Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/The American generals - Part 1




While fratricidal war is raging across the Atlantic, it may be presumed that reliable information as to the military antecedents of the principal actors—men generally unknown to the English public before, but henceforward destined to be historical personages—will be acceptable to those who are contemplating the lamentable struggle from afar with mournful interest. Long residence in the now distracted Republic, some knowledge of its military history, and personal acquaintance with many of its most eminent soldiers, acquired when formerly fighting under its banners, enable the writer to furnish some information which he conceives may be acceptable; and he purposes stating briefly, dispassionately, and simply, what is known to him of the past services of the military leaders, accompanied by such remarks on their personal appearance and character as the lapse of years permit him to recal to memory.



Jefferson Davis, the Southern President, now about fifty-five years of age, is a native of Kentucky, though by the possession of property and long residence therein more intimately connected with Mississippi. Entering the U.S. Military Academy at Westpoint, N. Y., in 1824, he served in the 1st Infantry and 1st Dragoons successively, and retired to civil life in 1835. At the opening of the Mexican war he was a Representative in Congress; but conceiving that at that crisis he could best serve the state in the field, he accepted the command of a volunteer rifle regiment. In acknowledgment of his distinguished services on the Rio Grande, Congress named him a Brigadier-General, but he declined accepting a title which had ceased to be honourable, because too often bestowed on the unworthy from party considerations. From 1847 to 1851 he sat in Congress as senator from Mississippi, and was remarked for his eloquence and ability in debate. He was Minister of War during General Pierce’s presidency, and in that office displayed great administrative capacity, and by his care for its interests was very popular with the army, to which he was already favourably known as a gallant soldier. He is tall, spare, dark-complexioned as Southerners generally are, with a massive forehead, brilliant and deepset eyes, a pensive and somewhat sad expression, and a perceptible limp arising from a wound received at the battle of Buena Vista, apropos of which an interesting anecdote is current. When young he fell in love and eloped with a wealthy heiress, the only daughter of General Zachary Taylor. The old gentleman was yet unreconciled to him when the current of events brought Davis, as Colonel of the 1st Mississippi Rifles, under his immediate command in Northern Mexico; but discernment of his son-in-law’s military merits gradually soothed his anger; and when the brilliant charge of the Mississippi Rifles under the leadership of Davis retrieved the almost desperate fortunes of the bloody day of Buena Vista, unable to repress his admiration any longer, the stout old General hastened to the front where Davis was lying desperately wounded, and seizing his hand, exclaimed: “I forgive the hasty marriage, my dear lad; any father might be proud of such a son!” Jefferson Davis is alike wary in council and fiery in the field; but his swift audacity is guided by a cool and powerful intellect, and is the servant not the master of a resolute will.

Robert Edmund Lee, of one of the most distinguished Virginian families, entered the Military Academy a year later than the President, and passing into the Engineers, served under Scott in Mexico; he was present in all the battles on that line; was severely wounded at the storming of Chapultepec near the capital, and was twice brevetted for distinguished gallantry. In 1852 he was appointed Superintendent of the Military Academy, and in 1855 was promoted to the lieutenant-colonelcy of the newly-raised 2nd Cavalry, which he held at the commencement of the present troubles, when he commanded at San Antonio, Texas. His late career has only confirmed the reputation for eminent ability he has always enjoyed in the army. My reminiscences of his personal appearance are vague and dim.

Albert Sydney Johnston, of Kentucky, entered the Military Academy in 1822, and after serving in the 2nd and 6th Infantry, and acting as adjutant-general of the volunteers in the field during the war with the Sacs and Foxes, headed by the renowned warrior, Black Hawk, he in 1834 resigned the U. S. service, emigrated to Texas, and took an active part in severing that State from the Mexican Republic; having been adjutant-general to its army in 1836, and Secretary of War from 1838 to 1840, while it was struggling for independence. When the annexation of Texas to the Union issued in the Mexican war, he commanded a regiment of volunteers, the 1st Texan Rifles; was some time Inspector-General of one of the divisions of the army on the Rio Grande; and specially distinguished himself at the battle of Monterey. He was one of the paymasters of the army from 1849 to 1855, when he received the colonelcy of the 2nd Cavalry. He became a brigadier-general in 1857. He was of noble and commanding presence; courteous and affable in his address; of very generous and kindly disposition, and was universally esteemed and beloved. His death was a great misfortune for the South.

Joseph Eccleston Johnston, of Virginia, entered the Military Academy in 1825, passed thence to the 4th Artillery; and retired in 1837; but, on the Florida war’s breaking out shortly afterwards, entered the Topographical Engineers and served during the war. In 1846, as lieutenant-colonel of the Voltigeurs, he served during the Mexican war—being present at all the engagements between Vera Cruz and the capital,—was twice wounded and twice brevetted. In 1860 he left the line and became quartermaster-general to the U. S. army, with the rank of brigadier-general. He is very simple and unassuming in his bearing, but his countenance is expressive of great resolution and capacity, as far as I can remember.

Thomas J. Jackson, of Virginia, entered the Military Academy in 1842, as a lieutenant in the 1st Artillery was attached to Magruder’s battery during the Mexican war, and was twice brevetted for gallantry therein. He retired from the army in 1852. I do not recollect ever having met him, and certainly his military genius had not been discerned by his quondam associates.

Peter Gustave Toutant Beauregard, of Louisiana, entered the Military Academy in 1834; was attached successively to the 1st Artillery and Engineers; was in all the battles in the Valley of Mexico; and was twice wounded and twice brevetted. He was only a captain of Engineers in 1861.

