The Civil War is the gift that keeps on giving to history buffs. One of the delights of my impending second half century commencing next month will be to continue to read accounts of the memoirists who came out of it. In my opinion, and I'm not alone, this post concerns what I think is the best of them, by far, even if most people never heard of him. So, no, it's not General Grant's.
General Grant's Personal Memoirs is often considered the cream of the group, as well as a literary masterpiece. I can't agree. Surely the story of how he wrote it while dying of cancer in order to provide for his family and (I suppose, less nobly, it helped secure his place in history), and Mark Twain's help in publishing it, is an enticing story. But, like many memoirs, I sometimes had trouble slogging through it, and, here I admit heresy – although I liked it, in general, I skimmed parts of it. Yes, you can jump all over me and say, well, how can you know? I read enough and I'm pretty sure I didn't miss anything important either. I can't recall learning anything I didn't already know, nor having read any part of it that just made me sit up and say, wow. He won the war. Isn't that enough?
This isn't like one of my Jefferson posts. I liked the Personal Memoirs well enough. It is well written and Grant is about as important figure as we have from that time. And, I like Grant and am willing to agree with most superlatives about him. He was a great general well suited to his enormous task, one of the best presidents (in my top ten), occasionally very witty (although not in the book) and a good person too, if occasionally not the best judge of character. It’s just that I believe that the memoir’s highest accolades may be to some degree made out of respect for him and the conditions under which it was written, rather than for the book itself. Still, if you are insistent that it is a classic, and wonderfully written, would you point me to where?
I stand with those few (at least) who think Edward Porter Alexander’s memoirs the better of the two, and perhaps best of all. Porter was a reasonably big player in the war – he fought from Bull Run to Appomattox and even out West in between, but he certainly was not a major player in the Lee, Jackson, Longstreet, Grant, Meade, McClellan, etc. mode. Yet, entering the war at age 25, he rocketed up the ranks to brigadier general at age 28 through talent and energy. He was wonderfully respected by his superiors, including by the gold stamp, General Lee.
A graduate of
Like everyone in the Confederate armies (and like in our revolution, there were really two separate armies - the professional and the militias) he suffered privation, and was constantly threatened with loss of life, severe injury and the pleasure of watching his countrymen chopped to bits on a regular basis. But, if his rememberances are not delusions, he had a pretty good time of it, loving the science of artillery, the new and precise technologies, military strategy, well executed battle plans and, perhaps most of all, the camaraderie that comes with war. He was no doubt an unrepentant Confederate, believed deeply to his dying day that they were fighting for recognized rights (no screeds against slavery, unfortunately) and even when he was a successful man in his later years writing for his family, he seemed perfectly comfortable talking about the affection his “darkies” had for him. He was a man of his time.
Despite the sleepless nights or in the rain, the lack of food and other agonies, he never wavered, at least as he recalls many decades later. However, he wasn’t a fanatic. He delighted in his few opportunities for a good sleep, a great meal or spending time with people of whom he was fond. And, when he was shot or was thrown off his horse and got a furlough, no one could have been happier. There was no false guilt from being away from his post when the South needed him. He missed his wife and little children too much for that.
There are actually two memoirs, the later written but earlier published one stemming from the earlier written but later published one. EPA started the larger project for his family and completed all but adding the figures he spoke (number of troops, deaths, things like that), but, then a few years later turned it into the critically acclaimed Military Memoirs (1907), well known for its analytical point of view. When it came out, The New York Times review said – “This latest “Confederate memoir” is a clear-cut, non-partisan and fearless piece of military criticism.” That’s an accurate picture. MM’s well received analysis have now long been part of military discussion.
Much later in this past century, and of course way after his and his children's deaths, it became clear from EPA's records that there was an earlier and slightly incomplete book, which, thanks to great scholarship has been painstakingly put together from packets of papers, after they succeeded in put it in order. It was published only in 1989.
