A Rebel's Recollections
by George Cary Eggleston (1875)
paperback; 260 pages
This book was a very enjoyable read on several levels. Not only does it offer an eyewitness account of such events as the formation of the Army of the Potomac (what later became the Army of Northern Virginia), the first Battle of Manassas, the evacuation of Richmond, the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, and other key elements of the period of 1861-1865, but it also provides fascinating, and often disturbing, insight into the mechanism of Confederate politics during the last half of the war. Eggleston is a master of the written word, and the tragedy that was the Southern experience is dramatically expressed in this book.
Some pro-Confederate purists may be alienated by the title of the book, but it should be noted that the author certainly does not intend to suggest that the secession of the Southern States, and the struggle of their soldiers to maintain and defend that independence, constituted a "rebellion" in any sense of the word. Instead, he is attempting to establish a rapport with the Northern reader to whom he is principally writing. "Prejudice is the first-born of ignorance, and it never outlives its father," he notes in the preface. "The only thing necessary now to the final burial of the animosity existing between the sections is that the North and the South shall learn to know and understand each other." There is a complete absence of animosity towards his former foes in what Eggleston writes, but, at the same time, he neither compromises nor apologizes for his principles when explaining the Southern perspective of the War Between the States. Asking his reader to "put himself in the place of the Southerners and look at some things through their eyes," Eggleston opens the first chapter with a brief summary of the reasoning which led to secession and the formation of the Southern Confederacy:
The Southerners believed honestly in the right of secession, not merely as a revolutionary, but as a consitutional right. They not only held that whenever any people finds the government under which it is living oppressive and subversive of the ends for which it was instituted, it is both the right and the duty of that people to throw off the government and establish a new one in its stead; but they believed also that every State in the Union held the reserved right, under the constitution, to withdraw peaceably from the Union at pleasure.
They believed that every man's allegiance was due to his State only, and that it was only by virtue of the State's continuance in the Union that any allegiance was due to the general government at all; wherefore the withdrawal of a State from the Union would of itself absolve all the citizens of that State from whatever obligations they were under to maintain and respect the Federal constitution [pages 2-3].
Ever mindful not to unnecessarily agitate his intended audience, Eggleston prudently avoids a defense of this political theory, leaving it to the reader to satisfy his own mind regarding its veracity. However, he is quick to assert his conviction that the Southerners "were as truly and purely patriotic in their secession as were the people of the North in their adherence to the Union itself. The difference was one of opinion as to what the duties of a patriot were, and not at all a difference in the degree of patriotism existing in the two sections" [page 4]. He acknowledges the heroism of the Northern soldier in fighting against secession, but is quick to remind him, "..[I]f you had been bred at the South, and had understood your duty as the Southerners did theirs, [you] would have fought quite as bravely for secession as you did against it; and you would have been quite as truly a hero in the one case as in the other, because in either you would have risked your life for the sake of that which you held to be the right" [page 4].
Eggleston spends the remainder of the first chapter discussing Virginia's initial unwillingness to join in the secession movement and how circumstances worked some months later to alter that sentiment. The majority of Virginians, while believing in the abstract right of a sovereign State to secede from the Union, nevertheless did not perceive the threat to Southern liberties in Abraham Lincoln's election that the Gulf States had seen, and therefore "heartily condemned the secession of South Carolina and the rest as unnecessary, ill-advised, and dangerous...." [page 18] However, once Lincoln issued his call for the States to furnish their quota of troops for the purpose of coercing their departed sisters back into the Union, Virginia was brought face-to-face with a momentous decision: "She must furnish the troops, and so assist in doing that which she believed to be utterly wrong, or she must herself withdraw from the Union" [page 18]. The result was thus: "Two days after the proclamation was published Virginia seceded, not because she wanted to secede — not because she believed it wise — but because, as she understood the matter, the only other course open to her would have been cowardly and dishonorable" [pages 18-19].
In the next chapter, Eggleston paints a vivid character profile of the men who made up the Confederate army. At the beginning of the war, the Southern army "was simply a vast mob of rather ill-armed young gentlemen from the country" (page 29). They were "in theory drilled and disciplined" by the few available West Pointers and graduates from the Virginia Military Institute, but, in reality, "they were only organized and taught the rudiments of the drill before being sent to the front as full-fledged soldiers." It would only be after a year or more of actual service in the field that these men "began to suspect what the real work and the real character of the modern soldier is" [page 31]. Eggleston notes that Southerners went to war of their own accord and were "not used to control of any sort, and were not disposed to obey anybody except for good and sufficient reason given.... They were as ignorant of the alphabet of obedience as their officers were of the art of commanding" [pages 32, 38]. Nevertheless, as the war dragged on into its second year, this motley crew was molded into one of the bravest and fiercest armies the world had ever seen, standing against an enemy many times greater in numbers and strength and yet prevailing in battle after battle:
These men were the people of the South, and the war was their own; wherefore they fought to win it of their own accord, and not at all because their officers commanded them to do so. Their personal spirit and their intelligence were their sole elements of strength. Death has few terrors for such men, as compared with dishonor, and so they needed no officers at all, and no discipline, to insure their personal good conduct on the field of battle. The same elements of character, too, made them accept hardship with the utmost cheerfulness, as soon as hardship became a necessary condition to the successful prosecution of a war that every man of them regarded as his own [page 39].
