November 7, 2014

1. Moxley Sorrel, Confederate Officer

I recently read Recollections Of A Confederate Staff Officer, by Moxley Sorrel. I enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed Sam Watkins’ Company Aytch. While Watkins fought in the Western theater, Sorrel was in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia; Sorrel was the chief-of-staff to General James Longstreet. Douglas Southall Freeman called Sorrel’s book “one of the most charming of all books on the War Between the States.... a most readable volume [with] a hundred touches of humor and revealing strokes of swift characterization.”1

Like most officers, Sorrel came from an upper-class family. His father was one of Savannah’s wealthiest businessmen, his mother was from an old Virginia family, the Moxleys. The Savannah house where Sorrel grew up has been called “one of the finest examples of Greek Revival architecture in the United States,”2 and it’s now open to the public.

Moxley Sorrel, at the time of the Civil War

Sorrel tells how, after the bloody battle of Fredericksburg, Union and Confederate pickets began chatting and trading.

The authorities had to set their faces sternly against this trading. It led to desertion. A fine Federal band came down to the river bank one afternoon and began playing pretty airs, among them the Northern patriotic chants and war songs. “Now give us some of ours!” shouted our pickets, and at once the music swelled into Dixie, My Maryland, and the Bonnie Blue Flag. Then, after a mighty cheer, a slight pause, the band again began, all listening; this time it was the tender, melting bars of Home, Sweet Home, and on both sides of the river there were joyous shouts, and many wet eyes could be found among those hardy warriors under the flags.

A longing for home was one of the strongest emotions in the army:

The soldiers were fond of chanting hymns and quaint old plantation airs, and at times they were touching with the recollections of home. Homesickness was often very prevalent, and the awful nostalgia came near crippling us.

Religion seemed to appeal to the soldiers’ softer sides. Later in the war, there was a religious revival, and soldiers frequently attended religious meetings; historians speak of “the ‘Great Revival’ that swept through Union and Confederate armies during the autumn and winter of 1863-64.”3

A. Longstreet

Here’s how Sorrel describes Longstreet:

Longstreet was then a most striking figure, about forty years of age, a soldier every inch, and very handsome, tall and well proportioned, strong and active, a superb horseman and with an unsurpassed soldierly bearing, his features and expression fairly matched; eyes, glint steel blue, deep and piercing; a full brown beard, head well shaped and poised.

Sorrel says that Longstreet “held his men, as it were, in the hollow of his hand (his abilities for handling large bodies under fire being remarkable).” Sorrel speaks of “his never-failing valor and tenacity.” At Antietam, Longstreet “seemed everywhere along his extended lines, and his tenacity and deep-set resolution, his inmost courage, which appeared to swell with the growing peril to the army, undoubtedly stimulated the troops to greater action, and held them in place despite all weakness.”

Longstreet tried to find a way to end the war. During his Tennessee campaign, he sent a letter to his Union counterpart, General Schofield, suggesting they explore ways to cease fighting. But Schofield deferred to the civilian authority, Lincoln. Longstreet believed that the politicians had started the war, and the generals were best suited to end it.4

Longstreet was fond of poker and parties, and graduated near the bottom of his West Point class. But then a change came over him:

Longstreet’s wife and children were at Richmond. He was devoted to them. Suddenly scarlet fever broke out and three of the children died within one week. He was with them, and some weeks after resumed his command a changed man. He had become very serious and reserved.

Longstreet knew many Union officers from West Point, from the Mexican-American War, from Army service in the West, etc.

At West Point he was fast friends with Grant, and was his best man at the latter’s marriage [Grant married a relative of Longstreet]. Grant, true as steel to his friends, never in all his subsequent marvelous career failed Longstreet when there was need.

B. Grant

Sorrel gives us a memorable description of Grant, whom he met in Savannah when Grant was running (or thinking about running) for a third term as President. Reviewing Grant’s career, Sorrel says

During much of this time he was said to be intemperate, but if true it made no difference in the results accomplished. Mr. Lincoln was thought to be looking up Grant’s brand of whiskey for some of his other generals. This General’s character made him very dear to his friends. He was always true and helpful to them, and possessed a certain directness and simplicity of action that was in itself most attractive.