Edmund Kirby Smith, of Florida, a cadet of 1841, served through the Mexican war, at first as a lieutenant of the 5th Infantry—wherein were two other officers of the same name, both of distinguished bravery, and both slain in action—and afterwards in the 7th Infantry, and was twice brevetted for gallantry. He was for a time mathematical professor of the Military Academy; and in 1861 was a captain in the 2nd Cavalry.

Braxton Bragg, of North Carolina, a cadet of the Military Academy in 1833, was known by name at least throughout the Republic for his heroic defence, when a lieutenant of the 3rd Artillery, of Fort Brown—the little earthwork hastily thrown up by General Taylor on the bank of the Rio Grande, opposite the city of Matamoras—and by his subsequent conduct at Buena Vista, when his battery, supported only by the 1st Mississippi Rifles, charged and routed the Mexican army, after the volunteer infantry had fled en masse. He received four brevets during that war, and was considered by the soldiery the preux chevalier of the army. In 1854 he was only a captain, and retired from the service some years since.

James Longstreet, of South Carolina, a cadet of 1838, attached successively to the 4th and 8th Infantry, was present at Monterey, and all the battles in the Valley of Mexico; was wounded at Chapultepec, and twice brevetted. In 1858 he passed from the line into the paymaster’s department, and belonged to it at the commencement of the present struggle in 1861.

Richard S. Ewell, of Virginia, a cadet of 1838, served through the Mexican war as a lieutenant in the 1st Dragoons, and was only a captain in that corps in 1861.

William F. Hardee, of Georgia, a cadet of 1834, a captain in the 2nd Dragoons during the Mexican war, was twice brevetted for his services therein, and in 1860 became lieutenant-colonel of the 1st Cavalry.

Earl Van Dorn, of Mississippi, a cadet of 1838, in the 7th Infantry and 1st Dragoons successively, was on General P. F. Smith’s staff during the Mexican war; was present and highly distinguished in all the battles in the Valley of Mexico, was wounded in the capture of the capital, and twice brevetted. In 1860 he was appointed major of the 2nd Cavalry, the corps which has given so many able officers to the Confederacy.

Daniel Ruggles, of Massachusetts, a cadet of 1829, served in, and though only a junior captain for some time commanded, the 5th Infantry during the Mexican war, and was twice brevetted. In 1861 he was yet a captain and brevet-lieutenant colonel in that regiment. His having espoused the Southern cause may be accounted for by the fact of his having married a Southern lady, and being a slave proprietor. He is a man of fine personal appearance, of good ability, a scholar, and a polished gentleman, but perhaps too much of a martinet to become a distinguished general.

Samuel Cooper, of New York, a cadet of 1813, and consequently an old man, had for many years previous to the Secession been Adjutant-General of the U. S. Army. He has no military repute.

John C. Breckenbridge, of Kentucky, was for a few months a major of volunteers during the Mexican war, but has hitherto been known only as a hot political partisan.

Gideon Pillow, of Tennessee, acquired unenviable notoriety during the Mexican war, in which he served as major-general of volunteers, by the arrogance and tyranny of his conduct to those unluckily subjected to his command, and by his captiousness and insubordination towards his superiors. He was tried for appropriating to himself certain captured property, and was forced to disgorge his plunder; a grievance which he resented by preferring vexatious charges against General Scott, which caused that gallant old officer’s temporary removal from command. General Pillow subsequently made political capital out of his alleged services and trifling wounds, vigorously blowing his own trumpet everywhere and at all seasons with the unblushing impudence and inveracity characteristic of his legal profession. As it was notorious that when commanding at Vera Cruz he was so frequently shot at from the thickets by the volunteers of his command, that he was forced to forego his cool evening rides on the beach, his wounds were attributed by the army generally to his own men. Such being his antecedents, the fall of Fort Donelson, whereat he commanded, becomes intelligible enough, and it is a mystery how it came to be entrusted to him.

I am uncertain whether James B. Stuart, a cadet of 1834, and in 1861 a lieutenant in the 1st Cavalry; and John Bankhead Magruder, a cadet of 1826, greatly distinguished in the Mexican war, and in 1861 brevet-lieutenant-colonel and captain in the 1st Artillery—both of Virginia—are identical with the generals of the same names, but I presume so. In addition to these, and previously unknown to fame, may be mentioned:—Isaac Trimble, of Virginia, a cadet of 1818, who retired from the 3rd Artillery just thirty years ago, and has in the interim been the chief-engineer of various railways; Ambrose Pervell Hill, of Virginia, in 1861 a lieutenant in the 1st Artillery; and John H. Forney, of North Carolina, in 1861 a lieutenant in the 10th Infantry.

It would be inexcusable in this enumeration of Southern officers to omit the name of Raphael Semmes, formerly lieutenant in the Federal navy, who, as the commander of the ubiquitous Sumpter, has won renown, and inflicted losses on the enemy, quite incommensurate with the scanty means at his disposal. This gallant officer volunteered from the U. S. squadron, which had assisted in the capture of Vera Cruz in 1847, as aide to General Worth—the brilliant commander of what was known as the “fighting division” of Scott’s army—and was present at all the subsequent engagements on that line. I have a vivid remembrance of his tall lithe figure, fair, pleasant face, and the long curls of which he was as vain as a woman. He afterwards wrote a narrative of his campaign, which, as a literary composition, was not worse than might be expected from a young sailor more familiar with the cutlass or the marlinspike than with the pen.

We purpose continuing the subject with sketches of the Federal leaders, in an early number.