Washington and Lee University

Lee and His Cause
By John R. Deering

II.

MY COUNTRY; MAY SHE BE ALWAYS IN THE RIGHT; BUT RIGHT OR WRONG, MY COUNTRY.—COMMODORE STEPHEN DECATUR.

THAT CONFLICT WAS PLAINLY A PEOPLE'S WAR.

The whole heart of Dixie was in it. As a people the South deeply deplored, but bravely acxrepted it, and fought it through to the end, the bitter end. Not all were secessionists, but the majority were, and the rest rapidly became so. Not all believed in slavery, but the masses did. The Union had no truer friend than Lee himself, who said, “I think slavery a greater evil to the white than to the black race.” And his State had opposed it even in her Colonial days. Lee had declared, “If the millions of slaves in the South were mine, I would free them with a stroke of the pen, to avert this war.” Thomas Jefferson, the expounder of States' Rights and the founder of Democracy, had been “The consistent enemy of every form of slavery.” Patrick Henry once said—“Much as I deplore slavery, I see that prudence forbids its abolition.” And Virginia, the proud mother of these patriots, was the first of all the American commonwealths to outlaw the slave trade. Secession also was firmly opposed by many who later died for Dixie under the Stars and Bars; but the war was something different; it was forced upon us, and it was for political self-preservation,—“For God, and Home, and native Land!” The war was for the very existence of sovereign States, for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,”—not to break up the Union. We had nothing against the Union, but very much against the party which was running the Federal Government, and it was only when all hope of bringing it, viz. the Abolition majority—to respect the Constitution and laws of the Union had died in loyal breasts, only then, that ordinances of secession were passed, and the “Solid South” began to be. There was in Southern hearts no lack of loyalty to the General Govermment: the trouble was the sad want of loyalty on the part of the Government to the local welfare and political rights of the Southern people. According to Mr. R. E. Lee, Jr., the withdrawal of the States grew out of that.

A more intelligent and truthful witness living or dead could not be found to testify upon this subject than Bishop George F. Pierce, nor did any such witness ever speak more eloquently in defense of his people than did he in his “Fast Day Sermon, delivered before the General Assembly of Georgia, in the city of Millidgeville, on March 27th, 1863,” in which I find the following undeniable statement:—“This war is not of our seeking. We labored to avoid it. Our propositions for amicable adjustment were rejected with subtlety and guile. We claimed only our own. We asked nothing of our enemies. We do not seek their land, or houses, or property. We are not fighting to extend our territory, to subdue a neighboring people, to usurp dominion, to gratify ambition, or malice, or revenge. Faithful to the letter and the spirit of the old Constitution—asserting only the fundamental right of self-government, we are but defending ourselves against a proud, rapacious, malignant foe, who, without right or reason, against law and right and humanity, comes down full of hate and rage to enslave or exterminate us. We are fighting for liberty and home and family; for firesides and fields and altars; for all that is dear to the brave, or precious to the good; for our herds and our flocks, our men servants and maid servants; for the heritage of our fathers and the rights of our children; for the honor of humanity and the institutions of Providence. We are fighting against robbery and lust and rapine; against ruthless invasion, a treacherous despotism, the blight of its own land, and the scorn of the world; mongrel armies whose bond of union is plunder, and whose watch-words are but delusion and falsehood; a fraud upon the African, a lie to the North, and an insult to the South. There is therefore no object proposed by our Government, no end aimed at on which we may not consistently, piously, Scripturally invoke the Divine blessing. We may pray “according to the will of God.” The triumph of our arms is the triumph of right and truth and justice. The defeat of our enemies is the defeat of wrong and malice and outrage. Our Confederacy has committed herself to no iniquitous policy, no unholy alliances, no unwarrantable plans either for defense or retaliation, and now, with numerous hostile hosts quartered on her soil, and a powerful navy beleaguering her coast, amid provocations innumerable, under threatenings the most diabolical, without fear of the future, ready for the conflict if our deluded, infatuated enemies urge it on her, she is ready to make peace on just and honorable teitns. In praying for such a government, I feel that the way to the mercy seat is open. My faith is unembarrassed. My hope is buoyant. I feel that I have access to Him who rules in righteousness. The attitude of our country is sublime. With her foot planted on right and her trust in God, undismayed by numbers and anmaments and navies, without the sympathy of the world, shut in, cut off, alone, she has battled through two long, weary years, gallantly, heroically, triumphantly, and to-day is stronger in men, resources, faith and hope than when Fort Sumter's proud flag was lowered to her maiden arms. It is the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes. Standing, then, upon the justice of our cause and the righteousness of our aim, and encouraged by the experience of the past, let us lift up humble, thankful hearts to the Gk)d of all our mercies, and with emboldened faith comlmit our destiny into His hand, whom winds and seas obey, who ruleth in the armies of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth.”

