Table of Contents
The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz
Volume Three (1863-1906)
THE election over, I reported to the War Department for such duty as might be assigned to me. The ranks of Grant's army operating against Richmond having been fearfully thinned by loss in battle and by disease, the government tried various expedients to replenish them. Among others, a plan was conceived to organize a “Veteran Corps,” to consist of old soldiers who, after having served out their three-years' term of enlistment, had left the army, but were still physically able and willing to re-enlist for further service. This “Veteran Corps” was to be commanded by General Hancock, whose conspicuous gallantry in Grant's Virginia campaign had won him the repute of being the kind of commander under whom it was an honor to serve. I was ordered by the War Department to visit the governors of several States and the mayors of a number of cities for the purpose of winning their co-operation in the execution of this scheme. This task kept me traveling a large part of the winter. I succeeded in obtaining from most of the officials applied to very fair assurances of support, which, no doubt, were honestly meant, but were hardly borne out by the results of the promised co-operation.
When I personally made my report at the War Department, Secretary Stanton asked me to bear a confidential communication, not to be put on paper, to Mr. Lincoln, who had gone to City Point, on the James River, in order to have easy and constant conference with General Grant. I found Mr. Lincoln in excellent spirits. He was confident that the fall of Richmond, and with it the total collapse of the rebellion, would come in the near future. Also of the political situation, of which he spoke with great freedom, he took a hopeful view, much in contrast with the depression of mind which he had shown at our last meeting during the presidential campaign. He felt that his triumphant re-election had given him a moral authority stronger than that which he had possessed before, and he trusted that this strengthened authority, used with discretion and in a friendly and magnanimous spirit, would secure to his opinions concerning the measures of reconstruction he thought it wise to adopt, a friendlier consideration on the part of the leading Unionists in Congress and in the country. He did not say this in terms, but I gathered it from the tone of his utterances. And here I may mention a story thoroughly characteristic of Lincoln's ways, which I heard in passing through Washington. Charles Sumner had formed a theory of State suicide which gave to the National Government absolute liberty of action as to the status of the States in rebellion and their reconstruction after the return of peace. This theory stood in sharp contrast to Lincoln's ideas, but Sumner clung to it with his peculiar tenacity. The difference of opinion between the two men was so radical and outspoken that at the time of Lincoln's second inauguration, an actual rupture of their personal relations was currently reported and widely believed. But in spite of their disagreements and jarrings, Lincoln at heart esteemed Sumner very highly, and Sumner, although sometimes seriously disturbed by Lincoln's acts or failures to act, had implicit confidence in the rectitude of his character and the justness of his ultimate aims. Now, when Lincoln heard of the rumor speaking of his personal rupture with Sumner, he at once resolved to discredit it by an open demonstration. On the evening of the inauguration ball he suddenly appeared in his carriage with Mrs. Lincoln and Mr. Colfax, Speaker of the House of Representatives, at Mr. Sumner's house, and invited the Senator to join them. Being asked by the President, the Senator could not refuse. And then, arrived at the ball-room, the President further asked the Senator to offer Mrs. Lincoln his arm and to take her in. The Senator, with grave gallantry, complied, and appeared before all the assembled multitude, if not as a member of Lincoln's family, at least as one of his dearest and most honored friends. After this their difference of opinion continued, although much softened; but there was no more talk of a personal rupture between Lincoln and Sumner.
I spent the better part of a day with Mr. Lincoln on the steamboat off City Point, on which he lodged. When I was ready to leave, he asked me what conveyance I had to take me back to Washington. I answered, the government tug, on which I had come. “Oh,” said he, “you can do better than that. Mrs. Lincoln is here, and will start back for Washington in an hour or two. She has a comfortable steamboat to carry her, on which there will be plenty of room for both of you, if you keep the peace. You can accompany her, if you like.” Mrs. Lincoln joining in the invitation, I accepted.
Shortly after my return from City Point, I received an order from the War Department to report at once for duty to General Sherman at Goldsborough, North Carolina. I obeyed without delay. The concentration of troops at Goldsborough included, aside from Sherman's army proper, with which he had executed the famous march from Atlanta to the sea, and from Savannah to North Carolina, the Twenty-third Corps, under General Schofield, and the Tenth Corps, under General Terry. These forces were now divided into three armies — the Army of the Tennessee, under General Howard; the Army of the Ohio, under General Schofield, and the Army of Georgia, under General Slocum. When I presented my order to General Sherman, he greeted me like an old friend, and ordered me to report to General Slocum for employment in the Army of Georgia. I found with General Slocum a pleasant reception, and as there was at the time no proper command vacant in the Army of Georgia, he appointed me temporarily as his chief-of-staff. From the very beginning our relations were hearty and confidential. There was a general feeling that the final collapse of the Confederacy, and with it the end of the war, could not be far distant. But it was supposed that Sherman's command, after having put itself in communication with General Grant's forces, would still have the honor of participating in the capture of Richmond and of Lee's army. With that view Sherman ordered his forces to be ready to move on the morning of April 11th. But that morning brought us the news that Richmond had fallen, and that General Lee was making an effort to effect a junction with General “Joe” Johnston's army, which was at some distance in our front. Thereupon General Slocum resolved to march directly upon Raleigh, hoping to strike Johnston at Smithfield. It was at the village of Smithfield that I heard rebel bullets whistle for the last time. It appeared that Johnston had left that place and marched to Raleigh, leaving a small rear-guard behind, with whom we had a very slight skirmish. On the 12th, while I was riding by General Slocum's side in the column of march, we observed a horseman galloping towards us, swinging his bat and shouting something to the troops, to which they responded with a wild hurrah. When he came near we understood his shout to be that “Grant had captured Lee's army.”