This is the book now known as Fighting for the Confederacy, written in the late 1800s at EPA's daughter’s urging for family purposes only when he was working down in Nicaragua at the request of President Grover Cleveland Alexander (not a relative, but a friend) in an arbitration effort. Most of FFTC is taken from his own memories, and some from a diary he kept. He does not stop at personal observation and like all writers of a sweeping history, he often relied on the recollections and records of other combatants and authors for matters of which he was not present. There are still many blanks in the book for details never completed by EPA and that may seem odd at first. Although the lack of facts and figures at his fingertips bothered him when writing (he frequently repeats that he was writing far from his books and records) its really the kind of information that professionals might want and 99.9 % of readers have no need of and would have no recollection of a few seconds later. Besides, if you really care, you only need look in the notes where the editors have supplied the missing information.
Or, you could read MM, which was written for publication and professionally done. In it, he determined to publish his view of the war as one would a chess match, determining, for better or worse, the accomplishments and mistakes of both sides.
EPA had already contributed in magazines about the war and was an accomplished writer, although he did not make a living at it (he was quite financially successful in life, and had several hats, including planter). FFTC is the better of the two books, despite that it was written for his family and never intended to be professionally published. It contains the same analysis as MM, but also adds much color, starting from the beginning of his life through the end of the war, when, returning home after a long detour through the North where he foolishly first attempted to find his way to Brazil in order to fight there, and is greeted by his beloved wife, who he affectionately dubs “Miss Teen” throughout. His stories about his personal experiences, the colorful characters, his retelling of well known (at that time) anecdotes and the military analysis and battle details, all mixed together, makes it the great read it is. It’s never boring, something I don't think I can say of any Civil War memoir I've ever read, and you learn something with every turned page.
Through EPA we see the greats of the Confederacy, and sometimes also Northern generals, but as he and the men saw them, not the mythology. Indeed, much of the Confederate soldier worship of Lee and Jackson is found here, but so are criticisms of them, something missing in the work of many other former confederates (although the first edition of General James Longstreet’s memoirs had come out roughly ten years earlier and were necessarily a defense of his own conduct which required criticism of some others, particularly General Lee; but, admittedly, he had a greater bias).
Before giving you a taste of EPA himself, there are a few special criticisms he makes that has drawn attention. Probably most audacious is his treatment of Stonewall Jackson, a warrior par excellence that men like me grow up worshipping for some good reasons (I leave aside as usual the schizophrenia required that allows us to be so enamored of those who supported slavery). And, EPA is clearly a
The first of these occurred during the week long battle known as the Seven Days in 1862, by far the longest battle of the war until 1864, when Grant came East and began the non-stop part of the war. That EPA felt strongly about his opinion on this point is obvious from his repetition of it. I lost count of the times he mentioned it.
Actually, I believe EPA is not only mostly wrong in this, but that is evident from his own work. The sabbath stop took place days earlier than Jackson's failure to show. EPA himself reports a scene of a subordinate trying to urge
You do not need to rely on my appreciation of the facts to agree. Two renowned Civil War scholars, Gary W. Gallagher, in his The Richmond Campaign of 1862 and Douglas Southall Freeman, in his R.E. Lee, detail Jackson’s overwhelming exhaustion at that time (while still performing magnificently overall) beyond any reasonable argument, and link it to his one failure in the Seven Days. No doubt, taking off Sunday to go to church was not a good idea. However, the following week was so filled with required wakefulness, including two sleepless nights Jackson rode back and forth to conference with Lee, that when he was finally forced to sleep through a battle, his previous break almost certainly made no difference at all.
