Negro and the Nation - G. S. Merriam

The Civil War

At the outbreak of war, what the Northerner saw confronting him was an organized attempt to overthrow the government and break up the nation in the interest of slavery. This as the essential fact took form in the circle of fire let loose on a beleaguered fort, and the Stars and Stripes lowered before an overwhelming force. Close following came the menace against the national capital, for Washington was believed to be in imminent peril. A Massachusetts regiment marching to its relief was assailed by the populace of Baltimore; communication was cut; and the city which was the centre and symbol of the national life seemed stretching her hands in appeal to the country's faithful sons. To the conscience, the heart, the imagination of the North, it was a war of national self-defense,—a holy war.

What the Southerner saw was an attempt to crush by force a legitimate exercise of the right of sovereign States to an independent existence. The typical Southerner, whether he had thought Secession expedient or not, believed that each State was the rightful judge of its own course, that the citizen's first allegiance was due to his State; and that the attempt at coercion was as tyrannical as the refusal by Great Britain of independence to the American colonies. And, apart from all political theories, there instantly loomed on the horizon the armies of the North, bearing down with fire and sword on the people of the Southern States. The instinct of self-defense, and the irresistible sympathy of neighborhood and community, prompted to resistance. Beyond doubt, the typical Southern volunteer could say in all sincerity, as one of them has expressed it: "With me is right, before me is duty, behind me is home."

So natural and profound was the motive on each side, when the war began. Wholly different from the moral responsibility of those who initiated Secession, is the case of those who afterward fought for what to each side was the cause of home and country. But, driven though both parties felt themselves to war, none the less terrible was the war in itself. There are difficulties from which the only escape is through disaster. John Morley writes: "It is one of the commonest of all cheap misjudgments in human affairs, to start by assuming that there is always some good way out of a bad case. Alas for us all, this is not so. Situations arise, alike for individuals, for parties, and for States, from which no good way out exists, but only choice between bad way out and worse." For the American people, in the situation into which by sins of commission and omission they had been brought, the only way out was one of the worst ways that human feet can travel.

It does not belong to this work to give a history of the Civil War. But a truthful history might be written in a very different vein from the accepted and popular narratives. These for the most part describe the conflict in terms resembling partly a game of chess and partly a football match. We read of grand strategic combinations, of masterly plans of attack and admirable counter-strokes of defense. On the battlefield we hear of gallant charges, superb rushes of cavalry, indomitable resistance. Our military historians largely give us the impression of man in battle as in the exercise of his highest powers, and war as something glorious in the experience and heart-thrilling in the contemplation.

But a succinct account of the whole business would be to say that for four years the flower of the country's population were engaged in killing each other. All other industries were overshadowed by the occupation of human slaughter. Shop and farm, church and college, school and home, all were subsidiary to the battlefield.

The battlefield itself is not easily conceived by the civilian, even with the aid of poets and story-tellers from Homer to Kipling. The reader, who has perhaps never seen a shot fired in anger, may have chanced to witness a man struck down in the street by a falling beam or trampled by a runaway horse. Or, as a better illustration, he may remember in his own case some hour of sudden and extreme suffering,—a hand caught by a falling window, a foot drenched by scalding water. Intensify that experience, extend it through days, for the home couch and the nursing of mother or wife put the bare ground and the onrush of hostile men,—and you have the nucleus, the constituent atom, of a battle. Multiply it by hundreds or thousands; give to each sufferer the background of waiting parents, wife, children, at home; give to a part death, swift or agonizing; to another part lifelong infirmity or irritation,—and you begin to get the reality of war.

It was Wellington who said that the worst sight on earth, next to the field of defeat, was the field of victory. It was Lee who wrote from Mexico to his son: "You have no idea what a horrible sight a battle-field is." And he said that the strongest memory left from his first battle was the plaintive tone of a little Mexican girl whom he found leaning over a wounded drummer-boy.

