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A Memoir of the Last Year of the War for Independence in the Confederate States of America/Preface

< A Memoir of the Last Year of the War for Independence in the Confederate States of America


Under a solemn sense of duty to my unhappy country, and to the brave soldiers who fought under me, as well as to myself, the following pages have been written.

When the question of practical secession from the United States arose, as a citizen of the State of Virginia, and a member of the Convention called by the authority of the Legislature of that State, I opposed secession with all the ability I possessed, with the hope that the horrors of civil war might be averted, and that a returning sense of duty and justice on the part of the masses of the Northern States would induce them to respect the rights of the people of the South. While some Northern politicians and editors, who subsequently took rank among the most unscrupulous and vindictive of our enemies, and now hold me to be a traitor and rebel, were openly and sedulously justifying and encouraging secession, I was laboring honestly and earnestly to preserve the Union.

As a member of the Virginia Convention, I voted against the ordinance of secession on its passage by that body, with the hope that, even then, the collision of arms might be avoided, and some satisfactory adjustment arrived at. The adoption of that ordinance wrung from me bitter tears of grief; but I at once recognized by duty to abide the decision of my native State, and to defend her soil against invasion. Any scruples which I may have entertained as to the right of secession, were soon dispelled by the mad, wicked, and unconstitutional measures of the authorities at Washington, and the frenzied clamour of the people of the North for war upon their former brethren of the South. I then, and ever since have, regarded Abraham Lincoln, his counsellors and supporters, as the real traitors who have overthrown the constitution and government of the United States, and established in lieu thereof an odious despotism; and this opinion I entered on the journal of the Convention when I signed the ordinance of secession. I recognized the right of the resistance and revolution as exercised by our fathers in 1776, and, without cavil as to the name by which it was called, I entered the military service of my State, willingly, cheerfully, and zealously.

When the States of Virginia became one of the Confederate States, and her troops were turned over to the Confederate Government, I embraced the cause of the whole Confederacy with equal ardour, and continued in the service, with the determination to devote all the energy and talent I possessed to the common defense. I fought through the entire war, without once regretting the course I had pursued; with an abiding faith in the justice of our cause; and I never saw the moment when I would have been willing to consent to any compromise or settlement short of the absolute independence of my country.

I was my fortune to participate in most of the great military operations in which the army of Virginia was engaged, both before and after General Lee assumed the command. In the last year of this momentous struggle, I commanded, at different times, a division and two corps of General Lee's Army, in the campaign from the Rapidan to James River, and, subsequently, a separate force which marched into Maryland, threatened Washington City, and then went through an eventful campaign in the Valley of Virginia. No detailed reports of the operations of these different commands were made before the close of the war, and the campaign in Maryland and the Valley of Virginia has been the subject of much comment and misapprehension. I have now written a narrative of the operations of all my commands during the closing year of the war, and lay it before the world as a contribution to the history of our great struggle for independence. In giving that narrative, I have made such statements of the positions and strength of the opposing forces in Virginia, and such reference to their general operations, as were necessary to enable the reader to understand it; but I do not pretend to detail the operations of other commanders.

I have not found it necessary to be guilty of the injustice of attempting to pull down the reputation of any of my fellow officers, in order to build up my own. My operations and my campaign stand on their own merits, whatever they may be. Nor, in anything I may have found it necessary to say in regard to the conduct of my troops, do I wish to be understood as, in way, decrying the soldiers who constituted the rank and file of my commands. I believe that the world has never produced a body of men superior, in courage, patriotism, and endurance, to the private soldiers of the Confederate armies. I have repeatedly seen those soldiers submit, with cheerfulness, to privations and hardships which would appear to be almost incredible; and the wild cheers of our brave men, (which were so different from the studied hurrahs of the Yankees,) when their thin lines sent back opposing hosts of Federal troops, staggering, reeling, and flying, have often thrilled every fibre in my heart. I have seen, with my own eyes, ragged, barefooted, and hungry Confederate soldiers perform deeds, which, if performed in days of yore by mailed warriours in glittering armour, would have inspired the harp of the minstrel and the pen of the poet.

I do not aspire to the character of a historian, but, having been a witness of and participator in great events, I have given a statement of what I saw and did, for the use of the future historian. Without breaking the thread of my narrative, as it proceeds, I have given, in notes, comments on some of the errors and inconsistencies committed by the commander of the Federal army, General Grant, and the Federal Secretary of War, Mr. Stanton, in their reports made since the close of the war; also some instances of cruelty and barbarity committed by the Federal commanders, which were brought to my immediate attention, as well as some other matters of interest.

As was to have been expected, our enemies have flooded the press with sketches and histories, in which all the appliances of a meretricious literature have been made use of, to glorify their own cause and its supporters, and to blacken ours. But some Southern writers also, who preferred the pen to the sword or musket, have not been able to resist the temptation to rush into print; and, accordingly, carping criticisms have been written by the light of after events, and even histories of the war attempted by person, who imagined that the distinctness of their vision was enhanced by the distance from the scene of conflict, and an exemption from the disturbing elements of whistling bullets and bursting shells. Perhaps other writers of the same class may follow, and various speculations be indulged in, as to the causes of our disasters. As for myself, I have not undertaken to speculate as to the causes of our failure, as I have seen abundant reason for it in the tremendous odds brought against us. Having had some means of judging, I will, however, say that, in my opinion, both President Davis and General Lee, in their respective spheres, did all for the success of our cause which it was possible for mortal men to do; and it is a great privilege and comfort for me to believe, and to have been able to bring with me into exile a profound love and veneration for those great men.

