Personal Recollections of the Civil War. By a Virginian (D.H. Strother). [Installment 2]

Posted on May 12, 2010 by


Picking-up from installment 1

… In the recent election for members of the Convention the people of Virginia have expressed their determination to remain in the Union by an overwhelming majority. Gloriously has the good old State vindicated her honorable traditions and the memory of those noble sons whose effigies fill the chief places in the National Pantheon.

We have been wrong in doubting the solidarity of popular government. Solomon says: “Many are in high place and of renown, but mysteries are revealed to the meek.” So it seems in our day – while our statesmen are turned drivelers, our honorables colloguing with treason, the wise and crafty mazed in a labyrinth of foolishness, the simple faith of the people is steadfast, and is alone sufficient to save us. While those leaned in the law and subtle expounders of constitutions are choking us with the metaphysical doubts and twaddle, comes forth the plowman from his field, the grimy artisan from his shop, the meek, unlettered citizen, without Latin enough to translate “E pluribus unum,” and barely English enough to decipher the vernacular “United we stand, divided we fall.” This comprises all of his knowledge of statesmanship. he never has read any Constitutions, or Bills of Rights, or Resolutions of ’98, or Congressional Debates. It is well for the country, perhaps, that he has not, or they might have addled his brains as they have those of many others; yet, though his political creed is so simple, he understands it, not so clearly with his head as with his heart. He learned it from his father, who fought under Jackson in 1812; who learned it from his father, who marched with Washington in 1776. He has taught it to be his bare-legged boy, who tends the plow or blows the bellows at the forge. He has faith in it, and will stand by it when the day of trial comes. We, the people of these United States, will not be divided. I have never seen our people so serious on the occasion of an election, They seem to have had an instinctive warned of coming evil, and, distrusting their old political leaders, have spurned the party trammels and personal prejudices which have heretofore influenced them. They seem every where in the State to have chosen the best men that were offered. Virginia is safe. I thank God for this signal rebuke to those degenerate Virginians who would have sold this glorious old Commonwealth as a convenient tool to the weak and selfish schemers of the Gulf States – a tool to be worked with, ruined, and scorned.

… We have vexatious news from Richmond. The tone of the Convention seems to be giving way. The pressure brought to bear against the Unionists is said to be very heavy. The oily brandishments of a wealthy and polished society are spread to catch the lighter flies; the weak and conceited are taken with wordy subtleties; the venal are bought by promises; the timid assailed with insult and menace. Hired bullies and howling mobs besiege the Convention in its sittings, and follow the Union members to their lodgings, threatening assassination with lynch law. Some have yielded with a facility which indicates that their treachery was premeditated. Simultaneously, with these proceedings at Richmond I perceive the State is flooded with letters, printed documents, and oratorical emissaries, circulating the most brazen impostures, backed by the most insolent threats, intended to bring the people over to the support of the proposed action of the Convention in favor of Secession.

It is declared that if the State can not be carried out by an ordinance of the Convention it shall be by armed revolution, and woe to those who oppose it!

It is frankly asserted, moreover, that of the voting population of Virginia not more than thirty thousand are uncompromising Secessionists, against about an equal number of decided and unconditional Unionists; the souls, bodies, and estates of the remaining one hundred thousand conservative, vacillating, and undetermined citizens would belong to the victors in the context, serving to swell their triumph and assure their power, They boastfully claim that the Secessionists have in their ranks all the active fighting element, all the available political ability, arms, organization, and determined purpose, besides complete control of all branches of the State and municipal government. The domineering insolence of their tone seems to give assurance of triumph before it is actually achieved.

The Unionists, they say, on the other hand, are conservative, timid, unprepared, deprecatory, without organization or positive purpose. They must therefore succumb or leave the State. This is Richmond opinion; but Virginia is a State of imperial boundaries, and these James River people will find out ere long that

“There are hills beyond Pentland
And streams beyond Forth.”

… I have just returned from a visit to Charlestown. The politicians and tavern loungers are very full of Secession talk, but, as far as I could learn, the more solid men and rural gentry are decidedly adverse to it.

Park Forest

In returning I called at Park Forest, the birth-place of my father. The white family was from home, but the clouds of high-bred poultry which surrounded the establishment gave an idea of the bountiful and succulent hospitality of rural life in Jefferson. All the surroundings betokened easy and plenteous living. In the kitchen I found the cook – a picture of abundance, shining with greasy contentment, all unconscious of the coming wars, and unambitious of the glorious future destined for her race.