Men not only witness such carnage but inflict it, in the excitement of battle, because animated by feelings of which only a part can rightly be called heroic. Honor indeed is due to the subordination of personal fear to the sense of duty and comradeship,—yes, high honor; and the appeal of the soldier to the imagination, as a type of self-sacrifice and nobility, has its element of truth. But the ordinary courage of the battle-field is largely an excitement half-animal, half-contagious, running often into savagery and insensate fury. In that situation the highest and lowest elements in man come into play. For the most part only the highest is portrayed for us by the historians and romancers,—they keep the wild beast and the devil out of sight. Only in these later days, when mankind begins to scrutinize its boasted glories more closely, do Tolstoi in literature and Verestchagin in art give us glimpses of the grim reality.

An industry which has murder for its main output will have some by-products to match. In the armies of both sides the human stuff was of mixed character and motive. Some enlisted from pure patriotism,—for Union, State, or Confederacy; some from thirst of adventure; others for ambition; others for the bounty or under compulsion of the conscription officer; many from the mere contagious excitement. Army life always brings to many of its participants a great demoralization. Take away the restriction of public opinion in a well-ordered community, take from men the society of good women, and there will be a tendency to barbarism. A civilized army has indeed a code and public opinion of its own, which counts for some sterling qualities, but it is lax and ineffective for much that goes to complete manhood. Just as the war left a host of maimed and crippled, so it left a multitude of moral cripples. At the reunion, around the "camp fire," with the reminiscences of stirring times and the renewal of good comradeship runs a vein of comment which the newspapers do not relate. "What's become of A.?" "Drank himself to death." "And where is X.?" "Never got back the character he lost in New Orleans,—went to the dogs." It is a chronicle not recorded on the monuments, but remembered in many a blighted household. The financial debt the war left behind it was not the heaviest part of the after-cost.

Nor must there be forgotten the temper which war begets, of mutual hate between whole peoples. Forty years later we bring ourselves,—some of us, and in a measure,—to see that our opponents of either side had some justification or some excuse; that they perhaps were honest as we. But little room was there for such mutual forbearance of judgment while the fight was on. For the average man, for most men, to fight means also to hate. While the contest lasted, Northerners habitually spoke of their foes as "the rebels,"—not in contumely, but as matter-of-fact description. They were "rebels" in common speech, and when one warmed a little they were "traitors." Good men said that now for the first time they saw why the imprecatory Psalms were written,—theirs was the only cursing strong enough for the country's enemies. Quite as hearty was the South's detestation of the Yankee invaders and despots,—the fanatics and their hired minions. The Southern feeling took the keener edge, because sharpened by the bitter fact of invasion and the hardships it brought. With them the home suffered, not only as at the North, by the departure of father or son to danger or death; the Southern homes often saw the foes in their midst, and sometimes suffered ravage and spoil. "How can you expect me to be well reconstructed," asked a Virginian after the war, "When I remember the family vaults in which the silver plates were wrenched from the coffins by your soldiers?" When the fighting was over, the life of the reunited nation had to work its way for a generation,—and the end is not yet,—against the hostilities, the rancors, the misunderstandings, generated in those four years of strife.

The reality of war where it fell heaviest,—in the border States, where neighborhoods and families were divided, and both armies marched and fought,—is touched by the graphic pen of a woman, Mrs. Rebecca Harding Davis, who saw and felt a part of it: "The histories which we have of the great tragedy give no idea of the general wretchedness, the squalid misery, which entered into every individual life in the region given up to the war. Where the armies camped the destruction was absolute. Even on the border, your farm was a waste, all your horses or cows were seized by one army or the other, or your shop or manufactory was closed, your trade ruined. You had no money; you drank coffee made of roasted parsnips for breakfast, and ate only potatoes for dinner. Your nearest kinsfolk and friends passed you on the street silent and scowling; if you said what you thought you were liable to be dragged to the county jail and left there for months. The subject of the war was never broached in your home where opinions differed; but one morning the boys were missing. No one said a word, but one gray head was bent, and the happy light died out of the old eyes and never came to them again. Below all the squalor and discomfort was the agony of suspense or the certainty of death. But the parsnip coffee and the empty purse certainly did give a sting to the great overwhelming misery, like gnats tormenting a wounded man."

