Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/American soldiering


The Civil War in America has an interest for us beyond the political or the philanthropic view of it. We ought to make a study of it as an illustration of a new phase of human affairs. In Europe the true Military Period of society is over, the philosophers tell us; allowing for an old-fashioned outbreak now and then,—like the career of the first Napoleon. This does not mean that war is over. It means that such wars as there are have a different aim and character from those of the true Military Period. Modern wars will, for some time to come, be in connection with commercial interests, except in the cases, which must soon die out in natural course, in which force is necessary to drive out superannuated or evil-minded despots, not good enough for the age, or for the people who have lived under them. As the true Military Period gave place to another, the military mind and spirit changed, under the influence of new ideas and interests. Still the traditions of one of the chief stages of human experience were sure to live on for centuries; and when men at this day seem to be occupied with very different things, the lightest touch upon some old national association will wake up, in “a nation of shopkeepers,” ideas and emotions very like those of ancestors who lived under warrior kings. We need not go beyond our own borders to see this. England is considered the representative of the Commercial Period at which the world has arrived. We have our Peace party, and agitators who uphold it to be a virtue to repress patriotic affections in consideration of commercial tranquillity. We believed, ten years ago, that we had lost our capacity for war, partly through long disuse, and partly because a generation had grown up without military ideas, and any patriotic emotions tending in that direction. We heard our young men deprecating military training, because it wastes time, and costs money, and may be mischievous in putting quarrelsome notions into people’s minds. I, for one, heard such objections made ten years ago. Yet, what a rally to the old virtue and the old interests we have made since! Our second army in the Crimea and our present Volunteer force have proved the strength of the traditions which have come down from the military ages. It naturally follows that, when we make war, we do it under the associations and the emotions of the olden time. War is with us an ancient institution; and we have inherited the military spirit, ideas, and conscience which dwelt in our fathers, and which prevent war from being the mere savagery which it would be as a fresh characteristic of a new period of society.

The case is otherwise in the great democratic Republic of the new world; and this is the reason why the civil war in America is singularly important and interesting as a political and social study. Since I last wrote of the conflict, the battle of Bull’s Run has become a piece of almost old news in England. Yet it seems to me that we have not even tried to understand it, or to study the indications it may afford.

The Americans are really as unmilitary as we supposed ourselves to be ten years ago; and they are, for the most part, as far from being aware of the fact as we were in 1851 from suspecting what a warrior heart lay under the costume of the British trader. “The Chivalry” of the Slave States commemorate their Cavalier descent; extol slavery as procuring leisure to make the gentry a military aristocracy, carry arms, preserve a show of soldiers, arsenals, sentries, morning guns and evening drums, &c., and keep the world in order, as they think, by threatening to seize the territory, and whip the backs of all nations who displease them. The South asserts itself to be the tiptop military aristocracy of the civilised world. At the other extremity of the country, the pretension is almost as strong, though different in aspect. The sons of the Puritans have grim portraits of the Forefathers as they stood in their armour, and cherish family traditions of the way their ancestors went to work to till the ground and transact their trade. The ploughman and woodman, and herdsman went armed as regularly as Southern citizens do now. The enemy then was the Red Indian, or some foreign invader; whereas the Southern citizen’s foe at this day is his next door neighbour, or some townsman who prides himself on the number of “difficulties” he makes in the year. In the great North-west region, the population is heterogeneous; but it goes armed, to a great extent, between its apprehensions from Red Indians, runaway negroes, kidnappers, filibusters, or hostile rovers of one sort or another. Still, that population hardly considers itself military in its character, having no type in the past, and no traditional character to perpetuate. While the north-west boasts of having no ancestry, and claims the glory of being a new social creation in a new scene, the old Puritan race in New England has prided itself on having exchanged fleshly weapons for the sword of the spirit. Non-resistant doctrines have spread widely in that region; and its representatives find it a hard cross to bear when they go up to Congress to be sneered at by Southern men for carrying no weapons, and for a supposed anxiety to avoid all pretexts for duelling. Notwithstanding all this, New Englanders have the same persuasion that other tribes under the Union have, that they can flog the world simply by being the most military people, in the national aggregate, in the world. It is this persuasion, cherished under peculiar circumstances, and now brought to the test of fact, which makes the American civil war so instructive a study at present.

I believe it will be admitted in a little while by everybody, in America and outside of it, that the Americans are the most thoroughly unmilitary of the great nations of our time.

