One Man’s Opinion

Dick Nicholas

Volume 10, Number 1
January 2002

Before I get started on this month’s column, I have to recount a recent experience in New Orleans. There, like many other places in our country these days, the political and cultural Nazis appear to be firmly in control and bent on erasing any reference to a part of history that they deem offensive.

In downtown New Orleans on Lee Circle, just once block from the magnificent statue of Robert E. Lee, stands the Confederate museum, officially known as Confederate Memorial Hall. The museum has been there for over 110 years, and is second only to our own Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond in having one of the finest collections of Civil War memorabilia and other historic treasures of that period anywhere. In fact, a substantial part of their collection is being loaned to the Museum of the Confederacy for exhibition in 2002.

In spite of the historical significance of the building and its treasured collections, however, the cultural avant-garde and the University of New Orleans have launched a major project for that area of the City to establish something called the “Warehouse Museum District.” Included in the District will be the newly opened National D-Day Museum, located directly across the street from Memorial Hall, a children’s museum, a contemporary arts center, and a museum of Southern Art. According to the politically correct elite, this is no place for, gasp, a Confederate museum! As a consequence in a complex legal proceeding involving building ownership and lease, they are working hard to eradicate this bight on western civilization. An artistic rendering of the proposed museum complex even goes so far as to airbrush out the existing Memorial Hall building. Not only do they object strongly to the very name Confederate, they also consider the display of Civil War military artifacts inappropriate. To quote; “Memorial Hall does not fit in with modern thinking in the New Orleans community. . . .”

In my opinion the barbarians are not at the gates. They are among us. Who and what will be next?

My New Year’s resolution for 2001 was to read Douglas Southall Freeman’s classical volumes R. E. Lee and Lee’s Lieutenants. I have read numerous excerpts, and even several entire chapters, but never had the fortitude and time to read the entire seven volumes of the two sets. The books have sat on my bookshelf for many years, staring at me, almost daring me to read them from cover to cover. They were sort of like the Bible. After all, who has the patience and endurance to sit down and read the Bible from beginning to end? Ok, I decided. I will forego Gary Gallagher, Bob Krick, Bill Miller, and other modern authors for a few months and read these two classics. After all, if you are going to talk about Shakespeare, it’s probably a good idea to read all his plays.

I am now finishing up volume 2 of Lee’s Lieutenants. This is the second of Freeman’s epics, R. E. Lee being published in1934, and Lieutenants in 1942–1944. It is a monumental work, exhaustively researched, and brilliantly written that covers the general history of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Later writers have discovered considerably more sources of information in the past 50 years than were available to Freeman, but Freeman offers insight and a vast knowledge of military matters and Virginia geography and history that most modern writers simply do not have. But make no mistake, the book is written from the viewpoint of the Virginians and the history of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Although Freeman had an almost Churchillian command of the English language, some of his prose takes a bit of getting use to. One of his favorite prepositions is the archaic ere (before). For example, in describing the mortal wounding of John Pelham at Kelly’s Ford the author states: “The column had passed ere his fall was observed.” Later, when Pelham’s body was being shipped home on his last journey, Freeman comments “Ere slow trains brought it to its native soil, the entire South acclaimed him.”

In places Freeman’s grandiloquent and florid literary style paints a vivid scene of some situations. As Union General Ambrose Burnside was preparing for his abortive and infamous “mud march” north of the Rappahannock in January 1863, Freeman wrote: “It [Burnside’s army] did not come. Gray skies put on mourning. On the evening of the 20th a violent storm began and continued all night and for two days thereafter. Patriotic Virginia roads on the north side of the Rappahannock swam in defiant mud. Federal infantry could do no more than creep forward heavy footed. Before a wind of doubtful Southern loyalty could dry the mud, a second storm began early on the 27th and did not halt its attack until the morning of the 29th.”

Freeman also describes an amusingly typical example of the familiar manner in which opposing sides view an episode that seems to one heroic and to the other merely a retreat in the face of overpowering odds. Such was a small cavalry engagement in late December 1862 on the Occoquan River in Northern Virginia.

After the battle of Fredericksburg, Jeb Stuart sent elements of his cavalry north behind the Union lines on the Rappahannock to raid Union supply trains coming south on the old Telegraph Road from Washington and in general create as much havoc as possible. In one of the raids, Colonel Tom Rosser, who is buried in Charlottesville’s Riverview Cemetery, led a detachment of the 5th Virginia Cavalry in an attack against Union cavalry at Selectman’s Ford. Stuart, in a dramatic recount of the episode reported that the pursuing Confederates found the northern bank of the Occoquan “occupied by the enemy’s dismounted sharpshooters in force.” He went on: “Without waiting to exchange shots,” and “in spite of the heavy volleys” the Confederates “pressed on, crossed the stream, suffered no loss, and captured or dispersed the whole party.”

Captain Charles Chauncey, 2nd Pennsylvania Cavalry, who led the detachment that was pursued across the Occoquan, gave the Union version of the affair. He described the effort made “to hold the ford” and the “heavye fire . . . poured into the advance of rebels.” They were driven back, he explained, and for a time were kept at bay. He continued: “Their superior numbers soon overpowered us. They brought down dismounted men armed with muskets, and lining the whole bank, poured in a perfect shower of bullets and last crossed the river.”

There you have it. Two different versions of the same battle.

Freeman also sheds some light on the controversy surrounding Jeb Stuart. According to him there was no middle ground of opinion concerning Stuart. People either liked and admired him, or they didn’t. No one disputed Stuart’s great talents as a leader of men, and especially the cavalry. But many were turned off by his showmanship and apparent vanity. Others questioned the military significance of some of his well-publicized cavalry exploits. Perhaps a modern comparison to Stuart would be general Douglas McArthur.

Of all his admirers, none was more fascinated than was Stonewall Jackson. Stuart was one of the very few men who dared joke with Jackson without rebuke. Surely these two men were the “odd couple” of the Civil War—the stern, almost forbidden and serious Jackson versus the fun-loving and humorous Stuart. According to Freeman, clearly Stuart was a “jackson man.”

On the other side, General LaFayette McLaws had undisguised contempt for Stuart’s affinity for publicity. The Georgian wrote General Richard Ewell in February 1863 “Stuart carries around with him a banjo player and a special correspondent. This claptrap is noticed and lauded as a peculiarity of genius when, in fact, it is nothing else but the act of a buffoon to attract attention.”

All in all, Lee’s Lieutenants is truly one of the classics of Civil War literature. Almost 50 years after it was written, it still remains one of the best general references in existence to the war in Virginia from the southern viewpoint. Every serious student of the Civil War should read it. I’ll let you know my opinion of R. E. Lee in a future column.