Visiting in war-time the sages of Concord, she saw the difference between war as viewed by visionaries at a distance and the reality: "I remember listening during one long summer morning to Louisa Alcott's father as he chanted p?ans to the war, the 'armed angel which was wakening the nation to a lofty life unknown before.' We were in the little parlor of the Wayside, Mr. Hawthorne's house in Concord. Mr. Alcott stood in front of the fire-place, his long gray hair streaming over his collar, his pale eyes turning quickly from one listener to another to hold them quiet, his hands waving to keep time with the orotund sentences which had a stale, familiar ring as if often repeated before. Mr. Emerson stood listening, his head sunk on his breast, with profound submissive attention, but Hawthorne sat astride of a chair, his arms folded on the back, his chin dropped on them, and his laughing, sagacious eyes watching us, full of mockery.

"I had come up from the border where I had seen the actual war; the filthy spewings of it; the political jobbery in Union and Confederate camps; the malignant personal hatreds wearing patriotic masks, and glutted by burning homes and outraged women; the chances in it, well improved on both sides, for brutish men to grow more brutish, and for honorable gentlemen to degenerate into thieves and sots. War may be an armed angel with a mission, but she has the personal habits of the slums. This would-be seer who was talking of it, and the real seer who listened, knew no more of war as it was, than I had done in my cherry-tree time, when I dreamed of bannered legions of crusaders debouching in the misty fields."

The youth who reads may ask in wonder, "And was then the war to which we have been used to look back with exultation and pride,—was it but a horror and a crime?" No; it was something other and more than that; it had its aspects of moral grandeur and of gain for humanity; it was a field for noble self-sacrifice, for utmost striving of men and deepest tenderness of women, it had its heroes and martyrs and saints; it was in the large view the tremendous price of national unity and universal freedom. But in the exaltation of these better aspects, we have as a people too much forgotten the other and awful side. That is what we need now to be reminded of. For among our present dangers none is greater than the false glorification of war. Against such glorifications stands Sherman's word, "War is hell." And on that grand tomb with which our greatest city crowns its proudest height is inscribed, as the one word by which Grant forever speaks to his countrymen, "Let us have peace."

The nobler side of the war is told and will be told in many a history and biography, romance and poem. In the broad view, the grandest fact was that a multitude of men and women felt and acted as never before for a cause greater than any personal gain. Under the discipline of sacrifice and suffering, and with the personal horizon widened to take in nations and races, a multitude on the field and at home grew to loftier stature. The hardships and perils which wrecked some strengthened others. The development of energy and resource was beyond measure. The North created armies and navies; it organized a new system of finance; it transformed a peaceful industrial community into an irresistible military force; and all the while it carried on its productive industries with scarcely visible shrinkage; farm and mill, school and college, kept on with their work. The South made itself into a solid army of resistance; cut off from its accustomed sources of supply, it developed for itself all the essentials of material life; it showed an ingenuity and resourcefulness beyond all expectation; and the fidelity of its slaves supplied its armies with food while keeping its homes secure. In peace haunted always by latent dread of insurrection, in war the South found its servants its best friends. So, in both sections, wonders were wrought and deeds never dreamed of were achieved.

