The Soul of Lee, by Randolph H. McKim, Chapter 9

The Soul of Lee


“Their spirits effervesced. Their wit sparkled. Hunger and thirst could not depress them. Rain could not damp them. Cold could not chill them. Every hardship became a joke. . . . Never was such a triumph of spirit over waiter. . . . With a gay heart they gave their greatest gift. . . . One by one Death challenged them. One by one they smiled in his grim visage and refused to be disrnayed.”—A Student in Arms.

Writers on the Civil War frequently speak of the Southern Army as “the Secession Army.” Yet the most illustrious leaders of that army, Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson, to name no more, were in fact opposed to secession; though when Virginia at length withdrew from the Union, they felt bound to follow her. I think it likely indeed that a very large proportion of the conspicuous and successful officers, and a like proportion also of the men who fought in the ranks of the Confederate armies, were likewise original Union men—opposed, at any rate, to the exercise of the right of secession, even if they believed that the right existed.

It will be remembered that months elapsed between the secession of the Gulf States and that of the great Border States, Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, which furnished so large a proportion of the soldiers who fought for the Southern Confederacy. But, on the 15th of April, 1861, an event occurred which instantly transformed those great States into Secession States—the proclamation of Abraham Lincoln calling upon them to furnish their quota of troops to coerce the seceded States back into the Union. Even the strongest Federalists, like Hamilton, had, in the discussions in the Constitutional Convention, utterly repudiated and condemned the coercion of a State. I t was not strange, then, that the summons to take up arms and march against their Southern brethren, aroused deep indignation in these States, and instantly transformed them into Secession States. But for that proclamation, the Southern Army would not have been much more than half its size, and would have missed its greatest leaders.

A glance at its personnel will perhaps be instructive, In its ranks are serving side by side the sons of the plain fanners, and the sons of the great land owners—the Southern aristocrats, Not a few of the men who are carrying muskets or serving as troopers are classical scholars, the flower of the Southern universities. In an interval of the suspension of hostilities at the battle of Cold Harbor, a private soldier lies on the ground poring over an Arabic grammar—it is Crawford H. Toy, who is destined to become the famous professor of Oriental languages at Harvard University. In one of the battles in the Valley of Virginia a volunteer aid of Gen. John B. Gordon is severely wounded—it is Basil L. Gildersleeve, who has left his professor’s chair at the University of Virginia to serve in the field. He still lives, wearing the laurel of distinction as the greatest Hellenist in the English-speaking world, At the siege of Fort Donelson, in 1862, one of the heroic captains who yields up his life in the trenches is the Rev. Dabney C. Harrison, who raised a company in his own Virginia parish, and entered the army at its head. In the Southwest a lieutenant-general falls in battle—it is Gen. Leonidas Polk, who laid aside his bishop’s robes to become a soldier, having been educated to arms at West Point.

It is a striking fact that when Virginia threw in her lot with her Southern sisters in April, 1861, practically the whole body of students at her State University, 515 out of 530 who were registered from the Southern States, enlisted in the Confederate Army. This army thus represented the whole Southern people. It was a self-levy en masse of the male population in all save certain mountain regions in Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia.

One gets a perhaps new and surprising conception of the character of the rank and file of the Southern Army in such incidents as the following: Here are mock trials going on in the moot-court of a certain artillery company, and the discussions are pronounced by a competent authority ‘brilliant and powerful.’ Here is a group of privates in a Maryland infantry regiment in winter-quarter huts near Fairfax, Virginia; and among the subjects discussed are the following: Vattel and Philmore on international law; Humboldt’s works and travels; the African explorations of Earth; the influence of climate on the human features; the culture of cotton; the laws relating to property. Here are some Virginia privates in a howitzer company solemnly officiating at the burial of a tame crow; and the exercises include an English speech, a Latin oration, and a Greek ode.

These Confederate Armies must present to the historian who accepts the common view that the South was fighting for the perpetuation of the institution of slavery a difficult—in fact, an insoluble—problem. How could such a motive explain the solidarity of the diverse elements that made up those armies? The Southern planter might fight for his slaves; but why the poor white man, who had none? How could slavery generate such devotion, such patient endurance, such splendid heroism, such unconquerable tenacity through four long years of painfully unequal struggle? The world acknowledges the superb valor of the men who fought under the Southern Cross—and the no less superb devotion of the whole people to the cause of the Confederacy.

Now is it credible that such valor and such devotion were inspired by the desire to hold their fellowmen in slavery? Is there any example of such a phenomenon in all the long records of history?