Of course, if one of Jackson’s generals or men had done the same thing – slept when they should have been fighting or even marching, he would have arrested and charged them. Which brings us to EPA’s second and fairer criticism. Jackson pushed his men as hard as he pushed himself (their exhaustion was as bad or worse as his), and, for Jackson, even something like a cold hungry soldier leaving the lines of a march to get a coat from a fallen Yankee or something to eat, was a crime worthy of court martial. In one episode,
EPA does not treat Lee as a porcelain doll either, although he is as profuse in his praise as he was for anyone. At one point he comments that some people think being too critical of Lee only means not saying that everything he did was perfect. He attributes a few mistakes to Lee,
most at Gettysburg (in allowing J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry to wander on a mission for a while; in allowing Pickett’s charge to happen without proper information, and in not trying to get Meade to attack him instead of visa versa), but even worse later on in allowing Grant to escape after his punishing loss at Cold Harbor and to cross the James and set up in front of Petersburg, without quickly moving against him. Given the way the war was going at that point in 1864, and the possibility of a
EPA was also quick to praise Grant, clearly seeing him as the only Northern general with the vision and understanding to win the war for them, but also criticized him for several times splitting his forces, when a tremendous blow by concentrated troops at one end of a battlefield would have ended the war on more than a few occasions.
For the most part, EPA is not out just to criticize, but is plentiful with praise, particularly for his Southern compatriots whom he knew well. However, he didn’t seem to spare anyone when he thought they made a mistake. One of the actors he seems to praise the most, and whose wisdom he clearly respected, was James Longstreet, Lee’s “Warhorse,” aka Old Pete. Though EPA had several bosses, he several times noted where he thought that Longstreet had the better of the argument – at
EPA mostly defends Longstreet from his critics, without trying to offend them himself (many old Confederates had it in for Longstreet, who picked up his friendship with Grant and worked for the Union after the war), and details how right to the end Longstreet stuck by Lee and would have fought to the very last man, even after he had had been shot through the neck and lost the use of one arm for the rest of his life. I can think of few instances EPA found fault with Longstreet, although he points out how he completely misconceived his orders at Seven Pines and thereby probably lost the victory for them (it was pretty much a draw). However, he also weakly excuses Longstreet for a terrific mistake out West, because he believes, without any real evidence that I can see, that the plan was forced upon him. My personal read is that Longstreet was among the South’s best men (Lee seemed to prize him only after
Now that I have already committed heresy in the Civil War world (at least as far as the North is concerned) by not calling Grant's memoirs great writing, I have to say that I would not call EPA a great writer either, just a very good one; there are too many clichés and more than a few overwritten sentences (although, again, I have to remind myself that it was all a first draft not to be published). Yet, with that caveat, I can't think of a memoir I've enoyed more or one from which I learned more about military tactics and strategy, small pieces of period knowledge, the personalities of the generals, the day to day lives of the men, and so on.
I think I can put my finger on the difference between EPA's and Grant's memoirs. Grant wrote as a hoary old soldier and former president in a matter of fact style (I counted six paragraphs of the first fifteen in the book starting with the word "my"). He was conscious of his place in history and had a tremendous sense of dignity. He had undergone horrifying pressure, and borne it all. It was a hard job with terrific consequences and he wanted to reflect that appropriately. But, it had been a job, however necessary. In Chapter II of his memoirs he wrote - " A military life had no charms for me, and I had not the faintest idea of staying in the army even if I should be graduated, which I did not expect." In the conclusion he stated - "But this war was a fearful lesson, and should teach us the necessity of avoiding wars in the future." That type of general profound statement is not what makes a book great.
To the contrary, EPA, even as an older man, was remembering the best days of his life. He was still a very young man during the war, even though people grew up faster then, and although his own responsibilities were at times immense, the fate of the Confederacy, much less most battles, did not rely on him alone. Through all the death and destruction, he remained a happy warrior and the memories exhilarated throughout his life. And, it's infectious, which is why his book is so moving in spirit and action. Besides, who would you expect another soldier to pal around with, be themselves, and give great material to for a future book -- fun loving young Alexander or placid and ponderous old Grant?
The difference between the two memoirs can be readily seen as to their estimates of commanders. Grant's comments are made in short paragraghs one after another near the end of the book, seemingly as filler, and you learn nothing you could not have picked up in many places. There is some analysis of a few generals, but they are wooden and without examples. In EPA, the estimates of the leaders is frequent, interspersed and virtually always illustrated with personal example. It makes a big difference.