Now there could no longer be any doubt that the end of the war was actually at hand. Indeed, hardly one day had elapsed after our arrival at Raleigh before a flag of truce brought a message from General Johnston, asking for a suspension of hostilities and a meeting between him and General Sherman for the arrangement of terms of surrender. The meeting was fixed for April 17th, at a point intermediate between the two armies. Just as he was leaving Raleigh on that morning, Sherman received a telegraphic message from Secretary Stanton, containing the announcement of the assassination of President Lincoln. While Sherman was gone to confer with Johnston the terrible news was kept secret from our troops, to be revealed to them by a general order the next day. I well remember the effect the announcement had upon them. The camps, which for two days had been fairly resounding with jubilation over the advent of peace, suddenly fell into gloomy stillness. The soldiers admired their great generals, and often saluted some of them with enthusiastic declamations. But their President, their good “Father Abraham,” they loved. Him they carried in their hearts as their personal friend and the friend of their homes and families. When the foul deed, by which he had been taken off, was made known to them, they did not vent their feelings in loud tones of anger and vengeance, but they sat around their camp-fires either silent or communicating their wrathful grief to one another in grim murmurs. But as I went around among them, and here and there caught their utterances, it occurred to me that now it was the highest time that the war should cease. If it had continued, and if these men had once more been let loose upon “the enemy's country,” there would have been danger of vengeance taken for Abraham Lincoln's blood that might have made the century shudder.
The people of the South themselves felt keenly that the murder of Lincoln was the worst blow that could have fallen upon them. As General Sherman told us, Johnston and the generals of his army received the bloody news with utter consternation.
It was, indeed, high time the war should cease, but it did not cease without a by-play much to be regretted. On the 18th of April, General Sherman met General Johnston again, and agreed with him upon a treaty of surrender, intended to embrace all the Confederate armies in the field. Its provisions were astonishing to the last degree. It stipulated — subject to the approval of the President — that the Confederate armies should be “disbanded and conducted to their several State capitals, there to deposit their arms and public property in the State Arsenals”; that the Executive of the United States should “recognize the several State governments on their officers and legislatures taking the oaths prescribed by the Constitution of the United States, and where conflicting State governments had resulted from the war, the legitimacy of all should be submitted to the Supreme Court of the United States”; that “all the Federal Courts should be re-established in the several States, with powers as defined by the Constitution of the United States and of the States respectively”; that “the people and inhabitants of all the States be guaranteed, as far as the Executive can, their political rights and privileges, as well as their rights of person and property as defined by the Constitution of the United States and of the States respectively”; that “the Executive authority of the government of the United States should not disturb any of the people by reason of the late war, so long as they live in peace and quiet, and obey the laws in existence at the place of their residence”; in short, that “war was to cease, and general amnesty be granted on condition that the armies be disbanded, the arms distributed, and peaceful pursuits resumed.”
In an article contributed by General Slocum to the “War Series” of the Century Magazine, the following passage occurs concerning the “treaty” of peace:
“Pending these negotiations, and after the proposed terms had been made known to the leading officers of Sherman's army, I conversed with nearly all these officers, among them Logan, Howard, and Blair, and heard no word of dissent from any of them. I can now recall to mind but one general officer who, at the time, questioned the wisdom of General Sherman's action, and that was General Carl Schurz. General Schurz was then serving temporarily as my chief-of-staff, and when I returned from Sherman's headquarters about 12 o'clock on the night of the 18th I found General Schurz sitting up, waiting for me. He was eager to learn the terms, and when I stated them to him he expressed regret and predicted just what subsequently happened. He said the public mind of the North would be inflamed by the assassination of Lincoln, and now that the armies of the Confederacy were virtually crushed, anything looking toward leniency would not be well received.”
So far as it touches me, this narrative is correct, except in one point. It was not the ground of my objection to the terms that after the assassination of Lincoln “leniency” would not be “well received,” but that the government could not possibly permit a general in the field to determine its policy concerning the reconstruction of the “States in rebellion.” It required no extraordinary political foresight to predict the prompt rejection of the Sherman-Johnston agreement by the government, as well as by the public opinion of the country. I remember the midnight scene spoken of by General Slocum very vividly. I was very much distressed — not as if there could have been any doubt as to the final outcome of the matter, but on account of General Sherman. With all his companions in arms, I esteemed him very highly, and cherished a genuine affection for him. And now, to think that, at the very close of his splendid career in the war for the Union, he should by one inconsiderate act bring upon himself the censure of the government and of the country, was sad indeed. And this one inconsiderate act was so foreign to what had been, and were again to be, his natural tendencies! Here was the same man who, in October, 1863, had written to the Secretary of the Treasury: “By the vicissitudes of war I was again forced into the command of a department. I almost shrink from a command that involves me in civil matters which I do not understand. Politics or the means to influence a civil people are mysteries which I do not comprehend.” And in our intercourse of later years he often said to me: “I know nothing of politics, and don't want to have anything to do with politics. I leave all my politics to John,” — his brother, the Senator. And that now, at the supreme moment of the final closing up of the Civil War, when all the people stood on tiptoe to watch and scrutinize every word that was spoken, and every stroke of the pen by those on the theater of great events, he should jump with both feet into politics of the weightiest kind, and in a manner which could not possibly find acceptance with his government — and the vast majority of his countrymen — was an almost tragic spectacle.