They inhabit a fresh territory, where there are no memorials of earlier periods of society. They have no neighbours who have gone through such periods in company with them, or under their observation. Their chief aims have been first, in their colonial days, a fair and comfortable subsistence; and since, an eminent material prosperity, as a sign and a result of able self-government, in conspicuous departure from the national models and political institutions of the old world. They have succeeded in their aims; but their success has destroyed that military character of thought and feeling which they have taken for granted must remain what it was when their fathers landed as soldiers, of one kind or other, from Europe. They are extreme representatives of the Commercial Period, in fact. They excel the rest of the world in the application of science to the arts of life: they are learned in the methods of creating and increasing wealth: they have the spirit of adventure which belongs to commercial enterprise, and its spirit of liberality in regard to the spread of knowledge, and of hospitality to strangers, and of munificent charity to the needy. All this and more they have; but of the military spirit they have, as a nation, no conception. That they think they have, simply proves that they misapprehend the military ages and peoples of the world. Whether their unwarlike quality is a sign of progression or deterioration is not the question here. The important thing to us is the fact, as a key to the situation.

The circumstance which goes further to account for the fact than the newness of the terrain, or its isolation from the civilised world, or the heterogeneous character of the people, is the democratic form of government which the statesmen of ninety years ago ventured to inaugurate. That form of government tends to the cultivation of self-will in every shape it can assume; and an inordinate self-will is unfavourable to the military spirit in the highest degree. In every form of society, self-will must be restricted in one way or another. In the American republic, the checks in the different sections form a study in themselves: but all I can say now is that, in each, one man’s self-will is checked by the stronger will of an equal; and this check affords no hope for military discipline. The actual working in the present case has been this:

For forty years the Southern politicians have been bent upon introducing the principle of slave labour throughout the Republic; and they have put to its fullest use the three-fifths suffrage which they obtained by bribery from the North in the last century. Obtaining by it the ascendency at Washington, they overwhelmed the Northern section by audacity, and by menace grounded on their supposed military character. The unwarlike North yielded; but this was by the self-will of the most self-seeking portion of the community overpowering the patriotism of better men. The newspapers were the means by which the baser minds acted, as they have now been the fatal betrayers of the Northern cause. The peculiarity of the Southern case has been that, owing to the absence of a middle class, the self-will of the dominant order has had no check—except indeed that of assassination. Despots over a population of slaves and “mean whites,” the Southern gentry have become crazed with self-will. The last trace of true military quality disappeared when attacks upon defenceless men, broils, and a gross order of duelling were boasted of as signs of an age of chivalry. When several thousands of citizens of several States awarded honours to Preston Brooks for his assault on Mr. Sumner as something heroic, the Southern community unconsciously surrendered its last claim to the credit of any sort of military spirit. In full consistency with this state of things, the South exceeded all bounds of reason in her self-will about the government of the Republic; and at last provoked the citizens of the Free States to assert their will as the majority. It was an overwhelming majority; but the South was spoiled by long indulgence, and could not yield, according to the constitutional compact. Relying on the unwarlike character of the North, the Secessionist leaders defied opposition, and began a civil war.

By doing so, they fix attention on whatever they have done in the way of warfare. I am not going into the history here; but I may refer to the fact of the absence of discipline which has been remarkable wherever Southern troops have gone. In Mexico, they exhibited a spectacle which could be seen in no place where the military spirit existed. As Republicans, they would be bound by no compulsion to serve beyond their own voluntary promise, or mere will and pleasure; and companies, or parties, or twos and threes, were frequently seen stacking their arms and refusing to move in the crisis of some enterprise, or walking away on the eve of action. By the road side, or in some exposed place in camp, some delinquent might be seen tied neck and knees together, or somehow pilloried, for some breach of discipline,—these cruel punishments being inflicted on safe subjects, in the absence of regular penalties, which republican soldiers will not submit to. These are illustrations of a decided non-military quality in the Southern citizens, who feel as certain of being soldiers, born and bred, as of being whites. If we should be obliged to believe the stories now current of their barbarity to prisoners and wounded men last month, the evidence of their misapprehension of the military character will be complete. On the one hand, experience disposes us to disbelieve all wonderful stories told in American newspapers; and, on the other, as the habit of visiting personal passions on the bodies of slaves has led to the prevalent practice of assassination in that region of the country, it is only too probable that, after a battle and during a rout, men accustomed to strike and stab and shoot on the sly, may have perpetrated acts which soldiers in the old world would regard with loathing.