Consider, too, another fact for which the historians must assign a sufficient motive. On the bronze tablets in the rotunda of the University of Virginia, memorializing the students who fell in the great war, there are upwards of five hundred names, and, of these, 233 were still privates when they fell; so that, considering the number of promotions from the ranks, it is certain that far more than half of those alumni who gave up their lives for the Southern cause, volunteered as private soldiers. They did not wait for place or office, but unhesitatingly entered the ranks, with all the hardships that the service involved.

Probably no army ever contained a larger proportion of young men of high culture among its private soldiers—graduates in arts, in letters, in languages, in the physical sciences, in the higher mathematics, and in the learned professions—as the army that fought under the Southern Cross. And how cheerful—how uncomplaining-how gallant they were! They marched and fought and starved, truly without reward. Eleven dollars a month in Confederate paper was their stipend. Flour and bacon and peanut coffee made up their bill of fare. The hard earth, or else three fence rails, tilted up on end, was their bed, their knapsacks their pillows, and a flimsy blanket their covering, The starry firmament was often their only tent. Their clothing—well, we cannot describe it, We can only say it was “a thing of shreds and patches,” interspersed with rents.

But this was not all. They had not even the reward which is naturally dear to a soldier’s heart—we mean the due recognition of gallantry in action. By a strange oversight there was no provision in the Confederate Army for recognizing either by decoration or by promotion on the field, distinguished acts of gallantry. No “Victoria Cross,” or its equivalent, rewarded even the most desperate acts of valor.

Now with these facts before him, the historian will find it impossible to believe that these men drew their swords and did these heroic deeds and bore these incredible hardships for four long years for the sake of the institution of slavery. Everyone who was conversant with the opinions of the soldiers of the Southern Army, knows that they did not wage that tremendous conflict for slavery. That was a subject very little in their thoughts or on their lips. Not one in twenty of those grim veterans, who were so terrible on the battlefield, had any financial interest in slavery. No, they were fighting for liberty, for the right of self-government. They believed the Federal authorities were assailing that right. It was the sacred heritage of Anglo-Saxon freedom, of local self-government, won at Runnymede, which they believed in peril when they flew to arms as one man, from the Potomac to the Rio Grande. They may have been right, or they may have been wrong, but that was the issue they made. On that they stood. For that they died.

Not until this fact is realized by the student of the great war will he have the solution of the problem which is presented by the qualities of the Confederate soldier. The men who made up that army were not soldiers of fortune, but soldiers of duty, who dared all that men can dare, and endured all that men can endure, in obedience to what they believed the sacred call of Country. They loved their States; they loved their homes and their firesides; they were no politicians; many of them knew little of the warring theories of Constitutional interpretation. But one thing they knew—armed legions were marching upon their homes, and it was their duty to hurl them back at any cost!

Such were the private soldiers of the Confederacy. Not for fame or for glory, not lured by ambition or goaded by necessity, but, in simple obedience to duty as they understood it, these men suffered all, sacrificed all, dared all—and died!

A conspicuous feature of this Southern Army is its Americanism. Go from camp to camp, among the infantry, the cavalry, the artillery, and you are impressed with the fact that these men are, with very few exceptions, Americans. Here and there you will encounter one or two Irishmen. Major Stiles tells a story of a most amusing encounter between two gigantic Irishmen at the battle of Gettysburg—the one a Federal Irishman, a prisoner, and the other a Rebel Irishman, private in the Ninth Louisiana—a duel with fists in the midst of the roar of the battle! Very, very rarely you will meet a German, like that superb soldier, Major Von Borcke, who so endeared himself to “Jeb” Stuart’s cavalry. But these exceptions only accentuate the broad fact that the Confederate Army was composed almost exclusively of Americans. That throws some light on its achievements, does it not?

I think the visitor to the Confederate camps would also be struck by the spirit of bonhommie which so largely prevailed. These “Johnnie Rebs,” in their gray uniforms (which, as the war went on. changed in hue to butternut brown), are a jolly lot. They have a dry, racy humor of their own which breaks out on the least provocation. They are often heard cracking jokes on the very edge of battle. They were “soldier boys” to the bitter end!

Gen. Rodes, in his report, describing the dark and difficult night-passage of the Potomac on the retreat from Gettysburg, says, “All the circumstances attending this crossing combined to make it an affair not only involving great hardship, but one of great danger to the men and company officers; but, be it said to the honor of these brave fellows, they encountered it not only promptly, but actually with cheers and laughter.”