The ordinances of secession were acts of the people's representatives, and so, of the people themselves; not of the politicians, as we are now told, on every side. Hear one speak who has the best right to testify. When Mr. Lincoln made the call for troops to invade the South, the President of the Virginia Convention, Mr. J. B. Baldwin, who had himself voted against secession, said—“There are now no Union mqn in Virginia; but those who were Union men will stand to their arms, and make a fight which shall go down in history as an illustration of what a brave people will do in defense of their liberties, after having exhausted every means of pacification.”

Was this not a true prophet? And his statement concerning Virginia applies as well to the other Southern States. There were many Unionists among the ignorant and illiterate mountaineers of Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee and Western Virginia, but the South was practically solid for secession after Lincoln's call for troops to subdue her. General Lee was himself a leader, social, civil, and military, yet even he was not needed to lead the secession movement. He was rather a reluctant and unwilling witness of it. He thought it a calamity. Whilst it was going forward, he wrote on January 23d, 1861, “I must try and be patient and await the end, for I can do nothing to hasten or retard it.” I do not deny that political doctrine had political expounders, nor that they did a deal of talking, but the people, as free citizens, did both the voting and the fighting. They had to, and so the war became their own; it absorbed them; in it the sun rose and set; to it, they gave their time, money, energy, heads, hearts, fortunes, families and sacred honor; for it everything gave way, at home and abroad, public and private, civil and social, educational and religious, domestic and governmental. It was soon the theme of shop and street, of fireside and counting-room, of barn and business house; it filled our papers, letters, songs, sermons, prayers, table-talk and telegrams; it speedily closed out our schools and colleges, shut up stores, banks, places of amusement, resorts of pleasure and health, and even houses of worship; it opened mines for lead, copper and saltpetre, mills for cotton-thread, for domestic yarns, for high explosives, for percussion caps, for rifles, bayonets, saddles and sabers. The business of turning out blankets, clothes, shoes, hats, canteens, cartridge boxes and cooking utensils, was booming from Texas to old Virginia. Magazines, hospitals, bureaus of information, depots of supplies sprang up as by magic. Then appeared those domestic legions, that no man could number, of wool-carders, yarn-spinners, sock-knitters, weavers of cloths, the gray, and the brown, and the mixed, like Joseph's coat; but what were these compared with the glove-makers, the hat and helmet braiders, button-cutters, belt, buckle, and sword-knot contrivers; or these compared to the braiders of gold lace, weavers of rye straw, and makers of battle flags, and needle-books, and smoking-bags, women of whom the world was not worthy! These equipped us for the field and cared for us in the camp, cheered us to the battle and nursed us in the hospital. Why! the war furnished more trained nurses the first year than the schools of Christendom had in all her centuries! It raised up a host of boy scouts, women spies, and sent out scores of female blockade runners. It vacated the bench, and bar, and pulpit, and college hall, and editorial chair, and banker's desk, and mechanic's stool, and every place of sweet repose or of peaceful toil. It left the forge cold, the foundry silent, the flock untended, the field unturned, the sick to suffer alone, and weeping women to bury their devoted dead. Oh! its transforming power was marvelous. It made the old young, the weak strong, the sick well, the foreigner as the native, the sojourner as the citizen, or it made them get out of Dixie Land! Believe me, the men all went to boots and beard; the women all became angels clad in homespun; the girls cried to become boys and join the cavalry, and the boys had to be locked up to keep them from running off to Manassas. The very negroes shared the general feeling and hundreds went with young Marse to help whip “Dem Yanks.” Mothers and daughters, wives and widows, sisters and sweethearts organized regular reliefs to feed, clothe, bathe, nurse, watch by, read to, write for, sing with, and pray over the wounded and bury the dead.

The war reformed society, created new classes, set new fashions, established new industries, organized new charities, gave us new ideals of duty, new tests of friendship, new charms to womanhood, new proofs of patriotism, new motives for living, new delights in dying. It fused and moulded into one solid and glorious mass the whole population, with all its sorts, sexes, sizes, orders, ranks, creeds, colors and conditions of folk, native and foreign, Protestant and Catholic, Jew and Gentile, and so made the awful engine that we called “THE ARMY,” to smite and hurl back the hated, dreaded Yankee! It could be done, it had to be done; the only question was, who could help most to do it? Oh, the Southern heart was hot, it burned and blazed, and this enthusiasm, inspired its songs, winged its prayers, crowded its camps, built its ships, supported its Congress, framed its laws, created its literature and revived its religion; gave us a life worth living, a death worth dying, and a Heaven worth going to—the place of peace and rest to which no hated enemy could ever come, forever and forever! Is it strange that everybody was for it? The wonder is that anybody could stay at home. Believe me, “It robbed the cradle and the grave,” so eager were our people to share its triumph or die with its defeat.