Having described the Southern soldier in the field, Eggleston moves on to describe the Southern women back at home. For them, the war was no less real and the hardships it entailed no less numerous. In fact, he suggests that the spirit of the women was even more indomitable than that of the men, even after the war had ended:
...I am very sure that I have never yet known a thoroughly "reconstructed" woman. The reason, of course, is not far to seek. The women of the South could hardly have been more desperately in earnest than their husbands and brothers and sons were, in the prosecution of the war, but with their woman-natures they gave themselves wholly to the cause, and having loved it heartily when it gave promise of a sturdy life, they almost worship it now that they have strewn its bier with funeral flowers. To doubt its righteousness, or to falter in their loyalty to it while it lived, would have been treason and infidelity; to do the like now that it is dead would be to them little less than sacrilege [pages 56-57].
Eggleston relates a humorous exchange between a young wife of a Confederate soldier and an elderly widow. "I'm sure I do not hate our enemies," said the first. "I earnestly hope their souls may go to heaven, but I would like to blow all their mortal bodies away, as fast as they come upon our soil." To this sentiment, the latter replied, "I don't see why you want the Yankees to go to heaven! I hope to get there myself some day, and I'm sure I shouldn't want to go if I thought I should find any of them there" [page 61].
Their men being absent, the Southern women were left to shoulder responsibilities to which they had been previously unaccustomed. The daily duties of operating the plantations, feeding, clothing, and governing their families and servants, and all other domestic duties which normally are shared by husband and wife, pressed heavily upon them. The memories of the luxuries of life they had previously enjoyed were willingly surrendered as biting poverty gripped the Southern homefront. With the growing scarcity of domestic necessities, they became the masters of improvisation, making their own clothing dye from indigo weed, medicine from berries and roots, baking soda from corn cob ashes, and hair pins from pine needles. In addition, news came daily to some Southern household that a loved one had fallen, and yet such loss would not distract nor deter the bereaved from the performance of duty and cheerful submission to personal deprivation for the sake of the cause:
In Richmond, when the hospitals were filled with wounded men brought in from the seven days' fighting with McClellan, and the surgeons found it impossible to dress half the wounds, a band was formed, consisting of nearly all the married women of the city, who took upon themselves the duty of going to the hospitals and dressing wounds from morning till night; and they persisted in their painful duty until every man was cared for, saving hundreds of lives.... When nitre was found to be growing scarce, and the supply of gunpowder was consequently about to give out, women all over the land dug up the earth in their smokehouses and tobacco barns, and with their own hands faithfully extracted the desired salt, for use in the government laboratories.
Many of them denied themselves not only delicacies, but substantial food also, when by enduring semi-starvation they could add to the stock of food at the command of the subsistence officers.... [W]omen, who from the moment that food began to grow scarce, refused to eat meat or drink coffee, living thenceforth only upon vegetables of a speedily perishable sort, in order that they might leave the more for the soldiers in the field [pages 67-68].
Several character portraits are also provided by Eggleston, including a chapter devoted to the mighty Confederate chieftains, Generals Robert Edward Lee and Thomas Jonathan Jackson. His description of the great emotional toll which the war took upon Lee is especially moving: "The troubles of those last days had already plowed great furrows in his forehead. His eyes were red as if with weeping; his cheeks sunken and haggard; his face colorless. No one who looked upon him then, as he stood there in full view of the disastrous end, can ever forget the intense agony written upon his features. And yet he was calm, self-possessed, and deliberate" [page 147]. Following the war, when many disheartened Southern men contemplated an exodus to Mexico, Brazil, and other South American countries, it was Lee's fatherly urging that kept them at home to assist in the task of rebuilding a devastated South.
Equally loved by the Southern soldier was "Stonewall" Jackson, the unbending predestinarian and equally unbending disciplinarian. "Nobody ever understood him," writes Eggleston, "and nobody has ever been quite able to account for him" [page 150]. He had not been held in great esteem by the cadets at the Virginia Military Institute where he was professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy before the war, and he lacked the gentle compassion and warm enthusiasm that characterized Lee. His cold sternness should have rendered him odious in the eyes of those under his command and yet, as his military genius began to manifest itself, he became the object of near worship among his men. This was because they knew that "he was so terribly in earnest" [page 154], and that, next to devotion to his God, Jackson's single purpose was to destroy the enemy or to die in the effort.
Most noteworthy and lenghty among Eggleston's biographical material, however, is the humorous and touching study he undertakes of the youthful cavalier, General J.E.B. Stuart. Eggleston describes Stuart as "affectionate as a woman" [page 123] and yet outrageously audacious in the face of danger. "He was continually doing things of an extravagantly audacious sort, with no other purpose, seemingly, than that of making people stretch their eyes in wonder. He enjoyed the admiration of the enemy far more... than he did that of his friends" [page 125]. Stuart's audacity was due, notes Eggleston, "to his sense of humor, not less than to his love of applause." He would often place himself in grave personal danger in order to make himself conspicuous to the enemy, and "his slouch hat and long plume marked him in every battle, and made him a target for the riflemen to shoot at" [page 126]. And yet, behind this brashness, lay a religious faith "of that unquestioning, serene sort which rarely exists apart from the inexperience and the purity of women or children" [pages 129-130].
Subsequent chapters deal with such subjects as the dramatic inflation of the Confederate currency and the disastrous effects it had on the Southern economy, the dreadful failures of Confederate leadership in Richmond, and the unreasonable willingness of the Southern press to admit to defeat even after it was evident that the South had been beaten. Eggleston briefly discusses the woeful conditions throughout the South following the war — not only the deprivation suffered by the people from the war's devastating effects on crops and livestock, but the wanton lawlessness resulting from the complete absence of any form of government throughout the Southern States. The final pages are devoted to the author's commendation of the Negro population for their loyalty during the conflict and their generally peaceful adjustment to their transition from slave to waged laborer. I opened this book hesitatingly, expecting just another boring narrative of military life, and closed it a few days later with great satisfaction and the feeling that I had personally experienced the events described therein and had communed with the heart and soul of a noble people.
- reviewed by Greg Loren Durand