On the other hand, some from the remote country districts were like children away from home. They could not get used to it—and often they drooped, and sickened and died, just from nostalgia. In many of the regiments during the first six months or more of the war, there were negro cooks, but as time went on these disappeared, except in the officers’ mess. Among the Marylanders, it was quite different. We had to do our own cooking. Once a week, each performed that office for a mess of fifteen hungry men. At first we lived on “slapjacks”—almost as fatal as Federal bullets!—and fried bacon; but by degrees we learned to make biscuits, and on one occasion two colleagues in the culinary business created an apple pie, which the whole mess considered a chef d’œuvre! May we call your attention to those ramrods wrapped round with dough and set up on end before the fire? The cook turns them from time to time, and, when well browned, he withdraws the ramrod, and, lo! a loaf of bread, three feet long and hollow from end to end.

The general aspect of the Confederate camps compared unfavorably with those of the men in blue. They were not, as a rule, attractive in appearance. The tents and camp equipage were nothing like so “smart!” so spick and span—very far from it indeed! Our engineer corps were far inferior, lacking in proper tools and equipment. The sappers and miners of the Federal Army on Cemetery Hill, at Gettysburg, did rapid and effective work during the night following the first day’s battle, as they had previously done at Chancellorsville—work which our men could not begin to match. When we had to throw up breastworks in the field, as at Hagerstown, after Gettysburg, it had usually to be done with our bayonets. Spades and axes were luxuries at such times. Bands of music were rare, and generally of inferior quality; but the men made up for it as far as they could by a gay insouciance, and by singing in camp and on the march. You might see the men of the First Maryland Infantry trudging wearily through mud and rain, sadly bedraggled by a long march, strike up with great gusto their favorite song, “Gay and Happy.”

So let the wide world wag as it will,
We’ll be gay and happy still.

The contrast between the sentiment of the song and the environment of the column was sufficiently striking. In one respect, we think, our camps had the advantage of the Union camps—we had no sutlers, and we had no camp followers.

But though our camp equipage and equipment were so inferior to those of our antagonists, we do not think any experienced soldier, watching our marching columns of infantry or cavalry, or witnessing our brigade drills, could fail to be thrilled by the spectacle they presented. Here, at least, there was no inferiority to the army in blue. The soldierly qualities that tell on the march, and on the field of battle, shone out here conspicuously. A more impressive spectacle has seldom been seen in any war than was presented by “Jeb” Stuart’s brigades of cavalry when they passed in review before Gen. Lee at Brandy Station in June, 1863. The pomp and pageantry of gorgeous uniforms and dazzling equipment of horse and riders were indeed absent; but splendid horsemanship, and that superb esprit de corps that marked that veteran legion, and which, though not a tangible or a visible thing, yet stamps itself upon a marching column—these were unmistakably there. And we take leave to express our own individual opinion that the blue-gray coat of the Confederate officer, richly adorned with gold lace, and his light-blue trousers, and that rakish slouch hat he wore made up a uniform of great beauty. Oh, it was a gallant array to look upon—that June day, so many years ago!

When our infantry soldiers came to a river, unless it was a deep one, we had to cross it on “Conferedate pontoons,” i.e., by marching right through in column of fours. This we did twice on one day on the march from Culpeper to Winchester at the opening of the Gettysburg campaign.

Among the amusements in camp, card-playing was, of course, included; seven-up and vingt-et-un were popular. And the pipe was “Johnnie Reb’s” frequent solace. His tobacco, at any rate, was the real thing—genuine, no make-believe, like his coffee. Often there were large gatherings of the men, night after night, attending prayer meetings, always with preaching added, for there was a strong religious tone in the Army of Northern Virginia. One or two remarkable revivals took place, notably in the winter of 1863–64.

It seems as we look back: that one of the characteristics which stood out strongly in the Confederate Army was the independence and the initiative of the individual soldier. It would have been a better army in the field if it had been welded together by a stricter discipline; but this defect was largely atoned for by the strong individuality of the units in the column. It was not easy to demoralize a body composed of men who thought for themselves and acted in a spirit of independence in battle.