In justly viewing the evil and the good of war, we must compare it with other disturbances and catastrophes. The finest traits and highest efficiency of men come out under disasters which yet it must be our habitual effort to avert. It is the ship on the rocks, the theater on fire, that shows the hero. But what should we think of one who ran a ship on shore, or set fire to a theater, in order to call out heroism? Exactly so are we to regard those who glorify war as in itself a fine and admirable thing, a proper school and arena of manhood. The refutation of such talk comes not so well from men of the church or closet as from those who have drunk deepest of war's reality. A man of exuberant vitality, whose personal delight in physical strife colors his statesmanship, and who is exhilarated by the memory of a skirmish or two in Cuba, may talk exultantly of "glory enough to go round," and preach soldiering as a splendid manifestation of the strenuous life. But the grim old warrior whose genius and resolution split the Confederacy like a wedge, General Sherman, in the very midst of his task wrote to a friend: "I confess without shame that I am sick and tired of the war. Its glory is all moonshine. Even success, the most brilliant, is over dead and mangled bodies, the anguish and lamentation of distant families appealing to me for missing sons, husbands, and fathers. It is only those who have not heard a shot, nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded and lacerated (friend or foe), that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation."

One glance we here may give at the traits which against this dark background shone with the light which redeems humanity. The worst scenes of all were not on the battlefield but in the military prisons. At Andersonville, and other points, thousands of Northern prisoners were crowded together, with insufficient supply of unnutritious food, with scanty and foul water; surrounded by harsh guards, quick to shoot if the "dead line" was crossed by a foot; harassed by petty tyranny; starved, homesick, diseased, dying like infected sheep. It is a black, black page,—but let its blackness be mainly charged to war itself, and what war always breeds. In Northern prisons, the rate of mortality was nearly as high as in Southern; the work of hunger in the one was matched by cold in the other. "All things considered," says J. F. Rhodes in his impartial History of the United States, "the statistics show no reason why the North should reproach the South. If we add to one side of the account the refusal to exchange the prisoners"—a refusal based by Grant at one time on the military disadvantage of restoring the Southern prisoners to active service—"and the greater resources, and to the other the distress of the Confederacy; the balance struck will not be far from even." Enough for our present purpose that the Andersonville prison-pen was a hell. Well, after a time the Union armies were recruited by negroes, and the Confederates in resentment refused to consider these when captured as prisoners of war, and would not include them in the exchanges. Thereupon the Federal Government declared that its negro soldiers must receive equal rights with the whites, and until this was conceded there should be no exchange at all. Then some of the Andersonville prisoners drew up a petition, and signed and sent it to Washington, praying the government to hasten their release, and if necessary to hold the question of negro prisoners for negotiation, while pressing forward the liberation of its faithful and suffering white soldiers. But promptly by others in the prison-pen a counter petition was started, signed, and sent on. It ran in substance thus: "We are in evil case, and we earnestly desire that you hasten our deliverance by every means consistent with right and honor. But—honor first! Let the nation's plighted faith to its black soldiers be kept, at whatever cost to us. We ask you to still refuse all exchange of prisoners, until the ?same treatment can be secured for black and white." Was ever a braver deed than that?

One picture more. In a military hospital at Washington, Walt Whitman was engaged as a volunteer nurse. In a letter to a friend, he depicted in a few sentences the tragedy of it all, and yet the triumph of the spirit over the body and over death itself. He wrote of a Northern hospital, but the like might be seen on Southern soil, as to-day among Russians or Japanese,—it is the tragedy and triumph of humanity. "These thousands, and tens and twenties of thousands, of American young men, badly wounded . . . operated on, pallid with diarrhoea, languishing, dying with fever, pneumonia, etc., open a new world somehow to me, giving closer insights, . . . showing our humanity . . . tried by terrible, fearful tests, probed deepest, the living souls, the body's tragedies, bursting the petty bonds of art. To these, what are your dreams and poems, even the oldest and the tearfulest?. . . For here I see, not at intervals, but quite always, how certain man, our American man,—how he holds himself cool and unquestioned master above all pains and bloody mutilation. . . . This, then, what frightened us all so long! Why, it is put to flight with ignominy—a mere stuffed scarecrow of the fields. Oh, death, where is thy sting? Oh, grave, where is thy victory?"