The War As We See It Now
To Grand Army Men
MEMORIAL DAY, MAY 30, 1909
By A. A. THOMAS
I think the best address ever given you here, was by Ex-President Rutherford B. Hayes. That was perhaps twenty years ago; and he spoke twenty years after the close of the war. His subject was The War as We see it Now." The war ended in 1865, forty-four years ago. The Revolutionary War ended when? It is hard to tell exactly, but say in 1783. The word "Rebellion" is offensive. Let us say the "War of Secession;" that is a name true and unoffensive and fair. We see the war as the country could see the Revolutionary War in 1827. With much clearer vision could our fathers measure up the Revolutionary War in 1827, than at its close. They could better know its consequences, its causes and its conduct. The English people took a hundred and twenty-five years to understand our revolutionary War. Through all the prevarication, the confusion and haze of the time, and for a century following, they see it now, as the Colonists saw the matter then!
Let us all respect Ex-President Hayes more than at least half the country did, following the bitterness of 1876. The disputed Presidential election then was not his fault. He has the distinguished honor of ordering away the Regular troops from a daily decision as to who should and who should not sit as a State Legislature, in South Carolina. That ended the War. No true American can look back at the ten years of "Reconstruction," without a sense of shame. Yet no one can now say what else ought to have been done—and accept the consequences. Last summer, in the Dartmouth College library, I read the state laws of Florida, and Mississippi, passed as soon as the Legislatures could sit after Lee's surrender.
By these statutes:
(1) Every colored man might be jailed unless he had a fixed habitation or home.
(2) A farm hand must make employment contracts for a year.
(3) If he did not keep his contract, the sheriff might whip or imprison him.
This was slavery, and was intended to be.
When Ex-President Hayes was here, he stopped with his friend, Mr. Richard C. Anderson. I had loaned him a volume of critical study of the commanders of the Union and Confederate Armies, by Col. Chesney, head of Great Britain's "West Point," at Woolwich, England. The book came back enriched by Mr. Hayes' annotation, for he had sat up all night to read it. Foreign criticism of our military operations was more ready and more capable than our own. When I was in Scotland three years ago, the militia of that country were in one region, performing all the preliminary and final moves of the Battle of Antietam! Perhaps they expect soon to use them in their country's defense—we do not. These tactics which are technics are better understood in Scotland than in Pennsylvania.
Foreign critics first, and of them Col. Chesney first, duly measured and appreciated the military capacity of Grant. The most wonderful thing about that man was his temperament. Whitelaw Ried, in his famous letter from the field, signed "Agate," which my father read aloud at our breakfast table, wrote:
"Close by, I watched Gen. Grant the latter end of the first day at Pittsburgh Landing; he sat for thirty minutes on his horse, and never moved any more than a wooden man. Groups of officers and part of his staff decided at last that they must rouse him. One finally went up, and saluting said, 'General, is not the outlook pretty blue for us?' 'Not at all,' said Grant, 'they can't pass these batteries tonight; it's too late. Tomorrow we shall attack them with fresh troops, and drive them, of course.' "
Gen. French, who commanded a Confederate Division, was a class-mate of Grant's at West Point, and has written a book. He says the cadets were examining an alarm clock, then new, to set and wake them mornings. The bell rang for recitation. One of the Cadets set the alarm two minutes ahead, and for fun, pushed it under Grant's cadet jacket, for concealment. He, by chance, was first called to the blackboard. The alarm went off, to the confusion of all, and the wrath of the Professor, who was unable to locate the noise, Grant standing in front of all, never moved a muscle, and when the alarm rang out, quietly resumed his blackboard demonstration; so no one was detected.
The Union and Confederate commanders have told their stories in their biographies. Who is greatest on the Southern side? We will let them say. Jefferson Davis's book on "The Rise and Fall of the Confederate States," two volumes, has now passed into insignificance. Rhoades, the historian of the war, has a fair impartiality. He says Lincoln was an abler man than Jefferson Davis, in all which Davis had been trained to do. In fact, that man, Davis, could not reason logically; and he brought most of the confusions upon himself, because he could not. For instance, he says, "The Southern officers of our Navy should not have returned their ships to our Government as they all did, and then go South." He says they should have turned the vessels over to their respective States. Just so. Think of the Navy of the State of Kentucky.
My son, when first abroad, made for a time a critical study of Napoleon. He wrote me:
'I think no one is able to write an adequate history of Napoleon, because no one mind is able to understand and appreciate him in his wide variety of capacities and accomplishments."
Much the same may be said of Lincoln.
In forty years following his death there has appeared no adequate life of Lincoln. It will come; perhaps not in our day, but in our children's. Some points of Lincoln's difficulties are understood and duly told, as his differences with McClellan, and with Chase, told by Rotschild, in the Volume, "Lincoln, Master of Men." But this is done by a writer who touched these items only, and dropped all others. Of course, Grant's is the greatest of the war autobiographies. But let us remember its last fourth part was not written by him. Cancer of the throat disabled Grant; he never could dictate, and others finished the volume out. We can see where the master mind leaves off. It is at the end of the chapter about the preparations for the Wilderness campaign.