It was a characteristic of the Confederate soldier—we do not say he alone possessed it—that he never considered himself discharged of his duty to the colors by any wound, however serious, so long as he could walk, on crutches or otherwise. Look at that private in the Thirty-seventh Virginia Infantry—he has been hit by a rifle-ball, which, striking him full between the eyes, has found its way somehow through and emerged at the back of his bead, But there he is in the ranks again, carrying his musket—while a deep depression, big enough to hold a good-sized marble, marks the spot where the bullet entered in its futile attempt to make this brave fellow give up his service with the Confederate banner! Look at Capt. Randolph Barton, of another Virginia regiment. He is living today with just about one dozen scars on his body. He would be wounded; get well; return to duty, and in the very next battle be shot again! Look at that gallant old soldier, Gen. Ewell. Like his brave foeman, Gen. Sickles, he has lost his leg, but that cannot keep him at home; he continues to command one of Lee’s corps almost to the very end at Appomattox. Look at Col. R. Snowden Andrews of Maryland. At Cedar Mountain, in August, 1862, a shell literally nearly cut him in two; but by a miracle he did not die; and, in June, 1863, there he is again commanding his artillery battalion! He is bowed crooked by that awful wound; he cannot stand upright any more, but still he can fight like a lion.

As you walk through the camps, you will see many of the men busily polishing their muskets and their bayonets with wood ashes well moistened. “Bright muskets” and “tattered uniforms” went together in the Army of Northern Virginia.

Apropos of muskets, you will observe that a large portion of those in the hands of the Confederate soldiers are stamped “U.S.A.”; and when you visit the artillery camps you will note that the three inch rifles, the Napoleons, and the Parrott guns, were most of them “Uncle Sam’s” property, captured in battle; and when you inspect the cavalry you will find, after the first year, that the Southern troops are armed with sabers captured from the Federals.[2] During the first year, before the blockade became stringent, Whitworth guns were brought in from abroad. But that soon stopped, and we had to look largely to “Uncle Sam” for our supply.

We used to say in the Shenandoah Valley campaign, of 1862, that Gen. Banks was Gen. Jackson’s quartermaster-general—yes, and his chief ordnance officer, too. Gen. Shields was another officer to whom we were much indebted for artillery and small arms, and later Gen. Pope.[3] But these sources of equipment sometimes failed us, and so it came to pass that some of our regiments were but poorly armed even in our best brigades. For instance, the Third Brigade in Ewell’s corps, one of the best-equipped brigades in the army, entered the Gettysburg campaign with 1941 men present for duty, but only 1480 muskets and 1069 bayonets. But this was not all, or the worst. Our artillery ammunition was inferior to that of our antagonists, which was a great handicap to our success.

When Gen, Alexander, Longstreet’s chief of artillery at Gettysburg, was asked why he ceased firing when Pickett’s infantry began its charge—why he did not continue shelling the Federal lines over the heads of the advancing Confederate column, he replied that his ammunition was so defective, he could not calculate with any certainty where the shells would explode; they might explode among Pickett’s men, and so demoralize rather than support them. It will help the reader to realize the inequality in arms and equipment between the two armies to watch a skirmish between some of Sheridan’s cavalry and a regiment of Fitzhugh Lee. Observe that the Federal cavalryman fires his rifle seven times without reloading, while the horseman in gray opposed to him fires but once, and then lowers his piece to reload. One is armed with the Spencer repeating rifle; the other with the old Sharp’s rifle.

In another engagement (at Winchester, September 19, 1864), see that regiment of mounted men give way in disorder before the assault of Sheridan’s cavalry, and dash back through the infantry. Are these men cowards? No, but they are armed with long cumbrous rifles utterly unfit for mounted men, or with double-barreled shotguns, or old squirrel-rifles. What chance has a regiment thus armed, and also miserably mounted, against those well-armed, well-equipped, well-mounted, and well-disciplined Federal cavalrymen?[4]

Another feature of the conditions prevailing in the Confederate Army may be here noted. Look at Lee’s veterans as they march into Pennsylvania, in June, 1863. See how many of them are barefooted—literally hundreds in a single division. The great battle of Gettysburg was precipitated because Gen. Heth had been informed that he could get shoes in that little town for his barefooted men!

These hardships became more acute as the war advanced, and the resources of the South were gradually exhausted, while at the same time the blockade became so effective that her ports were hermetically sealed against the world. With what grim determination the Confederate soldier endured cold and nakedness and hunger I need not attempt to describe, but there was a trial harder than all these to endure, which came upon him in the fourth year of the war. Letters began to arrive from home telling of food scarcity on his little farm or in the cabin where he had left his wife and children. Brave as the Southern women were, rich and poor alike, they could not conceal altogether from their husbands the sore straits in which they found themselves. Many could not keep back the cry: “What am I to do? Food is hard to get. There is no one to put in the crop. God knows how I am to feed the children!”