Of course, his motives were good. He was, whatever may have been said to the contrary, most kindly disposed toward the Southern people and wanted to treat them with the most generous consideration. Besides, he feared that the disbanded rebel armies might form themselves into guerrilla bands and so harass the country by an irregular sort of warfare, very difficult to suppress, for an indefinite period of time, and he hoped that he might induce them quietly to go home and become peaceable citizens at once, by treating them very handsomely. But he forgot that Grant, receiving the surrender of Lee at Appomattox, had set him an example of handsome treatment; that this example had for him the character of a rule to be followed, and that to diverge from it would under all circumstances have been a dangerous venture.
What was sure to follow, followed swiftly. As soon as the Sherman-Johnston treaty came to the knowledge of the government, it was promptly disavowed; and as soon as it came to the knowledge of the public, the press broke out in a storm of angry denunciation. It is probable that Stanton, who was somewhat given to blunt language, communicated to Sherman the disapproval of the government in more than ordinarily brusque terms, and that the telegraph did not mince matters in acquainting Sherman with what the papers said. At any rate, Sherman's excitable temper was wrought up to the highest pitch of exasperation, which uttered itself with the utmost freedom.
It was on the evening after the arrival of such telegraphic tidings from the North, that I witnessed a scene which I shall never forget. At the so-called “Palace,” the Governor's mansion, in Raleigh, where, if I remember rightly, Sherman had his headquarters, about a dozen or so of generals were assembled in a large, bare room. They were all in a disturbed state of mind at the turn affairs had taken, and had come to get from Sherman the latest news. They sat or stood around in rather mute expectation. But Sherman was not mute. He paced up and down the room like a caged lion, and, without addressing, anybody in particular, unbosomed himself with an eloquence of furious invective which for a while made us all stare. He lashed the Secretary of War as a mean, scheming, vindictive politician, who made it his business to rob military men of the credit earned by exposing their lives in the service of their country. He berated the people who blamed him for what he had done as a mass of fools, not worth fighting for, who did not know when a thing was well done. He railed at the press, which had altogether too much freedom; which had become an engine of vilification; which should be bridled by severe laws, so that the fellows who wielded too loose a pen might be put behind bars — and so on, and so on. A foreigner unacquainted with the American character and American ways, hearing this wild outburst, might have believed that here was the beginning of a mutiny of a victorious general against his government. But we, who knew Sherman to be one of the most loyal souls in America, were troubled by it only because we feared that by a similar volcanic eruption in public he might seriously compromise his character before the people.
A day or two later General Slocum entered my tent with a happy face. “All will be well,” said he. “Grant is here. He has come from Washington to set things right.” Indeed, Grant had come to save his friend Sherman from himself. He showed Sherman that he, Grant, had been instructed by Lincoln himself strictly to abstain from all conferences or arguments of a political nature with the enemy, and how the capitulation at Appomattox had been framed accordingly. Sherman was appeased, except that he continued to bear a bitter grudge against Secretary Stanton, who he thought had wantonly insulted him. General Johnston surrendered his army on the 26th of April, on the same terms on which Lee had surrendered to Grant, and the surrender of other Southern forces soon followed. The war was ended.
As soon as General Johnston's surrender was officially announced, I promptly resigned my commission in the army and returned to my family, who were still sojourning at Bethlehem, in Pennsylvania. Thus my military life was over.
It was a life full of most interesting experiences. It inspired me with a very high esteem for the American volunteer soldier, who, in the aggregate, might have been called the American people in arms. Nothing could have been more magnificent than the patriotic ardor with which the youth of the country, — native and foreign-born alike — crowded around the flag of the Republic when President Lincoln called for defenders of the Union. Among those who filled the ranks there were no doubt some adventurous spirits whom the prospects of a fight would have attracted under any circumstances. But it is equally true, doubtless, that the overwhelming majority consisted of men who simply obeyed the voice of duty, which called them, as American citizens, to abandon the daily pursuits of peace, and to offer their lives as a sacrifice to their country on the field of war. And this patriotic enthusiasm at the beginning of the war was by no means a mere momentary, short-lived effervescence. It was a moral element of steadiness, supplying what the volunteer army lacked in discipline. Although the volunteer gradually acquired a sound appreciation of the exigencies of the service as to strict obedience to orders and the observance of certain formalities, yet he never quite accommodated himself to the strait-laced regulations and practices to which the regular soldier is subjected. He was a volunteer not only when he entered the army, but, in a certain sense, he remained largely a volunteer in the course of the war — that is to say, he did or suffered many things not merely because he knew that, as a soldier, he simply must do or suffer them, but because, from his moral sense of duty, he chose to do or suffer them. In what he considered non-essentials his habits were exceedingly loose. The relations between privates and company or regimental, and even higher officers, never were free from that instinctive feeling of equality characteristic of the American. There was no chasm of caste or fixed social class distinction between the different ranks, and the consciousness of this led to a forgetfulness of military formalities, and sometimes to a decidedly unmilitary familiarity of tone between subordinate and superior. The rule, for instance, that a private must give an officer a military salute whenever and wherever he might meet him, proved very difficult of general enforcement. Two characteristic incidents bearing upon this point are specially vivid in my memory.
