Personal Recollections of the Civil War. By a Virginian (D.H. Strother). [Installment 1]

Posted on May 9, 2010 by


As promised in my post from two days ago

IT is with unfeigned reluctance that I have undertaken to write upon subjects which have been so recently and exhaustively treated by contemporaneous pens and pencils; to pass over ground which has been illuminated by the calcium light of the American press; or to touch on questions which have been subjected to the intelligent scrutiny of Congressional Committees; yet I am encouraged by the hope that views taken from an original and somewhat peculiar stand-point may still possess sufficient attraction to justify their publication, and that a personal narrative, with all its incidental trivialities, errors, inconsistencies, and egotism, may find an acceptable apology in the superior interest of the grand historic drama with which it is interwoven.

A native of the valley of the Shenandoah, I have passed the greater part of my life on the Northern border of Virginia – a region which, from its geographical position and mixed population, had always been debatable ground between the contending opinions of the age, and which eventually became a most important theatre of the war, resulting from these opinions. It is thus that I became, almost from necessity, an interested observer of many of the opening scenes of the contest, and subsequently an active participator in its armed solution.

During the winter of 1860-61 I was residing at my father’s house in Martinsburg, occupied with my private affairs and arranging plans for a future of peace and seclusion. These dreams were disturbed from time to time by the indications of the approaching storm, but I resolutely closed my eyes and stopped my ears, determined not to be disturbed. I had never taken any active interest in the party politics of the day, and was the less disposed to mingle in the present strife, as I sympathized with neither of the extreme factions which, from opposite quarters, seemed to be mutually intent on breaking down the Government and destroying the peace and prosperity of the country. I saw nothing in the contest but the rage of adverse dogmatisms, sharpened by the baser lust for official plunder – that party spirit, which, Addison says, “robs men, not only of all honor and decency, but of every particle of common sense.”

In the rapid progress of events, however, it became manifest that the questions before the country were not to be put aside with this cynical and superficial observation. Under a monarchy a subject may be permitted to seclude himself from the political storms that shake thrones and menace dynasties. Even amidst the fury of war he can calmly pursue some favorite science with reasonable assurance that his motive and character will be respected. The citizen of a free Republic can claim no such privilege. “The price of his personal liberty is eternal vigilance.” Under whatever pretext he may seek to hide himself or evade the responsibilities of his condition, when the storm rises he is sure to feel his neighbor’s hand upon his shoulder, and hear the cry of warning and reproach: “What meanest thou, O sleeper? arise and call upon thy God.”

It was, indeed, high time that the Border Virginians should awake, for the gulf that was opening between the adverse sections yawned beneath their very hearths; and the sword which was drawn to divide the nation must also cut their hearts in twain. When, at length, impelled to the serious consideration of the impending crisis, I can not boast, as many do, that I clearly appreciated the merits of the quarrel or foresaw its results. Preferring to preserve a reputation for frankness to the doubtful honor of being enrolled among the ex post facto prophets, I am fain to acknowledge (in the phraseology of tobacco planters) that I had very few opinions “ready cut and dry” for the occasion, I heard nothing but a confusion of tongues such as followed the destruction of Babel. I saw nothing but political chaos which seemed about to swallow up government, law, life, and property together. There had been a prevalent and growing conviction among what were called Conservative men, especially at the South, that the experiment of popular Government was a failure. Macauley had written a letter to some one prophesying that the American system would break down on the first serious trial. I shared this belief to some extent. The revolutionary anarchy which was spreading like a fire from State to State, the seemingly helplessness of the General Government, the chaos of opinion – all combined to convince me that the predicted day of trial had arrived, and that it needed no Daniel to interpret the handwriting on the wall.

Impressed at the same time with the belief that we were entering upon an era which would figure in history, I determined to take advantage of my position to observe the progress of events and keep a Diary.

This promise, however, was but negligently performed at first. During the winter of 1860-61 I find nothing recorded beyond an occasional comment, opinion, or anecdote suggested by the current news, and these jotted down hastily, without date or continuity. In time my journal became more methodical, and after I entered the military service was as full and accurate as possible under the circumstances.

In preparing these notes for the press I have endeavored to preserve all the freshness and personality which pertain to the original manuscript. If some thing shave been omitted (that might be worth the telling, in place and season), and certain obscure passages made clearer by the light of after-knowledge, in the main the recorded facts and opinions of the day remain unchanged. There will appear the uncertain gropings, the vacillations, the inconsistencies of opinion, the errors of hasty and partial observation, the vain hopes, the causeless fears, the embittered prejudices, and excited passions which necessarily accompany the progress of a political revolution, so radical and comprehensive, accomplished through a social war so bloody and vindictive as that which has recently ended.

