George Eggleston.

A Rebel's Recollections

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Throughout the management of affairs in Richmond a cumbrous inefficiency was everywhere manifest. From the president, who insulted his premier for presuming to offer some advice about the conduct of the war, and quarreled with his generals because they failed to see the wisdom of a military movement suggested by himself, down to the pettiest clerk in a bureau, there was everywhere a morbid sensitiveness on the subject of personal dignity, and an exaggerated regard for routine, which seriously impaired the efficiency of the government and greatly annoyed the army. Under all the circumstances the reader will not be surprised to learn that the government at Richmond was by no means idolized by the men in the field.

The wretchedness of its management began to bear fruit early in the war, and the fruit was bitter in the mouths of the soldiers. Mr. Davis's evident hostility to Generals Beauregard and Johnston, which showed itself in his persistent refusal to let them concentrate their men, in his obstinate thwarting of all their plans, and in his interference with the details of army organization on which they were agreed, – a hostility born, as General Thomas Jordan gives us to understand, of their failure to see the wisdom of his plan of campaign after Bull Run, which was to take the army across the lower Potomac at a point where it could never hope to recross, for the purpose of capturing a small force lying there under General Sickles, – was not easily concealed; and the army was too intelligent not to know that a meddlesome and dictatorial president, on bad terms with his generals in the field, and bent upon thwarting their plans, was a very heavy load to carry. The generals held their peace, as a matter of course, but the principal facts were well known to officers and men, and when the time came, in the fall of 1861, for the election of a president under the permanent constitution (Mr. Davis having held office provisionally only, up to that time), there was a very decided disposition on the part of the troops to vote against him. They were told, however, that as there was no candidate opposed to him, he must be elected at any rate, and that the moral effect of showing a divided front to the enemy would be very bad indeed; and in this way only was the undivided vote of the army secured for him. The troops voted for Mr. Davis thus under stress of circumstances, in the hope that all would yet be well; but his subsequent course was not calculated to reinstate him in their confidence, and the wish that General Lee might see fit to usurp all the powers of government was a commonly expressed one, both in the army and in private life during the last two years of the war.

The favoritism which governed nearly every one of the president's appointments was the leading, though not the only, ground of complaint. And truly the army had reason to murmur, when one of the president's pets was promoted all the way from lieutenant-colonel to lieutenant-general, having been but once in battle, – and then only constructively so, – on his way up, while colonels by the hundred, and brigadier and major generals by the score, who had been fighting hard and successfully all the time, were left as they were.

And when this suddenly created general, almost without a show of resistance, surrendered one of the most important strongholds in the country, together with a veteran army of considerable size, is it any wonder that we questioned the wisdom of the president whose blind favoritism had dealt the cause so severe a blow? But not content with this, as soon as the surrendered general was exchanged the president tried to place him in command of the defenses of Richmond, then hard pressed by General Grant, and was only prevented from doing so by the man's own discovery that the troops would not willingly serve under him.

The extent to which presidential partiality and presidential intermeddling with affairs in the field were carried may be guessed, perhaps, from the fact that the Richmond Examiner, the newspaper which most truly reflected the sentiment of the people, found consolation for the loss of Vicksburg and New Orleans in the thought that the consequent cutting of the Confederacy in two freed the trans-Mississippi armies from paralyzing dictation. In its leading article for October 5, 1864, the Examiner said: —

"The fall of New Orleans and the surrender of Vicksburg proved blessings to the cause beyond the Mississippi. It terminated the r?gime of pet generals. It put a stop to official piddling in the conduct of the armies and the plan of campaigns. The moment when it became impossible to send orders by telegraph to court officers, at the head of troops who despised them, was the moment of the turning tide."

So marked was the popular discontent, not with Mr. Davis only, but with the entire government and Congress as well, that a Richmond newspaper at one time dared to suggest a counter revolution as the only means left of saving the cause from the strangling it was receiving at the hands of its guardians in Richmond. And the suggestion seemed so very reasonable and timely that it startled nobody, except perhaps a congressman or two who had no stomach for field service.