One day I had a visit from a major general serving in another army Corps. When my visitor departed I accompanied him to his horse and noticed that the sentry guarding my tent did not present arms to him. Returning to my tent, I sternly asked the sentry: “Why did you not present arms to the General?” He answered with the utmost coolness — he was from a Western regiment — “Why, sir, that General was never introduced to me.” There were also instances of superabundant civility. While our Corps was stationed in Virginia in the winter of 1862 to 1863, a Connecticut regiment was attached to my division. It was quite fresh, and was sent on outpost duty, mainly for the purpose of instruction. To see whether the thing was well done, I rode with some officers along the rear of the picket line. The men were generally well posted, face to the enemy, and permitted me to pass behind them unnoticed. But one of them evidently thought that this was discourteous, and would not do. He turned round, presented arms with one hand, took off his cap with the other, and made a profound bow. The spectacle was so comical that my companions broke out in loud laughter. I rode up to the man, corrected his position, and asked him why he had been so elaborately polite. He said that during the last presidential campaign, that of 1860, he had heard me make a public speech which had impressed him very much, and he thought it no more than proper to give me, besides the military salute, a further mark of respect by uncovering his head and bowing.
The case of our old friend, General Milroy, who occasionally discussed with his men why and how the next move should be made, was, of course, a very exceptional one. Perhaps it was unique. But it is certain that in the volunteer army the relations between officers and men were amicable — not to say fraternal — in a degree which in any European army would be considered subversive of all discipline. Nor could this have been otherwise. Not only was there no social class distinction between them, but the difference between them in point of education and capacity was not so general and not so great as to establish an authoritative superiority of one over the other. There were plenty of men in the ranks who were the equals, if not the superiors, of their lieutenants or captains, or even their colonels in point of intelligence or culture. As to military matters, they were, as a rule, at first, equally uninstructed and inexperienced. Some of the officers had, perhaps, the advantage of having taken part in the drill of some militia company, but that was of little account. The private soldier could, therefore, not see in his officer the man who might be depended upon to know how to do things in an emergency much better than the men he commanded. Thus the authority of such officers depended in a large measure upon the good will of the subordinates. I have already mentioned how on a march in warm weather the column could not be kept close, and how the men sitting down on the roadside would coolly reply to the officers urging them on: “All right, sir; we'll get there in time!” — which in most cases they did. This was so universal an experience that by and by all attempts to maintain very strict order on the march were given up, except in the immediate presence of the enemy when the men saw that such order was really indispensable. And so it was with other things concerning which the men substantially exercised and asserted their own judgment as to whether they were necessary or not. And that judgment was then, if at all possible, gradually and silently accepted by the officers.
Some years later, when I visited Germany again and met the Chancellor, Prince Bismarck, as well as several generals of the Prussian army who had studied the history of our Civil War, they plied me with questions about the organization, the spirit, and the efficiency of our volunteer army. What I told them was substantially what I have put into these pages. It amused them immensely, but, accustomed as they were to judge everything by the high standard of professional instruction and discipline of the Prussian army, they seemed unable to understand how an army like ours could fight. How would it cope with any of the regular armies of European powers arrayed against it on anything like equal terms in point of numbers? They listened to me with a polite smile when I expressed the opinion that no country had human material superior to ours as regards physical development, intelligence, and martial spirit; that in the long run our volunteers could outmarch any European troops, and surpass them in the endurance of any sort of fatigue; that our volunteers, with incredible skill and rapidity, would build roads, and extemporize serviceable railway bridges and viaducts, with nothing but nails and tools, such as axes and saws and hammers and picks and shovels, and pine trees near at hand, and a clever engineer to guide them — I had seen them do it — and that they would construct temporary entrenchments and defenses almost without tools — I had seen them do that, too, many times — and that, in my opinion, they would, in a conflict with a European army, perhaps at the beginning of a campaign suffer some reverses by the superiority of European drill and discipline, but soon become acquainted with the tactics of their adversaries, and prove decidedly superior in the long run, especially if the contest were to be fought out on American soil.
Of course, this opinion will hardly be accepted by military men in Europe, as at the beginning of our recent Spanish War it was widely, if not universally, believed in European military circles that when the American volunteers met the Spanish regulars there would be a new experience in store for them. The event showed that, even without the educational reverses at the beginning, the American volunteer could not only cope with the Spanish regular, but, so to speak, walk right over him.
Here is the secret of it, which the European mind, unacquainted with the genius of this country, finds it difficult to understand: Owing to the educational power of free institutions, many things are accomplished in America without much drill and discipline, for which in Europe very much drill and discipline is required.
As to the bravery of the American soldier, Northern as well as Southern, volunteer as well as regular, there can hardly be two opinions. He will not suffer, but rather profit, by any comparison with any other. In his courage there is a peculiar element of national pride. But I must confess that my war experience has destroyed some youthful illusions as to the romantic aspect of bravery or heroism in battle. If I were to venture a definition, I should say that true bravery or heroism consists in conscious self-sacrifice for the benefit of others, or in the performance of duty. And the less expectation of reward or distinction there is connected with the act of self-sacrifice, the more genuine the bravery or heroism will be. The measuring by this standard of the value of the bravery I saw around me, brought forth some curious results.
Among the men whom I had occasion to observe there were some — not many — who, when they came into contact with the enemy, seemed to be seized with a sort of uncontrollable fury which manifested itself in the utterance of oaths and imprecations, in the shaking of fists and, in some cases, in an apparently irresistible desire to rush forward and “get at them.” In some instances this could be taken for an outburst of patriotic passion; in others it looked more like the animal rage of the bull at the sight of a red rag. Most of these men were what would ordinarily be called really “brave”; that is to say, they would walk into the hottest fire with absolute intrepidity, and do the most daring things. But while some of these, when not under fire, were men of consistent character, exemplary conduct, and modest self-respect, others became known as liars, braggarts, gamblers, bullies, ruffians, drunkards, and all that is disreputable — utterly unprincipled persons without any virtue except this animal courage. Yet they would sometimes be counted among “the bravest,” and occasionally canonized as such.