It will be also seen that in writing these individual experiences it is not proposed to emulate the dignity and comprehensiveness of History, but to give closer and more detailed views of characters and events, a series of photographic pictures hastily caught, during the action of the changing drama. Scenes where the greatness of little things, and the littleness of great things, will sometimes be strikingly illustrated by juxtaposition, where tragedy and comedy, laughter and tears, frenzy and farce walk arm in arm together. And it may be that a more thoughtful class who would look behind the creaking machinery and tinseled actors of the drama, may find in these crude and unskillful observations suggestion of queries which will be found as difficult to answer as those of the poet laureate:

– “Shall error in the round of time
Still further from the truth? O shall the braggart shout
For some blind glimpse of freedom work itself
Through madness, hated by the wise, to law
System, and empire? Sin itself be found
The cloudy porch, oft opening on the sun?”

Having this indicated the geographical and political stand-point from which my opening views of the war were taken, I commence transcribing from my Diary.

… South Carolina has actually seceded! and what of that? South Carolina is a great way off, and has been threatening Secession for thirty years or more. The Toryism of 1776 has never died out in South Carolina, nor have her gentry ever fully acquiesced in our republican form of government. It is high time the questions between her and the country were settled. I wish she had made up her mind to try conclusions with Andrew Jackson when she had her hand raised to pluck the forbidden fruit. Does she think it more nearly ripe now? or that the present “Old Man” won’t throw stones? I’ll vouch for it, that if he does not, somebody will.

…I am rather glad South Carolina has taken this decisive step. Her arrogance and rashness have arrayed even her Southern neighbors against her. She will not be supported by a single State. I have not heard a voice raised in her behalf. Even those who have heretofore been most vociferous about Southern rights unite in condemning her premature presumption. A ship of war in the harbor of Charleston, and a battalion of nation troops thrown into the forts, will quench South Carolina as briefly as one may snuff out a tallow dip with his thumb and finger.

…”Sedition is like fire, easily extinguished at the commencement, but the longer it burns the more fiercely it blazes.”

… South Carolina is not quenched, and there seems to be no disposition on the part of those in power to out the extinguisher on her.

… As she pursues her course of presumptuous madness with impunity other States are following her example.

… Each day brings tidings of fresh outrages and humiliations heaped upon the Government, seizures of arsenals, arms, forts, dockyards, and vessels – of traitorous officers surrendering their charges without defense – of faithful officers arrested and thrown into prison, besieged in forts where they are cut off from supplies and assistance – our national flag hauled down and trampled in the dust, with all its glorious historic memories, to be replaced by some tawdry rag flaunting an obscure device known only to local office-holders and militiamen.

The effect of this state of things is distinctly perceptible in the time of opinion around us. State Sovereignty dogmatism is becoming daily more open and arrogant. County court metaphysicians are modifying their Unionism with “ifs” and “ands” and “peradventures” – small anglers in the mud-puddle of village tavern opinion are drawing in their lines and changing their bait – petty politicians are craftily trimming their sails that their cock-boats may run with the rising wind. But while the weak-kneed are thus tottering, and trimmers fluttering in the breeze, the storm serves to fan to fiercer flame the indignation of all true men. All eyes and hearts are now turned toward Washington, expectant, eager, hopeful. There centres the power which in its infancy has met and twice foiled the giant of Great Britain, which in the very wontonness of its lusty youth made a holiday frolic of throttling poor Mexico. What will the Government do in this crisis?

…Is it secret sympathy with treason or mere driveling that tells the American people “the Government has no right to coerce a State?” – a nation that for more than eighty years has maintained fleets and armies, has waged wars and made peace, has collected customs and coined money; whose commerce covers the globe, whose flag is known and honored wherever the sun shines; whose power and civilization are acknowledged by the proudest and most enlightened peoples; whose future promises to surpass in grandeur all that history has yet recorded. Such a nation has not the right to suppress domestic insurrection! So vast an aggregation of power, prosperity, and hope must submit quietly and unresistingly to perish at the bidding of a local faction, a confederacy of visionary schemers, conceited dogmatists, self-deluding and self-stultifying economists – base huxters, who unblushingly pretend to barter the national honor and safety for the advantage of cheap negroes and a good cotton market; unprincipled politicians, whose vulpine instincts have warned them that the power and places which they had so long abused and so deeply corrupted are about to be withdrawn from their keeping!

Is nothing lawful or constitutional but the outrages of revolutionary mobs, the violation of solemn oaths, the plundering of national property, and the babbling of seditious orators?

Is the Government we have loved and trusted indeed so pitiable and impotent a sham? Have the founders, whom we have been accustomed to regard as wise and good men, really put such a scurvy trick upon us? Have we built houses, laid up wealth, begot children, acquired honors, and recreated in boasting and self-glorification under the delusion of a Political Idea that would disgrace a council of Pottawatomies?

Such are the questions that loyal Virginians in the bitterness of their humiliation now all each other, as the daily mails bring in the accumulating details of rebel outrage, arrogance, and menace, responded to only by governmental acquiescence, deprecatory remonstrance, and despicable compromise.

“Ah, God! for a man with heart, head, hand,
Like some of the simple great ones gone
For ever and ever by –
One still strong man in a distant land,
Whatever they call him, what care I.
Aristocrat, Democrat, Autocrat – one
Who can rule and dare not lie.”

More to follow from David Hunter Strother in the second installment…

[Courtesy of Cornell University Library, Making of America Digital Collection.]