A Happy Family

With hospitable alacrity she brewed me the needful cup of coffee, and I pursued my solitary way. The road I took was through a wooded and secluded region traversing the Opequon pine hills, so my time was occupied with melancholy musings: “There will be war. Thirty years of political wrangling have made war inevitable. ‘As the smoke and vapor of the furnace goeth before the fire, so reviling before the blood'”

There must be war. Four-score years of unchecked and unexampled prosperity has made the nation drunk – “Jeshurun waxed fat, and kicked.”

There must be war. These convulsions are essential to the political as storms and tornadoes are to the physical world. We have gone a very ling time without one. The war with Mexico a mere joke. The restless and growing energies our people have for eighty years been turned toward the subjugation of nature. The continent has at length succumbed. Our pioneers return disappointed and checked from the shores of the pacific. The continuity of the nation’s dream has been interrupted. There are no more El Dorados to explore, to waste and cast aside like broken toys. These vast and ungovernable energies are now thrown back upon us like a distemper driven from the surface into the blood. They are about to break out in civil war. A great foreign war would answer the purpose better. What a pity we can not get up a foreign war! Yet Uncle Sam for some years past seems to have been trying like the hero of Donnybrook Fair) to induce somebody to tread on his coat-tail. But other people know him better than he knows himself.

When this war comes we are to be the borderers; whether it takes the form of a regular and organized contest between governments and sections, or the more dreadful shape of social and anarchic butchery, this region will be the debatable ground. These fair and fertile lands will be laid waste. Bleak chimneys rising from an ash heap will mark the site of these pleasant homes. Kindred will be divided by the sword. Ancient friendships changed to bloody feuds; peace, security, and plenty give place to war, watchfulness, and famine. And yet no upright and sound-thinking man can give a human reason why this war should be. There is not an interest involved which will not suffer shipwreck by a resort to arms. There is not a moral of political principle insisted on by either party which can not be more advantageously settled by reason and forbearance-

“We are puppets, Man in his pride and Beauty fair in her flower.
Do we move ourselves, or are we moved by an unseen hand at a game?”

… The party press of the country is helping on the quarrel famously, while our graybeards at Washington are tapping their venerable cocoa-nuts with the hope of extracting a few drops of the milk of human kindness wherewith to assuage the flames. The newspapers are standing at either end of the furnace heaving in tar, pitch, rosin, petroleum, and bacon-sides, with the most indefatigable and intelligent industry. Chateaubriand, who had see revolutions enough to give his opinions some weight, was asked the cause of the periodical revolutions in France. He replied, “Journalism.”

This is certainly an efficient and virulent agent in the revolution which is brewing here.

… The New York papers speak of the Southern people as “effete;” and there seems to be an impression prevailing generally in the North that the physique of the Southern people is deteriorated by a life of luxurious and dissolute idleness. If the dapper ideologist who entertains such an idea should happen to come in contact with some hardy Southern mountaineer carrying a hundred and fifty pound buck on his shoulder – some stark and sinewy swamper with his swivel of a ducking-gun – some hard-riding Tony Lumpkin of the rural gentry, the preux chevalier of tournaments, cock-fights, and quarter-races, he would presently find out who was “effete.”


There is probably not a population to be found who, by their habits of life, occupations, and amusements, are better fitted for soldiers than that of the Southern States. Horses and fire-arms are their playthings from childhood. Impatient of the restraints of school-houses and work-shops they seek life and pleasure in the soil, and thus early learn the topography of nature, the ways of the fields and forests, swamps, and mountains. Their social and political life, but little restrained by law or usage, develops a vigorous individuality. For the most part, ignorant of the luxuries and refinements of cities, they prefer bacon and whisky to venison and Champagne. Tall, athletic, rough, and full of fire and vitality, the half horse, half alligator type still predominates in the lower and middle classes of the South while a more elegant but equally vigorous physique characterizes the polished, proud, subtle, ambitious, warlike, domineering class who will lead them.

The Southern editors, on the other hand, jealous of assumed Northern pre-eminence in silly and brazen imposture, make haste to assure their readers that the people of the late United States are now a frantic mob of Yankees and abolitionists, manufacturers of wooden nutmegs and patent apple-peelers, seedy pedagogues and brain-sick ideologists, and won’t fight. Now if these adverse utterances are any thing more than the ravings of partisan passion – if the people of the sections do entertain such opinions of each other, it is high time they had a war. It will then be shown satisfactorily to both parties whether or not the hardy pioneers who have subjugated a rugged continent to the sons of the Vikings, who have driven whales from the high seas, will fight, and whether or not the domineering lords of Southern soil and serfs are effete.

Installment 3” follows in a few days…

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