In regard to my own services, all I have to say is, that I have the consciousness of having done my duty to my country, to the very best of my ability, and, whatever may be my fate, I would not exchange that consciousness for untold millions. I have come into exile rather than submit to the yoke of the oppressors of my country; but I have never thought of attributing aught of blame or censure to those true men who, after having nobly done their duty in the dreadful struggle through which we passed, now, that it has gone against us, remain to share the misfortunes of their people, and to aid and comfort them in their trials; on the contrary, I appreciate and honour their motives. I have not sought refuge in another land from insensibility to the wrongs and sufferings of my own country; but I feel deeply and continually for them, and could my life secure the redemption of that country, as it has been often risked, so now it would be as freely given for that object.

There were men born and nurtured in the Southern States, and some of them in my own State, who took sides with our enemies, and aided in the desolating and humiliating the land of their own birth, and of the graves of their ancestors. Some of them rose to high positions in the United States Army, and other to high civil positions. I envy them not their dearly bought prosperity. I have rather be the humblest private soldier who fought in the ranks of the Confederate Army, and now, maimed and disabled, hobbles on this crutches from house to house, to receive his daily bread from the hands of the grateful women for whose homes he fought, than the highest of those renegades and traitors. Let them enjoy the advantages of their present positions as best they may! for the deep and bitter execrations of an entire people now attend them, and an immortality of infamy awaits them. As for all the enemies who have overrun or aided in overrunning my country, there is a wide and impassable gulf between us, in which I see the blood of slaughtered friends, comrades, and countrymen, which all the waters in the firmament above and the seas beneath cannot wash away. Those enemies have undertaken to render our cause odious and infamous; and among other atrocities committed by them in the effort to do so, an humble subordinate, poor Wirz, has been selected as a victim to a fiendish spirit, and basely murdered under an executive edict, founded on the sentence of a vindictive and illegal tribunal. Let them continue this system! they are but erecting monuments to their own eternal dishonour, and furnishing finger posts to guide the historian in his researches. They may employ the infamous Holt, with his "Bureau of Military Justice," to sacrifice other victims on the alters of their hatred, and provost marshals, and agents of the "Freeman's Bureau," may riot in all the license of petty tyranny, but our enemies can no more control the verdict of impartial history, then they can escape that doom which awaits them at the final judgment.

During the war, slavery was used as a catchword to arouse the passions of a fanatical mob, and to some extent the prejudices of the civilized world were excited against us; but the war was not made on our part for slavery. High dignitaries in both church and state in Old England, and puritans in New England, had participated in the profits of a trade, by which the ignorant and barbarous natives of Africa were brought from that country, and sold into slavery in the American Colonies. The generation in the Southern States which defended their country in the late war, found amongst them, in a civilized and christianized condition, 4,000,000 of the descendants of those degraded Africans. The Almighty Creator of the Universe had stamped them, indelibly, with a different colour and an inferior physical and mental organization. He had not done this from mere caprice or whim, but for wise purposes. An amalgamation of the races was in contravention of His designs, or He would not have made them so different. This immense number of people could not have been transported back to the wilds from which their ancestors were taken, or if they could have been, it would have resulted in the relapse into barbarism. Reason, common sense, true humanity to the black, as well as the safety of the white race, required that the inferior race should be kept in a state of subordination. The condition of domestic slavery, as it existed in the South, had not only resulted in a great improvement in the moral and physical condition of the negro race, but had furnished a class of labourers as happy and contented as any in the world, if not more so. Their labour had not only developed the immense resources of the immediate country in which they were located, but was the main source of the great prosperity of the United States, and furnished the means for the employment of millions of the working classes in other countries. nevertheless, the struggle made by the people of the South was not for the institution of slavery, but for the inestimable right of self-government, against the domination of the fanatical faction at the North; and slavery was the mere occasion of the development of the antagonism between the two sections. That right of self-government has been lost, and slavery violently abolished. Four millions of blacks have thus been thrown on their own resources, to starve, to die, and to relapse into barbarism; and inconceivable miseries have been entailed on the white race.

The civilized world will find, too late, that its philanthropy has been all false, and its religion all wrong on this subject; and the people of the United States will find that, under the pretence of "saving the life of the nation, and upholding the old flag," they have surrendered their own liberties into the hands of the worst of all tyrants, a body of senseless fanatics.

When the passions and infatuations of the day shall have been dissipated by time, and all the results of the late war shall have passed in irrevocable history, this future chronicler of that history will have a most important duty to perform, and posterity, while poring over its pages, will be lost in wonder at the follies and crimes committed in this generation.

My narrative is now given to the public, and the sole merit I claim for it is that of truthfulness. In writing it, I have received material aid from an accurate diary kept by Lieutenant William W. Old, aide to Major General Edward Johnson, who was with me during the campaign in Maryland and the Shenandoah Valley until the 12th of August, 1864, and the copious notes of Captain J. Kotchkiss, who acted as Topographical Engineer for the 2nd Corps and the Army of the Valley District, and recorded the events of each day, from the opening of the campaign on the Rapidan in May, 1864, until the affair at Waynesboro' in March, 1865.


November, 1866.