Who They Are and What They Have Done
by William Parker Snow (1865)
paperback; 473 pages
The most immediate and compelling aspect of these biographies of the key Confederate generals of the War Between the States is that the author was a neutral observer who saw much to admire in his subjects. William Parker Snow (1817-1895) was a British-born adventurer who made his name by leading an expedition to find the survivors of Sir John Franklin’s lost Arctic expedition in 1861. These credentials should be enough to ensure Snow was without political bias in his observations. It cannot, however, be said that he was dispassionate. Indeed, his admiration for the military expertise, and personal integrity of the eighteen generals in this book is quite obvious.
Snow captures the essence of an era when generals led from the front line, exposed to the same dangers as their men, and not from some far-removed headquarters sheltered by wireless communications and a phalanx of bureaucrats. This is not to suggest that modern generals lack courage, but simply that former generals risked a great deal more than their reputations and reprimands from presidents.
The second important feature of Snow’s work is that it offers insights into the careers and character of these men that one cannot find in today’s textbooks or popular histories of the war. For example, in his biography of Robert E. Lee, Snow includes newspaper references to the quality of the general’s handwriting, comparing it to that of Ulysses Grant (page 145). Of Lee, a newspaper noted, “All his letters are drawn nearly straight up and down the paper; in other words, they are like himself, round, full, bold, and upright, inclining neither to the right nor the left, and standing firmly on their base, as if they disdained all assistance.” Of Grant, the same columnist noted, “It may be the work of imagination, yet in reading his letter I cannot but picture the writer as a restless, nervous, energetic man, full of fire and action, always in motion, and always in a hurry" (page 146).
While this may seem to be a delightful piece of nineteenth-century serendipity, modern law enforcement officials use handwriting analysis (graphology) today to profile possible criminal perpetrators, and more businesses are using it as a means to assess the potential and character of prospective executives. That it was used in the immediate aftermath of the war raises the question of why it has not been done since to better analyze the skills and character of generals on both sides?
Snow makes great use of contemporary newspaper reports in his analysis, and includes some wonderful humor to show that soldiers, even today, when faced with their own mortality, can find ways to laugh and ease the discomfort. He recounts a report from a newspaper called The Rapid Ann, created by Southern soldiers for their amusement, and which included an important discourse on the tactics of kissing: “Recruit is placed in front of the piece. First motion — Bend the right knee; straighten the left; bring the head on a level with the face of the piece; at the same time extend the arms, and claps the cheeks of the piece firmly in both hands. Second motion — Bend the body slightly forward; pucker the mouth, and apply the lips smartly to the muzzle mouldings. Third motion — Break off promptly on both legs, to escape the jarring or injury should the piece recoil.” This is advice that many sixteen–year-old males could use today, but — as with the handwriting — this item serves as an indication of the kind of commander Lee was, and of the men he commanded.
Other generals receive similar plaudits in equal measure, but notably Pierre G. Toutant Beauregard, the man who took Fort Sumter, heralding the start of the war. Beauregard has never enjoyed the high level of recognition afforded to Lee, Jackson, or Longstreet, but Snow paints him as an absolute gentleman as well as a capable soldier, whose first thought was always for his soldiers.
After the dreadful battle at Shiloh, Beauregard sent a message to Grant, acknowledging that the superior federal force had obliged him to withdraw from the battlefield, leaving behind a large number of dead. He sought permission from Grant to send a party under flag of truce to give “decent interment to my dead”: “Certain gentlemen, wishing to avail themselves of this opportunity to remove the remains of their sons and friends, I must request for them the privilege of accompanying the burial party; and in this connection I deem it proper to say, I am asking only what I have extended to your own countrymen under similar circumstances” (pages 233-234). Grant refused, although aware of the need to clear the field of rotting corpses to ensure disease did not spread to his healthy soldiers, the Federal general sent his own parties to bury the Confederate dead.
While this item tells a great deal about the civility of Beauregard, it perhaps tells more about the cunning of Grant. Did he refuse in order to strike a psychological blow at the Confederate forces, leaving them to mourn their comrades without full benefit of closure?
Published so closely after the close of the war, and with contemporary newspapers and official reports as his sources, Snow’s work has to be considered a first-class piece of journalism that is not tainted with the bitterness of the lost Southern cause, or the crowing self-righteousness of Union victory.
Southern Generals serves to pointedly illustrate that generals, while perhaps considered “gods” to their men and “heroes” to the populace they serve, are after all fallible, courageous, dedicated men who are never immune to the losses their army endure, or personal tragedies that overcome them in dire times.
– reviewed by Jay Underwood