My experience has taught me that there is no vice, no degree of moral cowardice, that may not sometimes be found in the same person, together with that physical courage and fighting spirit which may make that man a hero in battle, and that there is no virtue, no degree of moral heroism, no spirit of noblest self-sacrifice, which may not sometimes be found in a person unnerved by the sight of blood, or otherwise incapable of meeting an adversary sword in hand.
I observed different classes of men who seemed to take particular delight in especially dangerous ventures. I had two such men for a while on my staff who would on every possible occasion, even when there was little or no necessity for it, ask permission to dash through the enemy's skirmish line in order to see what forces there might be behind, and who would, doing this, have to run through veritable hail-storms of bullets, going and coming. They repeatedly offered themselves for the most reckless scouting excursions into the country held by the enemy. One of them was a native of Ohio, an enthusiastic patriot, not a blusterer, but a quiet and modest young man of exemplary conduct in every respect, liked by everybody. The other was the son of a German baron of high official position. He had run away from school to Hamburg, where he enlisted as a common seaman on a sailing vessel which carried him to Buenos Ayres. There he fought during the revolutionary troubles under the famous Rosas, first for and then against the dictator. Then he sailed as a common seaman to China, where he served for a time on a piratical craft. Then he came to the United States, where he took service on a vessel bound for the African coast, which he subsequently found to be engaged in the slave trade. Not long after his return to the United States our Civil War broke out and he enlisted in a New York regiment of volunteers, in which he quickly rose to a captaincy. He made himself useful and notable by being always ready to do things which others might have hesitated to do. He was an uncommonly splendid horseman, and a lively companion — not a drunkard, but liable to drink too much on convivial occasions. He was not handsome, nor a man of good manners, but he won the affection of a refined young lady, the daughter of a rich New York family, who once visited our camp, became acquainted with him and wished to marry him. But, happily for the young lady, he preferred the life of adventure and remained in the army. It was probably owing to his superior horsemanship that he somewhat outshone his rival in daring feats, but both finally found their death on the battlefield in attempts to reconnoiter behind the enemy's skirmish line.
That in the patriotic young officer from Ohio who fought and exposed himself consciously for a good cause, bravery had the moral attributes of a genuine virtue, there can hardly be a question. But what kind of virtue was the bravery — for he was unquestionably “brave” — of the young nobleman who really did not care what cause he was fighting for, but was inspired in his daring exploits mainly — perhaps solely — by his sportive delight in meeting danger? Yet, although his bravery was merely temperamental, if he had been in a higher and more conspicuous position, he would have been celebrated among our “heroes.”
I must confess that observations like these have made me rather distrustful of the moral merit of that kind of courage or bravery which is merely, or mainly, temperamental. No doubt it has its value, and great value, too, in the arbitrament of arms. But we should not be seduced by the glamour it is apt to produce upon the imagination, to attribute to it all sorts of moral qualities and intellectual faculties which it may or may not possess — or rather the possession of which is not only not proved, but not even indicated by the display of military valor.
What rational answer is there to the question whether the moral merit of the bravery shown by the soldier in storming a hostile battery is greater than that shown by the fireman in saving a child from the flames at the risk of his own life, or by the member of the life-saving station on the seashore who plunges into the raging surf to rescue a shipwrecked sailor? Nay, is not — ceteris paribus — that fireman, or that member of the life-saving crew, even a greater hero, morally, considering that the soldier, acting presumably on the conspicuous theater of the world's great affairs, is surrounded by everything apt to excite his combativeness and to stimulate his ambition — the inspiring drumbeat and bugle call, the emulation of his comrades, the prospect of having his name trumpeted to the admiration of the world, the expectation of promotions, and rewards, and distinctions in various forms — even of political preferments — while the fireman and the member of the life-saving station, acting on a comparatively humble and obscure scene, has little more to inspire him than his sense of duty and his human sympathy, and may, beyond that, only look for a short laudatory notice in a local newspaper, a word of commendation from his chief, and, perhaps, a medal and a little advantage in promotion?
Yet, the war-hero, the man of martial glory, the bold and successful destroyer of lives — albeit the lives of “enemies” — has held, now holds, and is likely to continue to hold — at least until we reach a higher stage of civilization — stronger place in popular esteem, or shall we rather say in the popular imagination, than the man who has earned his title to heroship by the saving of lives. And more than that: The martial hero who has distinguished himself as a military leader, on a more or less large scale, is likely to be endowed by the same popular imagination with all possible moral and mental qualifications believed to entitle him to leadership on other fields of human activity, and especially on the political field, on which the bestowal of power depends most on popular favor.
This is the case in this country more than in any other, except perhaps Spain, where there are reasons for it which do not exist here. With the Americans this tendency of the popular mind has probably been strengthened by the great example of Washington, who, in an exceptional degree, united in himself the aptitude for military leadership with that for the conduct of civil — and especially republican — government. Such a happy combination of great qualities is exceedingly rare. Napoleon and Frederick the Great of Prussia can hardly be called great in the same category with Washington, for if they proved themselves to possess any genius for any species of civil government, it was certainly not government of the republican kind. Our own experience has been that the men with military titles elected to the presidency of the United States succeeded in the performance of the duties of the office, so far as they did succeed, by the abandonment of military methods and ways of thinking and by the cultivation, instead, of purely civil views and the practice of civic virtues. Nothing, for instance, would be more foreign to the genius of our government than the habit of command and the expectation of obedience on the part of the Chief Executive.