The approach of the end wrought no change in the temper of the government, and one of its last acts puts in the strongest light its disposition to sacrifice the interests of the army to the convenience of the court. When the evacuation of Richmond was begun, a train load of provisions was sent by General Lee's order from one of the interior d?p?ts to Amelia Court House, for the use of the retreating army, which was without food and must march to that point before it could receive a supply. But the president and his followers were in haste to leave the capital, and needed the train, wherefore it was not allowed to remain at Amelia Court House long enough to be unloaded, but was hurried on to Richmond, where its cargo was thrown out to facilitate the flight of the president and his personal followers, while the starving army was left to suffer in an utterly exhausted country, with no source of supply anywhere within its reach. The surrender of the army was already inevitable, it is true, but that fact in no way justified this last, crowning act of selfishness and cruelty.


It is impossible to say precisely when the conviction became general in the South that we were to be beaten. I cannot even decide at what time I myself began to think the cause a hopeless one, and I have never yet found one of my fellow-Confederates, though I have questioned many of them, who could tell me with any degree of certainty the history of his change from confidence to despondency. We schooled ourselves from the first to think that we should ultimately win, and the habit of thinking so was too strong to be easily broken by adverse happenings. Having undertaken to make good our declaration of independence, we refused to admit, even to ourselves, the possibility of failure. It was a part of our soldierly and patriotic duty to believe that ultimate success was to be ours, and Stuart only uttered the common thought of army and people, when he said, "We are bound to believe that, anyhow." We were convinced, beyond the possibility of a doubt, of the absolute righteousness of our cause, and in spite of history we persuaded ourselves that a people battling for the right could not fail in the end. And so our hearts went on hoping for success long after our heads had learned to expect failure. Besides all this, we never gave verbal expression to the doubts we felt, or even to the longing, which must have been universal, for the end. It was our religion to believe in the triumph of our cause, and it was heresy of the rankest sort to doubt it or even to admit the possibility of failure. It was ours to fight on indefinitely, and to the future belonged the award of victory to our arms. We did not allow ourselves even the poor privilege of wishing that the struggle might end, except as we coupled the wish with a pronounced confidence in our ability to make the end what we desired it to be. I remember very well the stern rebuke administered by an officer to as gallant a fellow as any in the army, who, in utter weariness and wretchedness, in the trenches at Spottsylvania Court House, after a night of watching in a drenching rain, said that he hoped the campaign then opening might be the last one of the war. His plea that he also hoped the war would end as we desired availed him nothing. To be weary in the cause was offense enough, and the officer gave warning that another such expression would subject the culprit to trial by court-martial. In this he only spoke the common mind. We had enlisted for the war, and a thought of weariness was hardly better than a wish for surrender. This was the temper in which we began the campaign of 1864, and so far as I have been able to discover, it underwent little change afterwards. Even during the final retreat, though there were many desertions soon after Richmond was left behind, not one of us who remained despaired of the end we sought. We discussed the comparative strategic merits of the line we had left and the new one we hoped to make on the Roanoke River, and we wondered where the seat of government would be, but not one word was said about a probable or possible surrender. Nor was the army alone in this. The people who were being left behind were confident that they should see us again shortly, on our way to Richmond's recapture.

Up to the hour of the evacuation of Richmond, the newspapers were as confident as ever of victory. During the fall of 1864 they even believed, or professed to believe, that our triumph was already at hand. The Richmond Whig of October 5, 1864, said: "That the present condition of affairs, compared with that of any previous year at the same season, at least since 1861, is greatly in our favor, we think can hardly be denied." In the same article it said: "That General Lee can keep Grant out of Richmond from this time until doomsday, if he should be tempted to keep up the trial so long, we are as confident as we can be of anything whatever." The Examiner of September 24, 1864, said in its leading editorial: "The final struggle for the possession of Richmond and of Virginia is now near. This war draws to a close. If Richmond is held by the South till the first of November it will be ours forever more; for the North will never throw another huge army into the abyss where so many lie; and the war will conclude, beyond a doubt, with the independence of the Southern States." In its issue for October 7, 1864, the same paper began its principal editorial article with this paragraph: "One month of spirit and energy now, and the campaign is over, and the war is over. We do not mean that if the year's campaign end favorably for us, McClellan will be elected as Yankee President. That may come, or may not come; but no part of our chance for an honorable peace and independence rests upon that. Let who will be Yankee President, with the failure of Grant and Sherman this year, the war ends. And with Sherman's army already isolated and cut off in Georgia, and Grant unable either to take or besiege Richmond, we have only to make one month's exertion in improving our advantages, and then it may safely be said that the fourth year's campaign, and with it the war itself, is one gigantic failure." The Richmond Whig of September 8, 1864, with great gravity copied from the Wytheville Dispatch an article beginning as follows: "Believing as we do that the war of subjugation is virtually over, we deem it not improper to make a few suggestions relative to the treatment of Yankees after the war is over. Our soldiers know how to treat them now, but then a different treatment will be necessary." And so they talked all the time.