Time to let EPA speak for himself. I chose personal anecdotes as opposed to his detailed and exciting battlefield reports as these are most unique to him. First, a story from when he was just a young teenage boy from which we can see how much life has changed for the young, at least for the advantaged.
My feelings were so much enlisted [about an election] that I got into a quarrel with two of the ‘town’ boys, Jim Hester & Ben Kappell, which came very near ruining my life.
I was told that these two had armed themselves with pistols & intended to whip me. I borrowed an old ‘pepper-box’ revolver from our ‘overseer,’ John Eidson, loaded it heavily, I got 6 special ‘Walker’s Anticorosive Caps’ for the nipples, instead of the common ‘G. D.’s’
It would be too long to detail the quarrel, but, indignant at being bullied by two older & larger boys, I at last came into collision with Jim Hester. He struck me over the head with a light ‘skinny-stick,’ breaking it. I drew my revolver &, aiming at his breast, pulled the trigger. It snapped, failing to explode the cap. Hester drew a single barrel pistol, while I tried another barrel, which also snapped. . . . (don’t worry, they both live and become good friends).
This one is from out West before the war:
I had a glorious chase after my first buffalo. Our first sight of them was some 50 miles west of
This odd occurrence was also from before the war, but is somewhat typical of the eclectic anecdotes he shares throughout:
But the excitement of the winter was caused by the going crazy of my intimate associate John Ector, who lived with the Ragans in the cottage adjoining us on the right. . . . Some time early in February 1861 his conduct began to be a little peculiar at times. He got excited upon religious subjects & began to be a little peculiar at times. He began to show that exaggerated self appreciation which is so often a sign of incipient insanity. At last it became necessary to have him watched constantly, & one night they sent for me about 4 A.M/ to come over, for he had a violent fit & had driven two soldiers who were nursing him & Maj. Ragan out of the house with a poker, breaking bones of one man’s hand. I went over, hurriedly, in dressing gown & slippers, & got him in his room & disarmed him, but had to stay with him till breakfast time, at 8:30 A.M. , when he insisted on going over to my house, to get my guns & pistol, to kill all the people on the post whom he thought were plotting against him.
I know the following beliefs aren't the general philosophy now, but before, during and even after the war for quite a while, it was still a strongly held belief and not just in the South:
I think it is even now admitted by all candid & unprejudiced Northern writers that when the states formed the
We had the right therefore to secede whenever we saw fit, & it was truly for our liberty that we fought. Slavery brought up the discussion of the right in Congress & in the press, but the South would never have united as it did in secession & in war had it not been generally denied at the North & particularly in the Republican party.
His view on the start of the war:
The first hostile act upon either side was the act of Maj. Robert Anderson who, without orders or authority, & for actual reasons that God only knows, about Christmas 1860 spiked the guns of
But the defensive case of the South does not even rest here. She made no hostile retort to
But the South never struck back before a second act was committed.
Here he relates a strange coincidence of the war which I’ve never seen in a first hand report elsewhere, and for good reason, as EPA by chance happened to be one of the few in a position to notice it among those who were present at the start and end of the
And now I will stop the narrative a bit to tell of what I this one of the most remarkable coincidences of the war which started at Bull Run, the sight of the first real Virginia battle and ended at Appomattox C. H. . . .
Well those were the very first cannon shot fired between the two great
And he had been both out of sight & out of mind for over two years after . . . when whom should I meet the yard . . . but Maj. McLean. He was a short, stout little fellow & with a face easily remembered. I said, “Hello!
I have been to McLean's house in Appomattax C. H. It still looks like a nice place to live and was fairly remote. I can see why he moved there and appreciate how annoyed he must have been when the war found him at last.