On the evening Sorrel met him,

Grant was in excellent form, looked well and talked well; his glass was not touched. Fresh from his tour around the world he had much to say. He had been deeply interested in Japan and talked incisively of that wonderful country, really a monologue of a full hour, the table intent and absorbed in the fresh observations that fell from him. Then it became time for his departure to meet a public appointment, and we rose to bow him out. Resuming our seats and attention to the old Madeiras, we agreed that for a silent man Grant was about the most interesting one we had recently found. His talk was clean-cut, simple, direct, and clear.

Grant is also clear and forceful in his writing style. His memoirs have a high reputation.

In the final phase of the war, when Grant came East to do battle with Lee, he began a war of attrition, utilizing his larger numbers. The South was running out of soldiers, and could only recruit more by “robbing the cradle and the grave” — that is, enlisting the old and the young. But how could Grant tell his soldiers that he was waging a war of attrition, that he was going to trade two of their lives for one Confederate life? Wasn’t the policy of attrition bound to cause some grumbling in Union ranks?

During the Wilderness campaign, Lee continually moved south, a step ahead of Grant; Lee kept his forces between Grant and the Confederate capital at Richmond. Finally the two armies reached Cold Harbor:

Here the Federal commander, weary of Lee and the oft-repeated march, made up his mind evidently to finish things. He attacked us with the utmost ferocity, but in vain. The assaults were delivered repeatedly but always repulsed with frightful carnage, and finally men could do no more. The officers with drawn swords pointed the way, but the men stood motionless in their ranks, a silent, effective protest against further “attrition.” General Grant was late in asking for a truce to bury his dead, but finally did so. The sight in our front was sickening, heartrending to the stoutest soldier. Nothing like it was seen during the war, and that awful mortality was inflicted in but little more than an hour! The Union commander afterwards announced in general orders that no more assaults on entrenched lines should be made.

C. Lee

Sorrel describes Lee thus:

An unusually handsome man, he has been painted with brush and pen a hundred times, but yet there is always something to say of that noble, unostentatious figure, the perfect poise of head and shoulders and limbs, the strength that lay hidden and the activity that his fifty-five years could not repress. Withal graceful and easy, he was approachable by all; gave attention to all in the simplest manner. His eyes — sad eyes! the saddest it seems to me of all men’s — beaming the highest intelligence and with unvarying kindliness, yet with command so firmly set that all knew him for the unquestioned chief. His manners are most courteous and full of dignity. He is a perfect gentleman in every respect. I imagine no man has so few enemies, or is so universally esteemed. Throughout the South, all agree in pronouncing him to be as near perfection as man can be.

Sorrel describes the fateful decision to invade Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863:

Lee began now to prepare for his summer campaign. It was secretly settled that it should be an invasion of Pennsylvania. There were many things that assisted in arriving at this decision in the conferences with the president and chiefs of the Government at Richmond. Virginia had been fiercely fought over, and ravaged by the tramp of hostile armies. Now, it looked as if the enemy should feel something of such sacrifices. If we could live on the supplies we hoped to find north of the Potomac, the already serious question of food and forage for our men and animals would lighten up temporarily, at least; and finally, the men of arms were eager for the movement and most enthusiastic at the start.

Perhaps the Confederates were emboldened by their victories at Fredericksburg (December, 1862), and Chancellorsville (May, 1863). The invasion of Pennsylvania ended in defeat at Gettysburg (July, 1863). Sorrel blames this defeat not on the Union’s superior numbers, not on the absence of Stonewall Jackson (killed at Chancellorsville), but on the absence of Jeb Stuart’s cavalry, which had wandered far from Lee’s forces. “Major McClellan, Stuart’s A. A. G. and chief of staff, in his history of that cavalry (an excellent work) declares that in his opinion the absence of Stuart was the cause of Lee’s trouble; and for myself I have never doubted it.”5