Much of this was mere whistling to keep our courage up, of course, but we tried very hard to believe all these pleasant things, and in a measure we succeeded. And yet I think we must have known from the beginning of the campaign of 1864 that the end was approaching, and that it could not be other than a disastrous one. We knew very well that General Lee's army was smaller than it ever had been before. We knew, too, that there were no reinforcements to be had from any source. The conscription had put every man worth counting into the field already, and the little army that met General Grant in the Wilderness represented all that remained of the Confederate strength in Virginia. In the South matters were at their worst, and we knew that not a man could come thence to our assistance. Lee mustered a total strength of about sixty-six thousand men, when we marched out of winter quarters and began in the Wilderness that long struggle which ended nearly a year later at Appomattox. With that army alone the war was to be fought out, and we had to shut our eyes to facts very resolutely, that we might not see how certainly we were to be crushed. And we did shut our eyes so successfully as to hope in a vague, irrational way, for the impossible, to the very end. In the Wilderness we held our own against every assault, and the visible punishment we inflicted upon the foe was so great that hardly any man in our army expected to see a Federal force on our side of the river at daybreak next morning. We thought that General Grant was as badly hurt as Hooker had been on the same field, and confidently expected him to retreat during the night. When he moved by his left flank to Spottsylvania instead, we understood what manner of man he was, and knew that the persistent pounding, which of all things we were least able to endure, had begun. When at last we settled down in the trenches around Petersburg, we ought to have known that the end was rapidly drawing near. We congratulated ourselves instead upon the fact that we had inflicted a heavier loss than we had suffered, and buckled on our armor anew.

If General Grant had failed to break our power of resistance by his sledge-hammer blows, it speedily became evident that he would be more successful in wearing it away by the constant friction of a siege. Without fighting a battle he was literally destroying our army. The sharp-shooting was incessant, and the bombardment hardly less so, and under it all our numbers visibly decreased day by day. During the first two months of the siege my own company, which numbered about a hundred and fifty men, lost sixty, in killed and wounded, an average of a man a day, and while our list of casualties was greater than that of many other commands, there were undoubtedly some companies and regiments which suffered more than we. The reader will readily understand that an army already weakened by years of war, with no source from which to recruit its ranks, could not stand this daily waste for any great length of time. We were in a state of atrophy for which there was no remedy except that of freeing the negroes and making soldiers of them, which Congress was altogether too loftily sentimental to think of for a moment.

There was no longer any room for hope except in a superstitious belief that Providence would in some way interfere in our behalf, and to that very many betook themselves for comfort. This shifting upon a supernatural power the task we had failed to accomplish by human means rapidly bred many less worthy superstitions among the troops. The general despondency, which amounted almost to despair, doubtless helped to bring about this result, and the great religious "revival" contributed to it in no small degree. I think hardly any man in that army entertained a thought of coming out of the struggle alive. The only question with each was when his time was to come, and a sort of gloomy fatalism took possession of many minds. Believing that they must be killed sooner or later, and that the hour and the manner of their deaths were unalterably fixed, many became singularly reckless, and exposed themselves with the utmost carelessness to all sorts of unnecessary dangers.

"I'm going to be killed pretty soon," said as brave a man as I ever knew, to me one evening. "I never flinched from a bullet until to-day, and now I dodge every time one whistles within twenty feet of me."