So a strain truly terrible was put upon the loyalty of the private soldier. He was almost torn asunder between love for his wife and children and fidelity to the flag under which he was serving. What wonder if hundreds, yes thousands, in those early spring months of 1865, gave way under the pressure, slipped out of the Confederate ranks, and went home to put in the crop for their little families, meaning to return to the colors as soon as that was done! Technically, they were deserters, but not in the heart or faith, poor fellows! Still, for Lee’s army the result was disastrous. It was seen in the thinning ranks that opposed Grant’s mighty host, week after week. This is the South’s explanation of the fact, which the records show, that while at the close of the war there were over a million men under arms in the Federal Armies, the aggregate of the Confederates was but 133,433.

How could an army so poorly equipped, so imperfectly armed, so ill fed and ill clothed, win out in a contest with an army so vastly its superior in numbers and so superbly armed and equipped? How could an agricultural people, unskilled in the mechanical arts, therefore unable to supply properly its armies with munitions and clothing, prevail against a great, rich, manufacturing section like the North, whose foreign and domestic trade had never been so prosperous as during the great war it was waging from 1861 to 1865?

Remember, also, that by May, 1862, the armies of the Union were in permanent occupancy of western and middle Tennessee, of nearly the whole of Louisiana, of parts of Florida, of the coast of North and South Carolina and of southeastern, northern, and western Virginia. Now the population thus excluded from the support of the Confederacy amounted to not less than 1,200,000. It follows that, for the last three years of the war, the unequal contest was sustained by about 3,800,000 Southern whites with their slaves against the vast power of the Northern States. And yet none of these considerations furnishes the true explanation of the failure of the Confederate Armies to establish the Confederacy. It was not superior equipment, It was not alone the iron will of Grant, or the strategy of Sherman. A power mightier than all these held the South by the throat and slowly strangled its army and its people. The power was Sea Power. The Federal Navy, not the Federal Army, conquered the South.

“In my opinion,” said Field-Marshal Viscount Wolseley, in a private letter to the author already quoted, “in my opinion, as a student of war, the Confederates must have won, had the blockade of the Southern ports been removed by us.” Compare with this mature opinion of the accomplished English soldier the words of Hon. Hugh McCulloch, one of Lincoln’s Secretaries of the Treasury. “It was the blockade that isolated the Confederate States and caused their exhaustion. If the markets of Europe had been open to them for the sale of their cotton and tobacco, and the purchase of supplies for their armies, their subjugation would have been impossible. It was not by defeats in the field that the Confederates were overcome, but by the exhaustion resulting from their being shut up within their own domain, and compelled to rely upon themselves and their own production. Such was the devotion of the people to their cause, that the war would have been successfully maintained, if the blockade had not cut off all sources of supply and bankrupted their treasury.” Again he says: “It must be admitted that the Union was not saved by the victories of its armies, but by the exhaustion of its enemies.Ý Charles Francis Adams, in his oration on Gen. Lee, vigorously maintains the same view, and Col. Hilary A. Herbert, while Secretary of the Navy, delivered an elaborate address in 1896, in which he demonstrated the correctness of that interpretation of the true cause of the failure of the South.

In concluding, we may recall the well-known fact that the men in gray and the men in blue, facing each other before Petersburg, fraternized in those closing months of the great struggle. A Confederate officer, aghast at finding one night the trenches on his front deserted, discovered his men were all over in the Federal trenches, playing cards. The rank and file had made a truce till a certain hour!


[1] The substance of this Chapter is a republication, by kind permission, of an article by the author in the Photographic History of the War, vol. VIII.

[2] It is estimated by surviving ordnance officers that not less than two-thirds of the artillery in the Army of Northern Virginia was captured, especially the 3-inch rifles and the 10-pound Parrotts.

[3] General Gorgas, Chief of the Confederate Ordnance Bureau, stated that from July 1, 1861, to Jan. 1, 1865, there were issued from the Richmond arsenal 323,231 infantry arms, 34,067 cavalry arms, 44,877 swords and sabers, and that these were chiefly arms from battlefields, repaired.

[4] The arms and equipment of the Confederate Army will be found fully discussed by Professor J. W. Mallet, late Superintendent of the Ordnance Laboratories of the Confederate States, and Captain O. E. Hunt, U.S.A., in the chapter on the “Organization and Operation of the Ordnance Department of the Confederate Army,” in the volume on “Forts and Artillery.”

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