In the absence of Stuart, Lee and Longstreet depended on information supplied by a spy named Harrison. Harrison’s information prompted Lee to collect his forces at Gettysburg, and thus ignited the great battle; Sorrel says that Harrison’s information was “all important as to the results of that campaign.” Sorrel knew Harrison, and calls him a “dark character.” On one occasion, Harrison seemed to anticipate that Sorrel would visit Richmond:

“Colonel,” said this dark character, “if by any chance you should be in Richmond next week, I hope you will take in the theater one evening.” (There was then not the slightest expectation of my being in Richmond at that time.) “What is the attraction?” I asked. “Myself,” said Harrison. “I have made a bet of $50 greenbacks that I play Cassius and play him successfully.”

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that the same man would be both actor and spy; acting and spying are similar professions. Actors and spies both pretend to be someone they aren’t. Aldrich Ames, a CIA agent who became a double-agent for the Soviets, flunked out of the University of Chicago around 1960 because he had a consuming passion for drama.

Henry Thomas Harrison, Longstreet’s spy

Sorrel views Pickett’s Charge as a heroic assault that was almost successful:

A charge that, considering the difficulties of position, comparison of numbers, was so steady to the objective point, and so near success as to make it one of the greatest feats of arms in all the annals of war. Every brigade commander and colonel and lieutenant-colonel of Pickett’s division was shot down.

D. Jackson

Sorrel was once asked to carry a message to the legendary Stonewall Jackson (Thomas Jonathan Jackson):

I soon found myself saluting General T. J. Jackson, the first time I had seen the soldier. He was seated in a low, comfortable chair in front of his quarters, quite shabbily dressed, but neat and clean — little military ornament about him. It was the eye full of fire and the firm, set face that drew attention. His hand was held upright; a ball at the recent battle had cut off a piece of his finger, and that position eased it. He was all courtesy to the young subaltern awaiting his answer.

Jackson’s infantry marched so far and so fast that they were dubbed “foot cavalry.” As Sorrel puts it, “Jackson’s marches, in swiftness, daring, and originality of execution, were almost extraordinary.”

In Jackson’s final moments, we find the peace and bliss that’s sometimes found in dying people:

A few moments before he died he cried out in his delirium, “Order A.P. Hill to prepare for action! Pass the infantry to the front rapidly! Tell Major Hawks” — then stopped, leaving the sentence unfinished. Presently a smile of ineffable sweetness spread itself over his pale face, and he said quietly, and with an expression, as if of relief, “Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees.”

Psychologists tell us that a devotion to animals sometimes goes hand in hand with a hostility to people.6 I suspect that extreme piety might also go hand in hand with a hostility to people. Stonewall Jackson was notable for extreme piety and extreme ruthlessness toward his soldiers. His cold bearing made him unpopular as a teacher, and (early in the war) unpopular as a commander. Sam Watkins says,

One secret of Stonewall Jackson’s success was that he was such a strict disciplinarian. He did his duty himself and was ever at his post, and he expected and demanded of everybody to do the same thing. He would have a man shot at the drop of a hat, and drop it himself. The first army order that was ever read to us after being attached to his corps, was the shooting to death by musketry of two men who had stopped on the battlefield to carry off a wounded comrade. It was read to us in line of battle at Winchester.

Jackson’s coldness and ruthlessness can be traced to his hard childhood. His father died when he was 2, his mother when he was about 7. He was sent to live with various relatives, some of whom treated him “as an outsider.”7 As a youngster, he showed a proclivity for long marches; he once hiked 18 miles, alone, through the wilderness, while running away from an unloving relative.

Lee also had limited contact with his father, who was a famous cavalry officer in the American Revolution, and later a Governor of Virginia. His father was 51 when Robert was born. Robert was the fifth child in the family; if you count the children from his father’s first marriage, Robert was the eighth child. When Robert was 2, his father was imprisoned for debt. When Robert was 5, his father went to the West Indies, to convalesce from injuries sustained during a political riot; his father left his wife and children behind in Virginia. He never saw Robert again; he died when Robert was 11.