I used to think Gen. Sherman's was best of all war memoirs; but with passing years it seems to have lost some value. Charles Francis Adam, a competent witness, writes; "The New Englanders are not a military race; and in the war of secession, no New England soldier achieved distinction." But they are able and intelligent students, these bean-eaters, and the best discussion and critical contributions to a due history of the war, have come from those New England military reunions. In his long survival, with unimpaired mental powers, Gen. Sherman, to the study of the war West, contributed much in connection with the annual meetings of the Loyal Legion. He made, or caused, at last, the demonstration that if part of the army was driven beyond recall the first day, at Pittsburgh Landing, enough of the army was not. After thirty years of discussion, History is ready to say Grant's army could have held the field then, if Buell's Divisions had not come up. Grant always so contended, and I think, made his contention good. He says Pittsburgh Landing, to the South, has always been "A battle of Ifs;" "If our bullets had not hit, and if all their's had, etc., etc." The South believes that if Albert Sidney Johnson had lived, he would have gone to the River; but Grant proves he died late in the day, trying to induce a charge that had been repeatedly ordered.
The new thing about Lincoln, slowly forcing recognition on the mind of students and critics, even on men like Gen. Upton, is Lincoln's military capacity. Not always right, nor distinguished at first, before McClellan was through and afterwards, Lincoln had better in-sight and gave better military direction than any officer he constitutionally commanded, except Grant.
The able criticism of those eastern military societies has not ended in eulogy of Grant. They, perhaps, led by Gen Humphries, Mead's Chief of Staff, demonstrate this; assuming Grant's Virginia campaign to have been planned all right, he could and should have thrown his corps through the chapperal of the wilderness to fight in the open country in front and beyond. To have done so, would have assured all the success he had, with chances for more; and would have saved a holocaust of men*
*NOTE—Nothing gets at the truth like intelligent discussion, with intervening time, to men who think and study.
Such criticisms following General Humphries contention have pretty well shattered his "demonstration". Grant could have got his troops through as Humphries contends but no wagons could have reached them with food and ammunition, as there was no time to cut and build roads.
The southern autobiographies of the Confederate commanders are not illuminating to us; but the controversy they set going among themselves is instructive. For instance, Gen. Longstreet says Gettysburg was lost chiefly because Gen. J. E. B. Stuart had foolishly taken the rebel cavalry away. Col. Mosby, in an able book lately published, proves the facts justify no such statement.
Anyhow, the South has settled into the conviction the cause was lost because of only two avoidable events; and that these were the firing on Sumpter and the battle of Gettysburg. Jefferson Davis in his book says he fired on Sumpter because the United States Government "broke faith with him." The fact is he and his, insisted in April '61, on negotiating with Secretary Seward, because the Confederate States were a "foreign government." Seward with no authority, made a weak and foolish bargain with Davis, which President Lincoln refused to approve or permit. Therefore, reasons Davis, our '' Government broke faith with him."
Mrs. Roger A. Pryor, the ablest of many wifely biographers of the Confederate States, says her husband, with full Confederate conference and approval, was sent from Richmond to Charleston to get Sumpter fired on in order to bring Virginia and the hesitating States into the Confederacy. They were successful in this,—but—
Many of the picturesque and great events of the war are yet not understood because no one connected with them had literary skill to tell the story. Morgan's Raid in Indiana and Ohio was one of these. Still, we have some fine pictures. General Basil Duke says the Con-federate troopers, for the first time north of the Ohio, wondered at the number of men they found quietly at home, and also at the spirit of the people. Once, after daybreak when first across the river, immediate information was needed about turnpike roads, which they were sure of getting, if they could terrorize some farmer's household. They did, and made the farmer's young wife come out in their midst, and stand up on the stile. They noticed at once, she was unconcerned. "What do you want?" she asked. "Where is your husband?" "He has gone to the rally," said she. "We want to see him." "Well," was her reply, "I think you'll all see him before the day is over." These men were gentlemen; and General Basil Duke says there was no time to lose; and they decided promptly to abandon that neighborhood and try another.
Of course, no publication has contributed so much of vital and permanent value, to what we know about the War, as the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, gathered and printed by the United States Government. There is a copy in the Dayton Public Library.
Begun in 1864, the publication comprises now 128 Books and 70 volumes of 138,579 pages. Its issue has cost the government $2,858,514. Never before was such costly effort made to preserve the truth and material for history. Its most new and valuable contribution of information is on the subject of prisoners of war. Rhodes, the historian, says to intelligently learn and understand what it tells on this subject, will require any man's continuous reading for one year. I shall deal now only with this one subject, which is not generally understood; and then, my paper will close.
Early and until the middle of the War, when a prisoner was taken on either side, he was generally paroled by signing some paper, which stated the fact. The agreement and practice was at Fortress Monroe, say, to exchange these papers, no man being produced. The papers were of every variety, and mostly unauthenticated, and could be multiplied without limit.