As soon as the same causes have an opportunity of operating in the North, we see the same effects produced. American sailors, like soldiers, cannot endure to be made machines of. This repugnance is a reason against military enterprise; and Northern citizens have therefore not been soldiers hitherto; but there must be sailors. This has been one of the most trying social difficulties the Republic has ever had to deal with. Naval commanders are not so happy there as in other countries, from the perplexity how to enforce discipline. The narratives of mutinies on board ship,—the few that become known,—are singularly melancholy; as, for instance, that which occurred in the Exploring Expedition under Commander Wilkes, in which it became necessary to hang at the yardarm the son of a Member of the Cabinet of that day. We see in the incessant occurrence of cruelties on board American ships,—now a stereotyped phrase in the newspapers,—the consequences of a lack of a habit of discipline, and of due provision for its enforcement. The necessary despotism under which alone the work of an army and a navy can be done, is an anomaly in a democratic republic; and there is no basis for any trustworthy understanding between commanders and the commanded. It was long experience of this, and a confirmed habit of criticism of Southern soldiering, which made the recent “uprising of the North” so interesting as it was to observers of a warlike crisis in an unmilitary country.

The self-will in the North showed itself in the newspapers before a company was on its march. For reasons which it would take too long to tell, the power of the newspaper press in America is seized by men who are anything but practical, and who are wanting in the sense and modesty which business habits engender and encourage. The last mail of July has brought us an anecdote which tells the whole case in the briefest way. While almost every newspaper undertook to guide the President, to instruct the Cabinet, and to put the Commander-in-Chief under orders, the New York “Tribune” pushed to the front with its scheme of taking Richmond, and demolishing the rebels at once. In vain the Government held back, and the Commander-in-Chief declared that the means did not exist. The “Tribune” set up the cry “On to Richmond!” and roused the public to insist upon the attempt, by ascribing all delays to faults in the administration. The rulers set up by the people to rule were over-ruled, and the disaster at Bull’s Run is the consequence. After it happened, the Government made a strong appeal to the editor of the “Tribune” to desist from interference with its work and its responsibilities. Such an appeal, backed by the hourly arriving news of the dead and the missing, and the immeasurable disaster of the rout, might overawe any man’s pride, and touch any man’s heart; and we see accordingly a declaration in the “Tribune,” under the editor’s well-known name, that he will never more offer any kind of comment on public affairs during the struggle, but will convey to his readers nothing but news, without criticism, suggestion, or any remark whatever. It would show some sense of the greatness of the occasion if other editors, not better qualified to advise, would offer the same pledge. They, like thousands of their readers, have been mistaking sanguine imaginings, and the social vanity which belongs to self-governing peoples, for patriotic ardour, and have doubted the patriotic ardour of all who were not in as great a hurry as they were. In this connection another incident has occurred, which impressed some persons deeply long before the march to Bull’s Run.

The most experienced and thoughtful of the great Northern merchants have, from the beginning, denounced this kind of patriotic ardour, while themselves so ardent in their patriotism as to pour out their wealth into the lap of the State, and send their sons to the war when too old to go themselves. They have incessantly declared the first requisite to be “a business basis,” in contrast to an emotional one, on which to build plans and action—a policy and its methods; and, when this “business basis” was not to be had, they avowed a hope that the Northern forces would meet with “two or three defeats at the outset.” I understand, on good authority, that now they have got their wish they do not repent it. When the first desperate accounts of the rout at Bull’s Run arrived they pronounced them exaggerated—as they turned out to be; and when the full amount of the disaster became known they admitted that they could not regret it, because the alternative was of something worse. These practical sages have reason for what they feel and say. They see that the self-will which they regard with a truly republican admiration, will be turned full in the right direction,—in the direction of each man’s own duty, instead of that of other people’s. They have a warrant for their hope in their constant experience of their countrymen’s ability to set things to rights, and to learn from events. In civil life, it is remarkable how long an evil may go on unchecked in any American State; because what is everybody’s business is nobody’s business; but when some flagrant instance rouses attention, and the community gives its mind to a remedy, the remedy is the speediest and best conceivable. I remember, as one instance, the grievance of shipwrecks in a bay formed by the shores of two States. The coast of an island there was dangerous; and the pilots of each State were disagreed about their duty, and remiss in it. At last, a crowd of immigrants were drowned in a way which shocked the whole community; and a Bill was brought in and passed which contained a complete remedy in three lines. Such remedial measures in America, our lawyers say, never need recurring to. They require no botching, no supplementing, as our Acts of Parliament too often do. They may be long waited for; but, when obtained, they are found to be exactly what is wanted. Those who best know the Americans now look for a process of the same kind in military affairs first, and afterwards in political. The evil of presumption and ignorant meddling has exhibited itself in a wreck more disastrous than that in which the immigrants perished; and the scorners of discipline have proved more mischievous than pilots at feud; and the consequence already is a strong direction of the general self-will on the enforcement of discipline, and the securing of the proper conditions.