In mythology, the hero is often father-less.8 Both Jackson and Lee exemplify this pattern, this archetype. Perhaps a father-less boy is more hardy, more independent, than other boys. In my book of aphorisms, I said

Three American politicians — Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama — came from broken homes, and were raised by single mothers, and later, step-fathers. Throughout history, eminent men have often come from father-less households; such a household seems to breed sturdy independence, precocious maturity, and a gregarious nature.

E. Davis

On a trip to Richmond, Sorrel met Jefferson Davis:

After presentation to Mr. and Mrs. Davis I had a good look at that remarkable man. A most interesting study, calm and self-contained, gracious with some sternness; his figure was straight, slim and elegant. A well-poised, ample head was faced with high-bred features and an expression that could be very winning and agreeable.

F. Alexander

Sorrel has high praise for E. P. Alexander (Edward Porter Alexander):

A word about this splendid fellow. He was from Georgia and a dear friend of mine. Leaving West Point with very high honors, he was immediately commissioned into the Engineers, and sent to the Pacific, whence he came South to fight.... He was a many-sided character — an engineer of the highest abilities, an artillerist of great distinction, a good reconnoitering officer and an enthusiastic sportsman besides.... His was the happiest and most hopeful nature. He was sure of winning in everything he took up, and never did he open his guns on the enemy but that he knew he should maul him into smithereens. An accomplished engineer, he was often called on both by Lee and Longstreet for technical work and special reconnoitering. His future in peace, after Appomattox, was varied and distinguished, and he still is with us, eager, enthusiastic, most interesting, and of undiminished abilities.

Alexander’s Military Memoirs of a Confederate “have received much praise for their insight and objectivity,”9 and Freeman includes them on his list of the best Civil War memoirs.

2. Miscellaneous

A. I saw Woody Allen: A Documentary, which was made by Robert Weide and is part of the PBS series American Masters. Though it’s 194 minutes long, there’s never a dull moment. Allen says his movies are light entertainment, and if we treat them as such, we’ll probably enjoy them. I recently enjoyed Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

B. I discovered a historian named Edmund S. Morgan. Morgan specialized in early American history. He died in 2013 at the age of 97. For many years, he was a professor at Yale. Among his books are The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop, The Gentle Puritan: A Life of Ezra Stiles, 1727-1795, and studies of Franklin and Washington.

C. The RISD Museum currently has an exhibition called What Nerve! Does this title reveal something about modern art? Is the modern artist trying to display “nerve,” audacity? If so, this is a sharp contrast with earlier artists, who tried to display a mastery of their craft, a taste for beauty, etc.

© L. James Hammond 2014
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1. One reader compared Sorrel’s book to Adventures in the Rifle Brigade, by John (Jack) Kincaid, a veteran of the Napoleonic wars. back
2. Wikipedia back
3. Company Aytch, edited by Philip Leigh, Ch. 11, footnote 7 back
4. “Like most of us,” Sorrel writes, “[Longstreet] wanted peace and the honorable termination of the war and cessation of bloodshed. He felt that it was not to be accomplished by the politicians. They had plunged the country into civil war, he reasoned. They would be the last to bring it to an end. The hope was that the generals on both sides might give the movement such an impetus that statecraft must necessarily take it up with probably good results. It was with this view that some letters passed between Longstreet and Schofield. The former pressed that view, and, assuming the Union General, like himself, wanted peace, he urged a joint initiative from which much could be hoped. It was illusory. Schofield’s letter was calm and noncommittal. Finally he had to say what was sure to be said, that it was not his part to deal with such matters, which were properly to be discussed by the Executive.” back
5. Freeman includes McClellan’s book on his list of “Notable Biographies.” back
6. “One trait found most commonly as a reaction formation to cruelty toward people is most pronounced in Schopenhauer: a deep compassion for the sufferings of animals.”(Edward Hitschmann, Great Men: Psychoanalytic Studies, “Schopenhauer: Attempt at the Psychoanalysis of a Philosopher”) back
7. Wikipedia back
8. When I discussed the medieval hero Perceval, I said, “Like many heroes, Perceval is fatherless, and is raised by his mother in a forest, far from civilization.” back
9. Wikipedia back