Here I may remark that of all the higher military officers I have known, none had a clearer intuitive conception of this than General Sherman. In the opinion of many competent persons, he was the ablest commander of them all. I remember a remarkable utterance of his when we were speaking of Grant's campaign. “There was a difference,” Sherman said, “between Grant's and my way of looking at things. Grant never cared a damn about what was going on behind the enemy's lines, but it often scared me like the devil.” He admitted, and justly so, that some of Grant's successes were owing to this very fact, but also some of his most conspicuous failures. Grant believed in hammering — Sherman in maneuvering. It had been the habit of the generals commanding the Army of the Potomac to cross the Rappahannock, to get their drubbing from Lee, and then promptly to retreat and recross the Rappahannock again. Grant crossed the Rappahannock, got his drubbing from Lee, but did not recross the Rappahannock again in retreat. He sturdily went on, hammering and hammering, and, with his vastly superior resources, finally hammered Lee's army to pieces, but with a most dreadful sacrifice of life on his own part. Now, comparing Grant's campaign for the taking of Richmond with Sherman's campaign for the taking of Atlanta — without losing sight of any of the differences of their respective situations — we may well arrive at the conclusion that Sherman was the superior strategist and the greater general.
I have already mentioned Sherman's letter to the Secretary of the Treasury in which he expressed his own distrust in his faculty for dealing with civic affairs. Several years after the close of the Civil War, at a time when a presidential election was approaching, some Republican newspapers suggested General Sherman's nomination as the Republican candidate. One day about this time I happened to meet the General on a ferry-boat between Jersey City and New York, and in the course of our conversation I referred to the Republican papers so using his name. Sherman at once burst out in his characteristic fashion: “What?” said he, “do they think I am a damned fool? They know that I don't know anything about politics, and am not fit for the presidency. At least, I know it. No, I am not a damned fool. I am a happy man now. Look at Grant! Look at Grant! What wouldn't he give now if he had never meddled with politics! No, they must let me alone. They can't bedevil me!” There was a treasure of the rare wisdom of self-knowledge in this rough speech, and it was thoroughly sincere.
When he called himself a “happy man,” there was a tone of just exultation in his words. He was, indeed, a happy man. He had won great renown as a soldier, and an immense popularity all over the Northern country. This he knew, and he thoroughly relished it. All sorts of societies and public organizations had made him their honorary member, and he appeared among them as often as he could. Whenever he entered a theater, which he did very often, the orchestra would strike up “Marching through Georgia,” and the whole audience would rise and clap their hands, sometimes even sing the tune, and his rugged face fairly glowed and beamed with pleasure. Every social circle greeted him as a most welcome guest, and at receptions, and evening parties, and other gatherings, the “pretty girls” would come up and kiss him — and how he did enjoy all this!
As he grew older his mind lost little if anything of its original vivacity. His conversation bubbled with quaint conceits, and odd expressions poured forth in the utmost abundance with great freedom. There could be no more entertaining dinner companion. While he lived in New York he sometimes dined with me and I with him; but he was most interesting when he came uninvited and unexpected, “just to make a call,” which he did now and then in the evening after dinner. Then he usually seemed to have something on his mind that he wanted to talk about. So I remember him one evening after nine o'clock suddenly bursting into my drawing-room, when, after having saluted my family, he at once precipitated himself upon the subject then uppermost in his thoughts. “Do you know,” he said, “that ancient myth of Jason and the 'golden fleece' is no mere myth at all. It is history. You know those old Greeks were great pirates and filibusters. They heard somehow that in a foreign country not very far away there were rivers or creeks carrying gold sand, and that the natives managed to get that gold sand by putting sheepskins with the wool on into the rivers or creeks, in which the gold sand floating down stream would stick fast. Those sheepskins with the wool full of gold were the 'golden fleece,' don't you see? Then the Greek pirates sailed for those countries and stole the golden fleeces, and occasionally took some native girls along home with them. That was the origin of the myth of Jason and Medea, but the whole thing is substantially as true as anything in history.” Thus he would go on for a while, in the liveliest style, elucidating his story with all the joyousness of new discovery. This theme exhausted, he would jump up, thank us for the pleasant evening he had had, and leave us as abruptly as he had come. He was indeed a happy man, largely owing to his wise abstinence from affairs for which he did not feel himself fitted; and when he died, everybody that knew him regretted he was not permitted to enjoy his happiness some years longer.
To return to the matter of bravery, I imagine that the average man when first going into battle and hearing the roar of cannon and the rattle of musketry and the whistling of bullets feels an instinctive wish to be well out of it. A few will obey that wish and skulk, or run away at the first opportunity. Another limited class will feel that gaudium certaminis, that joy of the conflict, of which the poets speak, and be impatient to rush forward. The majority will promptly gather up their spirits and then in obedience to a sense of patriotic duty or an impulse of honor or of pride, and encouraged by the presence of their comrades, stand their ground and obey the orders of their commanders to the best of their ability. This is the way the moral element supplements temperamental courage or the lack of it. It is a perfectly natural impulse to duck one's head when a cannon-ball rushes over it. I have seen whole regiments do it, almost without exception, and then break out in a laugh. As troops grow more accustomed to the sounds and sights which at first are apt to stagger them, they become of course steadier in their courage under fire, so that at last an engagement has little terror for them, unless it be quite unusually fierce and destructive. I have often been asked how I felt in a battle. The answer always was that I did not feel at all — in other words, that my mind was too fully and unceasingly occupied with the things to be done, to permit any feeling to interfere with the sense of responsibility. One is at such moments entirely unconscious of any personal danger. One simply does not think of it. When we read or hear of commanding officers exposing themselves, they usually do so without being aware of it — unless they especially mean to encourage the troops by their example.