The South was never so whole-hearted, so uplifted, so self-consecrated in any cause, before or since. Never! The war feeling was not limited to the army or monopolized by the men, it was even more intense among the women. But here I must allow one of them to speak for all her own sex. I find the simple, eloquent utterance in the “CONFEDERATE VETERAN” of a recent month. It is from an address of welcome made by Mrs. Sarah D. Eggleston, of Mississippi, to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, in their last annual assembly, and its simplicity and pathos are fully equalled by its truthfulness. I like it better than anything I have ever seen from the hand of man, for it manifests better the very heart of our people. The letter and spirit are all her own, and the world has none like her—The Southern Woman! Mrs. Eggleston says:—“The men gave, or offered to give their lives. The women gave what was dearer to them than life: they gave the men they loved. I will give some instances to prove the spirit of those women. I had a friend, a widow, who had only two sons. They both enlisted for the war. The first one was killed in the battle of Fredericksburg; the other was killed by the same volley that laid low our immortal Jackson at Chancellorsville, and this heroic boy, with his lifeblood ebbing fast, had only breath to gasp: “Is the General hurt?” When I was weeping with that poor mother, she said: “Both of my boys are gone; but if I had to do all this over again, I would not act differently.”

I knew a boy who belonged to the company that was organized in the village where I am now living. When he had been in Virginia over two years and had been in many battles, his mother wrote to President Davis, using these words: “I notice that General Lee has gone into winter quarters and there will be no more fighting for several weeks; so, if my boy has done his duty, I respectfully beg that he be granted a furlough, that he may come home to me, for I greatly long to see him.” Mark the simplicity and sublimity of that mother's words: “If my boy has done his duty.”

Bishop Polk gives an instance of the sublime devotion of a Tennessee mother who gave five sons to the Confederacy. When the first one was killed, and the Bishop was trying to say some words of comfort, she said: “My son Billy will be old enough next spring to take his brother's place.” The only idea of duty that this heroic mother had was to give her sons to the cause she loved, as soon as they were old enough to bear a musket. Such was the spirit of your mothers and your grandmothers.

I will tell you of two funerals that I witnessed—one in 1861, the other in 1865. I was in New Orleans in the early part of the summer of 1861 when I witnessed the funeral of the gallant Colonel Charley Dreux, who had been killed in a skirmish in Virginia before any of the great battles had been fought. He was the first Louisianian who had the honor of sealing his devotion to the cause with his blood, and among the very first from any State. When he was borne to his last resting place, a vast concourse of people followed with drooping flags, muffled drums, bands playing the dead march, and the tolling of all the church bells of the city. It was indeed such a funeral as befitted a hero who had died in the defense of his country.

Far different was it, nearly four years later, when I was in Mobile during those last sad weeks of the war. The enemy were vigorously pushing the siege against Spanish Fort, across the bay from Mobile. The roar of the cannon was heard above all the noises of the city. I was attending service in Trinity Church, for while the men were fighting, the women were praying. The services were progressing, and we heard the mufHed tread of feet, when, looking up, I saw eight soldiers in their worn and faded gray, and on their shoulders was a rude, pine coffin which contained the remains of a comrade who had been killed that morning at Spanish Fort. The burial squad, taking their comrade for burial, had seen the church door open, and, hearing the voice of the minister, had gone in, that some prayers might be said over the fallen soldier. Slowly and sadly they bore him down the aisle, placing him at the foot of the chancel, they standing reverently about the coffin. Without one word, the aged minister began the burial service, all of us joining in. We did not know over whom those prayers were said; but we did know that he was the father, or husband, or son, or brother, or lover of some Southern woman, and we knew that he had died in defense of his country. The services over and the burial squad having removed their dead comrade from the church, the congregation slowly dispersed, some of us being loath to return to our lonely apartments. It so chanced that I was the last person to leave the church; and when I reached the steps, I saw a woman standing there. Doubtless she saw in my face the same tense anxiety which I had noticed in hers, for, pointing in the direction of the Spanish Fort, she said in a voice that I have never forgotten: “O, listen to those guns! All that I have in this world, my only boy is there.” And I said:—“And my husband is there too.”

During the four years of the war it was my lot to hear the guns of three besieged cities—Vicksburg, Richmond and Mobile. I saw many partings on the eve of battle. But seldom did I see women weep when those farewells were taken. We parted from our loved ones with a smile upon our lips; but when the night came, our pillows would be wet with tears.

I have told you some things that I saw. I will now tell you what I did not see. I saw no mother trying to keep her boys from going into battle, I saw no wife trying to persuade her husband not to go to the front, and 1 saw no woman who cried, “Surrender” If you ask me to explain this, my answer is:—“Because we knew we were right, our cause was just.”

Comrades, does that sound like the utterance of a politician, “a fire-eater;” or is it the, voice of a Southern woman—the revelation of her Confederate soul? Ah! Gentlemen, it was that self-same spirit, which in the soldier, swept the field at Shiloh, and stubbornly held the ground at the second battle of Manassas and in “the bloody Angle,” and again on the gory field of Sharpsburg, that broke the Yankee lines at Chancellorsville and sent the blue-coats flying from Chickamauga, that stormed the cannon-crowned heights of Gettysburg, and piercing the Union centre, waved the red flag of the Confederacy in the very faces of its foes! Yes, comrades, it was the Southern woman that was in us! God bless them forever!


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