the office were sometimes very onerous, there was practically no return of any sort made. Magistrates received no salary, and it was not customary for them to accept the small perquisites allowed them by law. Under the old constitution, the senior justice of each county was ex-officio high sheriff, and the farming of the shrievalty – for the high sheriff always farmed the office – yielded some pecuniary profit; but any one magistrate's chance of becoming the senior was too small to be reckoned in the account; and under the new constitution of 1850 even this was taken away, and the sheriffs were elected by the people. But to be a magistrate was deemed an honor, and very properly so, considering the nature of a Virginian magistrate's functions.
The magistrates were something more than justices of the peace. A bench of three or more of them constituted the County Court, a body having a wide civil and criminal jurisdiction of its own, and concurrent jurisdiction with the Circuit Court over a still larger field. This County Court sat monthly, and in addition to its judicial functions was charged with considerable legislative duties for the county, under a system which gave large recognition to the principle of local self-government. Four times a year it held grand-jury terms – an anomaly in magistrate's courts, I believe, but an excellent one as experience proved. In a large class of criminal cases a bench of five justices, sitting in regular term, was a court of oyer and terminer.
The concurrent jurisdiction of this County Court, as I have said, was very large, and as its sessions were monthly, while those of the circuit judges were held but twice a year, very many important civil suits involving considerable interests were brought there rather than before the higher tribunal. And here we encounter a very singular fact. The magistrates were usually planters, never lawyers, and yet, as the records show, the proportion of County-Court decisions reversed on appeal for error was always smaller than that of decisions made by the higher tribunals, in which regular judges sat. At the first glance this seems almost incredible, and yet it is a fact, and its cause is not far to seek. The magistrates, being unpaid functionaries, were chosen for their fitness only. Their election was a sort of choosing of arbitrators, and the men elected were precisely the kind of men commonly selected by honest disputants as umpires – men of integrity, probity, and intelligence. They came into court conscious of their own ignorance of legal technicalities, and disposed to decide questions upon principles of "right between man and man" rather than upon the letter of the law; and as the law is, in the main, founded upon precisely these principles of abstract justice, their decision usually proved sound in law as well as right in fact.
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