Not the less for this is the North as essentially unmilitary as the South. No degree of excellence in the army hereafter will surprise any sensible observer; but it will be of a different kind from anything that Europe has produced. We say that our soldiers are all volunteers, and we study with interest and admiration the difference between them and the automaton regiments of the Czar, where every man is not so much a machine, as a cut and dried portion of a machine, worth nothing but as it moves in its place. The difference between our troops and those which the Americans aspire to have is almost as great in their eyes as between us and the Russians. Not only is every American citizen-soldier to do his particular part well in his own place, but each is to make war on his own account, for a cause which he thoroughly understands.

So far from this being absurd, it is exactly what is now doing; but the preceding stage,—that of adequate co-operation, in other words, discipline,—is as yet deficient: and it would not have been the thing absent if the military spirit had existed. I know of nothing finer than much of the conduct of the citizen-soldiers, not only in “the uprising” (as it is, and always will be called), but in the whole march, and the battle, and I may add, the rout of Bull’s Run. I need not go back to the incidents of the muster at the President’s call; for nobody living will ever forget it: but I have caught glimpses of some of the men from the plough and the fishing-boat, and the forge and the loom, as they stood in the midst of the hottest fire at the Bull’s Run. There stood and fought two score of volunteers from a village in Massachusetts,—stood and fought for nine hours, in heat and hunger, and amidst the natural terrors of a first battle. They may have been among the unsoldierly fellows who ate up two days’ rations in one, and finished their allowance of water, and had thought proper to run to the streams and drink on the march. They may have been to blame for their hunger and thirst. For aught I know they may have criticised their officers en route, and laid the blame since the defeat where they fancied it ought to rest. But they also fought like men each of whom felt himself a champion of the injured negro race, and a patriot pledged to the recovery of the constitution. One was a stout working man, who had run for hours, at the end of his day’s toil, getting signatures to petitions to the legislature, while it was still time to preclude this war. He will run no more, for he left a leg at the Bull’s Run. Another was a youth of eighteen, whose republican self-will had brought him into the field before he was fit for the fatigue of it. He had been helped when he showed himself immoveable; and the Puritan non-resistant relatives who could not conscientiously give him revolver or rifle, had stocked him with comforts,—with writing materials and canteen “fixings” in the smallest compass and most convenient shape. Here he stayed in the thick of the fight, till his colonel was down, and his captain killed, and the little band he belonged to was ordered to retreat. He could not retreat far, and as he sank he desired his nearest comrade to write to his father, and say that he was unwounded, but unable to go further. He was last seen lying by the wayside, and his name is in the list of the missing. Citizen-soldiers of this character will gain their political objects in their own way, and will make themselves enough of soldiers to take the shortest way. Not the less does it appear that it is not the military spirit that is astir within them, and that their conceptions are essentially political. I think so the more for the very incidents which are told as illustrations of the martial animus. When citizens who have hitherto been backward in action and in speech now propose to kill every white man at the South, in order to settle the two questions at once (of the constitution and of slavery) the notion is essentially unwarlike;—as much so as the officers’ levity of talk about being “whipped,” or the privates’ lounge about the streets of Washington, gossiping about the disgraces of the rout, and criticising the counsel and conduct of their commanders. The whole condition of war is as yet unknown to them; and if they learn it, it will be by express study, with no aid from instinct.

The attitude of the chiefs on either side after the conflict is as strange a spectacle as anything that had gone before. General Beauregard, looking at a newspaper handed to him, and finding in it that he had gained a great victory, of which he had had no suspicion; General Scott in council at Washington, upbraiding himself for giving up his judgment to the dictation of civilians; the Government telegraphing to New York an appeal to a newspaper editor to desist from a particular course of comment; the best citizens declaring themselves glad of a defeat and rout; Confederate soldiers picking off stragglers and sentries, as they would steal a march on wolves; Federal volunteers walking away from their guns, guessing they’ll go home and see how the old woman and the farm get on, and then come back; the whole field of the struggle, and all the details, are so unlike any conception of warfare in Europe as to be worth, as I said at the beginning, a close and patient study.

There is no doubt, I suppose, in anybody’s mind that the Northern men will succeed, in their own way, and after certain delays. All indications point to the humiliation of the Secession faction, if any reliance may be placed on the universal testimony to the poverty of the party, the impressment of a portion of their soldiery, and the discontent of many more; the restless state of the slaves, and the consequent impossibility of recruiting the army; and the increasing manifestation of Unionist opinion in the Slave States.

I anticipate a brave and patient persistence on the part of the Free States, and an ultimate vindication of their republican principles, and emancipation of the negroes. There can now be no stopping short of these two aims. What the form of ultimate settlement will be, and whether the Republic can come out democratic from the ordeal of a civil war, is more than any prudent man will undertake to prophesy.

From the Mountain.