But the most potent influence inspiring troops with more than ordinary courage and daring consists in their confidence and pride in their leaders. Napoleon said that an army of sheep commanded by a lion was vastly preferable to an army of lions commanded by a sheep. To be sure, there are no armies wholly composed of lions, and no armies wholly composed of sheep. In all armies the lion element and the sheep element exist in varying proportions. It is the character of the leadership that will make the one element or the other element prevail. This accounts for the striking superiority of the infantry in the Eastern army of the Confederacy commanded by Lee over that of its Western armies commanded by various other generals, some of whom were indeed brave and able, but far from measuring up to Lee's level in the confidence and pride they inspired. Many of Lee's successes were owing to the haughty assurance of his men that under him they could not be beaten or resisted — an assurance which grew too overweening at Gettysburg and led to disaster. I risk little in saying that our men would hardly have succeeded in storming Missionary Ridge by a front attack if Lee and his men had been on top of it.
The Union army has been blamed for cruel acts of vandalism, committed in the Southern country, especially during the latter part of the war. This charge, which has indeed been very much exaggerated as it went from mouth to mouth, and from newspaper to newspaper, is not entirely groundless. In his report on our march from Chattanooga to Knoxville for the relief of Burnside, General Howard complains that acts of robbery and wanton destruction of property had been committed by some of the soldiers — in a country, too, in which a majority of the population were faithful Unionists. This complaint did not apply to his own troops, but to a corps of Sherman's army which preceded ours on the march. I myself saw evidences of this. I found several houses on the road completely stripped of everything that could be moved. I saw a field covered with feathers from a feather bed that had been ripped open. I saw a cradle standing by the roadside a mile or more away from the nearest human habitation. Evidently, it was the mere lust of looting that had induced soldiers to carry away things so absolutely useless to them. Later, in 1865, when I joined General Sherman's army at Goldsborough, N. C., after its great march through Georgia and the Carolinas, I saw some soldiers frying their bacon on silver platters, and in a general's tent I was treated to the finest Madeira wine poured from a large silver pitcher into silver goblets. When I asked where those things came from, the answer was that the army had been fairly stumbling over them in South Carolina, and that there was a lot of such stuff still left there. I do not mean to be understood as saying that I observed many such instances, but I observed some, and I was told that when the army was foraging for its sustenance in Georgia it was impossible to watch it closely enough that nothing but necessary supplies were taken, and further that, when it marched through South Carolina, a feeling seized upon the soldiers that, as South Carolina had started the whole secession mischief, it was no more than right to make the South Carolinians suffer for it.
Many years later I had a conversation with General Sherman on this subject. He frankly admitted that the necessity of “living on the country” by more or less systematic foraging had relaxed the discipline of the troops to a dangerous degree, and that the grudge of the soldiers against South Carolina as the original “secession-hole” and the instigator of the rebellion, had certainly existed and brought forth deplorable consequences. He emphatically denied, however, having made, as he affirmed, the fullest and most careful and impartial investigation, that the fire which destroyed the city of Columbia had been started by his troops. “But,” he said, “before we got out of that State, the men had so accustomed themselves to destroying everything along the line of march that sometimes, when I had my headquarters in a house, that house began to burn before I was fairly out of it. The truth is,” he added, “human nature is human nature. You take the best lot of young men, all church members, if you please, and put them into an army, and let them invade the enemy's country, and live upon it for any length of time, and they will gradually lose all principle and self-restraint to a degree beyond the control of discipline. It always has been and always will be so. When a fair-minded man who knows something about war, examines the conduct of my troops under the circumstances, he will not be surprised at what they did, but he will be surprised that it was no worse. At any rate, I was very glad when I had my army out of those States.”
By the way, it is a curious fact that in the South, General Sherman himself is still to this day held responsible for all the mischief connected with his famous march. The most ludicrously extravagant stories about his personal conduct are still current there. A Southern lady, a friend much cherished by my family for her character and intelligence, quite seriously told me that General Sherman had himself brought with him from the South over two hundred gold watches. I tried in vain to convince her that the story could not possibly be true. She simply insisted that she knew it was true, that it was very well known down South, and that the proof of it was in the State Department at Washington.
The sayings of such a man as General Sherman on the effect of war upon the morals of the soldiers themselves may be commended to the sober contemplation of those who so glibly speak of war as a great moral agency — how war kindles in the popular heart the noblest instincts and emotions of human nature; how it lifts a people above the mean selfishness of daily life; how it stops the growth of the “vile, groveling materialism” which is so apt to develop into a dominant tendency in a long period of peace; how it turns the ambitions of men into channels of generous enthusiasm and lofty aspirations; and how it is simply a bath of fire from which human society issues cleansed of its dross of low propensities, refreshed in its best energies, and more ardent than ever in devoted pursuit of its highest ideals.