Our Government refused to proceed so, and the Confederates loudly proclaimed our bad faith, because we would not. Things stood thus when Grant took Vicksburg, and paroled 20,000 men as he did not at Donaldson. Mission Ridge quickly followed, where Grant found a number of brigades of his Vicksburg paroled prisoners in arms against him, and unexchanged. The Confederate Records now printed, show the official order of the Rebel War Department, sending these troops by regiment and brigade, back to fight without exchange.
Gen. Grant now took one of the most decisive of his acts during the war. He resolved never to give up or exchange another prisoner. The best of it was he never said a word on the subject, or he would have been forced to exchange by the outcry and pressure of friends at home.
Quickly called to Washington to stay, Grant forced President Lincoln's promise to support him in this;—a promise Lincoln, with Grant's final and reluctant acquiescence, did not keep. But the step crowded both northern and southern prisons till peace came; and greatly helped to more quickly end the war, and so was humane, although it cost the lives of thousands of both Union and Confederate soldiers. Before the lines at Petersburg were broken, Gen. Lee when reproached for want of success, turned and gently said, "My army is in northern prisons." Indeed, there were a hundred thousand of his best men there who were sent home when peace came.
James Ford Rhodes, the historian, (Vol. 5, Chap. 29, p. 483) comes to the conclusion that, between north and south, "in the matter of treatment of prisoners, the balance struck will not be far from even;" a judgment very astonishing to us. He says, "the treatment of the subject by writers has generally been polemical." We can leave the decision to history; and I speak now only of the new material brought to light in these Official Records. (Series 41.11.)
Let us remember in the first place that few men can live without the help of women. The restraints of home, give order, self-respect and decency to life. Take all women out of Dayton, men would get along at first, but what would quickly happen as time went on? Of course, in the army discipline takes the place of this. But discipline all disappears without officers. The rank and file are fed, clothed, made to go to bed, to wake up in the early morning, and to police their camps, which means to live decently. When soldiers are taken prisoners, the captors, for safety, at once separate the officers from the men. This always was done, north as well as south; and soldiers without officers, became a howling mob. These things should not be forgotten when we judge any nation for its short-comings, in the treatment of prisoners of war.
Confederate prisoners in captivity were well fed, and well housed; but they suffered indescribably for want of clothing. Their mortality, not at our worst, but on the average was nearly equal to our losses in southern prisons; and largely from this cause. No nation, it seems, has made it a duty to furnish clothing to prisoners of war.
The most pathetic story in these new Official Records, is about the attempt of the Confederate government to get clothing to their prisoners held by us. They had no money and no clothing, but they had cotton. Our government agreed to send ships to southern ports, and take this cotton to New York for sale. But the ships were busy and were delayed, and the cotton was damaged and the net results reached the Confederate prisoners when too late, following the winter of '64 and '65.
Why did you come here tonight to these exercises and listen to others and even to me ? I will answer that question, if you will listen, by telling you a story.
Some years ago, one of those English historical readers made a prolonged study of our war, and not a little to his own surprise, found himself in distant admiration for the people who put down the Rebellion ; and he made up his mind he would go and see them. Availing himself of quick transit and a. month's vacation, he came to New York and merely watched people for a week. The result confused and amazed him; so he went to Philadelphia with like result; and then to Washington, where he got a worse impression. He met by chance, an acquaintance and stated his case, and his perplexity. "My friend," was the reply, "The people you have seen never did put down the Rebellion. You say General Sherman died the other day, and no one seems to care. Let me tell you something: General Sherman's funeral cortege goes west to St. Louis to-night; you take a ticket on the train: go; attend his funeral in St. Louis, and when you get back come in and see me." He did. And on his return said;
"The train swung through Pennsylvania in the night; took breakfast leisurely at Pittsburgh, and an hour later he seated himself comfortably at the car window to look at the country. But he did not look at the country all day. For he said at every cross-road and station, were curious groups of folks,—rickety old men, wearing some fragments of blue, and their families, also standing close up, silent and uncovered. There were flags everywhere without poles, on wagons and strung on fences. Sometimes an old woman would hold aloft a sword; sometime a girl would hold in her hands a father's cap. They did not seem to care how they looked, or what people thought about them. As the train moved west the crowds increased. In central southern Indiana, the schools were dismissed, and the pupils stood along the railroad in long rows or solid banks, with their music teachers. As the train rolled by as slow as a train could move, they began, and kept on while in sight, singing "My Country, 'tis of Thee," and "Nearer, My God, to Thee". In Illinois, he said there was the same thing; men and women were more unkempt, but family groups were not fewer, for they lined the road."
When this gentleman returned to Washington he did not describe the funeral at St. Louis,—he said he did not care for that. But he said, "My friend, I understand it now: I found what I came to find. I go home satisfied, for I have seen the people who put down the Rebellion."
About us, shoulder high, are growing up a new and a young generation. Most of them can't tell Gen. Howard from Gen. Hood; nor tell the difference between the Crater at Petersburg and Arkansas Post.
Now I end by answering my own question, and say you came here to-night and listen to us in the hope that, if any foreign visitor comes on such a mission to Dayton, he may go home convinced that some of the people he wanted to see, lived here.