I tried to persuade him out of the belief, and even got for him a dose of valerian with which to quiet his nerves. He took the medicine, but assured me that he was not nervous in the least.

"My time is coming, that's all," he said; "and I don't care. A few days more or less don't signify much." An hour later the poor fellow's head was blown from his shoulders as he stood by my side.

One such incident – and there were many of them – served to confirm a superstitious belief in presentiments which a hundred failures of fulfillment were unable to shake. Meantime the revival went on. Prayer-meetings were held in every tent. Testaments were in every hand, and a sort of religious ecstasy took possession of the army. The men had ceased to rely upon the skill of their leaders or the strength of our army for success, and not a few of them hoped now for a miraculous interposition of supernatural power in our behalf. Men in this mood make the best of soldiers, and at no time were the fighting qualities of the Southern army better than during the siege. Under such circumstances men do not regard death, and even the failure of any effort they were called upon to make wrought no demoralization among troops who had persuaded themselves that the Almighty held victory in store for them, and would give it them in due time. What cared they for the failure of mere human efforts, when they were persuaded that through such failures God was leading us to ultimate victory? Disaster seemed only to strengthen the faith of many. They saw in it a needed lesson in humility, and an additional reason for believing that God meant to bring about victory by his own and not by human strength. They did their soldierly duties perfectly. They held danger and fatigue alike in contempt. It was their duty as Christian men to obey orders without question, and they did so in the thought that to do otherwise was to sin.

That the confidence bred of these things should be of a gloomy kind was natural enough, and the gloom was not dispelled, certainly, by the conviction of every man that he was assisting at his own funeral. Failure, too, which was worse than death, was plainly inevitable in spite of it all. We persisted, as I have said, in vaguely hoping and trying to believe that success was still to be ours, and to that end we shut our eyes to the plainest facts, refusing to admit the truth which was everywhere evident, namely, that our efforts had failed, and that our cause was already in its death struggles. But we must have known all this, nevertheless, and our diligent cultivation of an unreasonable hopefulness served in no sensible degree to raise our spirits.

Even positive knowledge does not always bring belief. I doubt if a condemned man, who finds himself in full bodily health, ever quite believes that he is to die within the hour, however certainly he may know the fact; and our condition was not unlike that of condemned men.

When at last the beginning of the end came, in the evacuation of Richmond and the effort to retreat, everything seemed to go to pieces at once. The best disciplinarians in the army relaxed their reins. The best troops became disorganized, and hardly any command marched in a body. Companies were mixed together, parts of each being separated by detachments of others. Flying citizens in vehicles of every conceivable sort accompanied and embarrassed the columns. Many commands marched heedlessly on without orders, and seemingly without a thought of whither they were going. Others mistook the meaning of their orders, and still others had instructions which it was impossible to obey in any case. At Amelia Court House we should have found a supply of provisions. General Lee had ordered a train load to meet him there, but, as I have stated in a previous chapter, the interests of the starving army had been sacrificed to the convenience or the cowardice of the president and his personal following. The train had been hurried on to Richmond and its precious cargo of food thrown out there, in order that Mr. Davis and his people might retreat rapidly and comfortably from the abandoned capital. Then began the desertion of which we have heard so much. Up to that time, as far as I can learn, if desertions had occurred at all they had not become general; but now that the government, in flying from the foe, had cut off our only supply of provisions, what were the men to do? Many of them wandered off in search of food, with no thought of deserting at all. Many others followed the example of the government, and fled; but a singularly large proportion of the little whole stayed and starved to the last. And it was no technical or metaphorical starvation which we had to endure, either, as a brief statement of my own experience will show. The battery to which I was attached was captured near Amelia Court House, and within a mile or two of my home. Seven men only escaped, and as I knew intimately everybody in the neighborhood, I had no trouble in getting horses for these to ride. Applying to General Lee in person for instructions, I was ordered to march on, using my own judgment, and rendering what service I could in the event of a battle. In this independent fashion I marched with much better chances than most of the men had, to get food, and yet during three days and nights our total supply consisted of one ear of corn to the man, and we divided that with our horses.

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