Here’s EPA trying to save a Northern prisoner who had come down to watch the North whip the South at the
What’s the matter, Colonel,” said
When and where could this following scene happen in
It was about six o’clock when the rear of our column was practically up, & Gen. Jackson at last gave the order to Rodes to move. Immediately a bugle sounded “Forward,” & it was taken up & echoed through the woods by other bugles in every direction. These bugles do not seem to have heard by the enemy – or if heard they were attributed to their own cavalry. For the first intimation they are said to have received of our advance was appearance of deer, turkeys, rabbits, &c. running out of the woods ahead of our lines.
One story was told of a young lady, who was not allowed to buy hay, for the family milk cow, without a permit. She applied at headquarters for the permit, but it was refused unless she would take the oath of allegiance. She demurred to that, but Gen. Milroy insisted, saying that “this wicked rebellion must be crushed,” to which she answered, “If you expect to crush this rebellion by starving John Harman’s old cow you may try it & be damned to you."
I mean no defense of EPA’s unapologetic Southern stance and principles, some of which are difficult to swallow, particularly as he was writing some 40 years later, but, as I notice with people I know, racial prejudice has long legs. Here, he talks about disciplining his rented (and apparently loyal) slave, Charlie:
The only incident I recall is my giving my darkey, Charley, a small licking for getting drunk, on some apple jack he had managed to purloin from our hospital stores. That was the second & last time I ever had to punish him. The first was a year before at Keach’s near
Late in the war, Lee and EPA disagree about the time of a meeting and we see that, even though EPA was sure of his facts, eventually, he knew when to shut up:
By that time we were at the road, where Gen. Lee was sitting on old Traveller waiting for me, & three or four dark figures near were either staff or couriers. I remember the conversation very vividly. “Good morning, General Alexander. I had hoped to find you waiting in the road for me on my arrival.” This was said with the very utmost stiffness & formality. “Yes, Sir! I was all ready & might have been here just as well, but you told me last night that you’d start at two o’clock, & it’s not near that yet, so I did not hurry.” Which I said as good-naturedly & blandly as I knew how. “One o’clock was the hour, Sir, at which I said I would start!” This was said with a very severe emphasis.
“I misunderstood you then, General, I thought you said two.” “One o’clock, Sir, was the hour!” This was so emphatic that I concluded to let him have the last word & I said no more.
EPA was a true believer, make no mistake. Here he defends the South’s treatments of black prisoners in a way that just seems just too credulous. Then again, he does make worse charges against his own, so perhaps I am just showing my biases as well in questioning his appraisal:
About this time, there arose some trouble between the Confederate & Federal authorities about the treatment of prisoners. I believe it was claimed by them that we had put Negro prisoners to work upon intrenchments where they were exposed to fire. If that is true it was unjustifiable but I do not think it true. At least I never saw or heard of such a thing in our army. Our men had sometimes shot Negro troops when they could & would have taken prisoners if they had been white, but so far as I know once delivered to the provost guard they were treated as white prisoners.
One of the most unloved and underreported facts about the war was
At that date, Feb. 9th , Mr. Lincoln practically offered the South four hundred million dollars as compensation for the slaves set free, & any other reasonable political conditions they might choose to name, if she would return to the Union. But our committee was under instructions. The president & cabinet had absolutely forbidden our delegates to accept any terms, or even to consider any, short of our independence.
Good thing they turned it down too as the war ended on much better terms after a military solution. There is some controversy over that whole point about what Lincoln offered and I don't intend to go into it here. I have tried with the above quotes to show you things you can find in EPA which are not garden variety Civil War history and thus to increase its value. The truth is, a great deal of FFTC is battle descriptions, and they are wonderfully done. Many readers will undoubtedly find his analysis of most of the major battles the most interesting part of his work (as I did). I always ask myself a question when reading through almost any non-fiction work – am I learning anything? The answer here is quite positive. While not hiding EPA’s Southern bias as to the rightness of their fight, I will end with a quote from The New York Times review of Military Memoirs when it came out in 1907, and quarrel only with the too wishful conclusion of the first sentence:
“There is no trace of bitterness in his book, no regret at the final outcome, but on the other hand a willing and even outspoken acquiescence in what seems to the author the better results of Northern victory. If every man who gave up the fight at