Personal recollections of the Civil War. By a Virginian. (D.H. Strother) [Installment 6]

Posted on September 12, 2010 by


Returning to where I left off (my September 4, 2010/fifth installment of D.H. Strother’s “Recollections”)…

April 19. – On going down into the town this morning I found that there had been considerable accessions to the State forces, seven or eight hundred having arrived during the night and morning, while as many more were reported on the way.

Confusion reigned supreme, ably seconded by whisky. The newly-arrived troops having nothing to eat, consoled themselves as usual by getting something to drink. Parties were detailed to search the houses for the arms and public property which had been carried off the evening before. This search was stoutly resisted by the women, who skirmished after their fashion with the guard, with tongue and broomstick, holding them at bay while their husbands endeavored to conceal the spoils they had acquired.

A rough estimate of the night’s work showed that about sixteen thousand muskets had perished by the burning of the arsenals, and that one building (the carpenter shop) of the Potomac Armory had also been destroyed.

On the other hand, several thousand new rifles and muskets complete, with all the costly material and machinery of the National Armory, had passed into the power of the revolution without a blow.

Such were the visible and material results, but the social and political consequences who could estimate?

I must confess that I felt this morning like a man wandering in a maze. The future exhibited but a dim and changing vista, Was the experiment of popular government indeed a failure, as our conservatives had been predicting from the commencement? Was Macaulay right when he said that our system would crumble into anarchy upon the first serious trial?

If the present Government of the United States, as many maintain, and as its own attitude of late seems to admit, has neither the right to punish privy conspiracy, nor the power to defend itself against factious aggression, then why should we regret its overthrow? Let the impotent imposture perish, and the American people will speedily establish a more respectable and manly system on its ruins.

While indulging in these speculations my attention was directed to the flag-staff which stood in the yard of the old Arsenal. The national standard had been lowered, and in its place floated the State flag of Virginia.

It would be difficult to describe the mingled emotions excited in my mind by this simple incident.

Once in my early youth I visited the crater of Vesuvius, and, venturing down the interior slope for some distance, I found myself upon a slope for some distance, I found myself upon a projecting cliff of lava. Here I stood for a time looking curiously down upon the sea of smoke that concealed every thing around and beneath, when a sudden breeze rolled the clouds away and for a moment my eyes beheld the hideous gulf that yawned below. A put whose sulphurous horrors and immeasurable depth were revealed only by the glare of lurid flames and boiling lava – whose appalling aspect paralyzed the senses like the grasp of a nightmare. A sight which memory never recalls without the shudder that accompanied its first revelation.

So it seemed that the sudden gust of emotion, excited by the lowering of our starry flag, had swept away the mists of speculation and revealed in its depth and breadth the abyss of degradation opened by secession.

Yesterday I was a citizen of the great American republic. My country spanned a continent. Her northern border neared the frigid zone while her southern limit touched the tropics. Her eastern and her western shores were washed by the two great oceans of the globe. Her commerce covering the most remote seas, her flag honored in every land. The strongest nation acknowledged her power, and the most enlightened honored her attainments in art, science, and literature.

Her political system, the cherished ideal toward whose realization the noblest aspirations and efforts of mankind have been directed for ages. The great experiment which the pure and wise of all nations are watching with trembling solicitude and imperishable hope. It was something to belong to such a nationality. Something to be able, in following one’s business or pleasure, to travel to and fro without question or hindrance, to take red-fish in the Mexican Gulf or trout in the great lakes, to chase deer in the Alleghanies or adventure among grizzly bears in the Rocky Mountains, and every where to remember, as you inflated your lungs with the free air, “This is my country!”

It was something, when questioned of one’s nationality in foreign lands, perhaps by the subject of a petty monarchy or obscure principality, the impoverished and degraded fraction of a once powerful empire, ruined by the madness of faction, local ignorance, and secession. It was something, in replying to such inquiry, to feel one’s heart swelling with imperial pride such as moved the ancient Roman in the days when he could quell the insolence of barbaric kings with the simple announcement, “Civis Romannus sum.”

This was yesterday. To-day, what am I? A citizen of Virginia. Virginia, a petty commonwealth with scarcely a million of white inhabitants. What could she ever hope to be but a worthless fragment of the broken vase? A fallen and splintered column of the once glorious temple.

But I will not dwell longer on the humiliating contrast. Come harness up the buggy and let us get out of this or I shall suffocate.

On our way to Charlestown we met great numbers of persons afoot, on horseback, and on wheels, hurrying to the scene of excitement. Some attracted simply by curiosity, others armed and demonstrative, eager to claim a share of the glory after the danger was over. My friend and I discoursed mournfully of the prospect before us and the country. Indeed there was nothing in the subject calculated to promote cheerfulness. He hoped that the great change might be accomplished without war. I neither believed in the possibility of such a result, nor did I wish it. Of the great twin governing powers in human society – Fraud and Force – I decidedly preferred the latter. I was wearied and disgusted with the reign of subtle phrasemongers and empty babblers, and hailed the dawn of an era which promised to develop the latent manhood of the nation, and sweep away the cobwebs of tricky and compromising politicians with sword and fire.

More to follow…

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