It will, indeed, not be denied that at the beginning of our Civil War there were magnificent demonstrations of enthusiastic and self-sacrificing patriotism on the part of the people, that the war itself abounds with heroic acts, and that it produced the great results of a saved and strengthened Union, the abolition of slavery, and an invigorated consciousness of national power. But it was not the war that created the enthusiastic and self-sacrificing patriotism of the people. That patriotism existed before the war, and would have existed without it. The war only served to give it an opportunity for demonstrative manifestation. And as to the consolidation of the Union, the abolition of slavery, and the strengthening of the national power — would these things have been of less value if they had been achieved without a war? I will not assert that under the circumstances then existing they could have been so achieved; but would it not, on the whole, have been far better for the physical as well as the moral advancement of the American people, if superior statesmanship had overcome the seeming impossibilities and found a way to achieve them without a war? Would not mankind, and especially the American people, have been the better for it? Is it really true that the war, as such, without the high objects for which it was made, would have “kindled in the popular heart the noblest instincts and emotions of human nature?” Did it not, by the side of the noble emotions and the self-sacrificing patriotism called into action by the high objects to be served, also call into action, at least with a great many of those who took part in it, the brutal instincts of human nature? Did the war really lift the people above the mean selfishness of daily life and stop the dominance of the vile materialism said to grow up in long periods of peace? Did it not rather, by the side of noble desire to help the good cause, call forth a greedy craving on the part of a great many to use the needs of the government and the public distress as an opportunity for making money by sharp practices, and did not the rapid accumulation of fortunes develop during and after the war a “materialistic” tendency far worse than any we had known among us before? Is it really true that our war turned the ambitions of our people into the channels of lofty enthusiasms and aspirations and devotion to high ideals? Has it not rather left behind it an era of absorbing greed of wealth, a marked decline of ideal aspirations, and a dangerous tendency to exploit the government for private gain, — a tendency which not only ran wild in the business world, but even tainted the original idealism of the war volunteers who had freely offered their lives to the Republic in obedience to patriotic impulse, and finally were made to appear as insatiate clamorers for government pensions, of which many of them never could get enough? Have they not thus been made responsible — many of them, no doubt, unjustly — for the creation of the most monstrous pension system the world has ever known, — a system breeding fraud without end, contributing largely to the demoralization of our politics, pauperizing a multitude of otherwise decent people, and imposing upon the government an enormous financial burden, which, indeed, can now be borne, but which, if the present pension system becomes a ruling precedent, will, in case we have other wars, grow to intolerable dimensions?
In view of these undeniable facts, the eulogists of war among us will do well candidly to study the history of their own country. Such study will cure them of their romantic fancies of the moral beauties of war; as it will also correct the other notion caressed by them, that bravery on the battlefield is the highest form of human prowess and efficiency. They will learn that among a people like ours, it will be easy to find a hundred men ready to storm a hostile battery or to lead a forlorn hope, when they will meet only one with the moral courage to stand up alone against the world, for his conception of truth, right, and justice, and that while it may be a brave thing to confront one's enemies, it is a far braver thing to confront even one's friend in the defense and maintenance of truth, right, and justice. And this is not a matter of physical courage. It is the moral heroism most needed in a republic.
Although I had resigned my commission and was no longer in the service, I could not abstain from going to Washington to witness the great parade of the two armies, the Eastern and the Western, previous to their final dissolution, and to press the hands of my old companions in arms once more. My experiences during the conflict, and sober reflections thereon, had developed in me a profound abhorrence of war as such. But I must confess, when I saw those valiant hosts swinging in broad fronted column down Pennsylvania Avenue, the Army of the Potomac one day, and the next day Sherman's army of bronzed veterans — the men nothing but bone and muscle and skin — their tattered battle-flags fluttering victoriously over their heads in the full pride of achievement, my heart leaped in the consciousness of having been one of them. It was a spectacle splendid and imposing beyond description. But was not that which followed a spectacle far grander and more splendid in its significance — the sudden dispersion of these mighty hosts, which looked, and felt, as if they might defy the world, but which, after four years of most bloody and destructive fighting, melted away all at once, as if they had never existed — every man that had wielded the sword or the musket or served the cannon in terrible conflict, going quietly home to his plow, or his anvil, or his loom, or his counting-room, as a peaceable citizen? That this transition from the conditions of war to those of peace, this transformation of a million soldiers into a million citizen-workers, could be accomplished so suddenly, without the slightest disturbance, even without any apprehension of difficulty, was in its way a greater triumph of the American democracy than any victory won on the battlefield.
At the same time the spectacle presented by the other half of the restored Union was perplexing in the extreme. The Southern armies, too, had been dissolved, and the officers and men had “gone home” — no doubt with the honest intention of conducting themselves as peaceable citizens, in spite of the bitterness of their disappointment. But their situation was bewildering in its embarrassments — a disastrous defeat behind them, ruin and desolation around them, the most perplexing problems of existence before them, and fierce conflicts of opinion as to how this problem could and should be solved.
And alas! Abraham Lincoln was dead. He had been taken off at the moment when he had risen highest in the esteem, the affection, and the confidence of his countrymen; when almost all of those that, at the time of his accession to the presidency, had seen in him only an insignificant country lawyer, or that had lampooned him even as a mere boorish buffoon, or that, during the war, had accused him of weakness, aimless hesitancy, and blundering vacillation — when almost all of them had finally concluded that his policy of patience, sympathetic magnanimity, and just appreciation of public sentiment, although liable to criticism in detail, was on the whole the best to hold all the Union forces together, and thus to save the Republic; and when, whatever differences there may have been between his practical views of reconstruction and the theories of others, the South trusted him that he would treat those “lately in rebellion” with “malice toward none and charity for all,” and the North trusted him that he would permit nothing to be done to imperil the liberty of the emancipated slave — he thus being the natural moderator between the victors and the vanquished in the efforts to solve the portentous puzzle left by the war. Alas! he was dead, and the initiator measures for that solution were confided by fate to the uncertain hands of Andrew Johnson, of whom nobody knew what to expect. Certainly, nothing could have surprised me more than to receive from him a summons calling upon me to aid him in forming his judgment. How this happened and what came of it I shall soon narrate.
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