- The Washington Times - Friday, August 20, 2004

Reading wartime correspondence in “The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of

the Union and Confederate Armies” provides fascinating insights into the war and the men who fought it.

These communications, however, must be read in context. That era was much different from now. Chivalry and civility existed; instant communication and analysis did not. Good writing was standard.

Style and content reflect attitudes and frustrations in confronting wartime problems and tensions, whether military or civilian, mundane or emergency. Many issues are collateral to combat. Style was factual or hyperbolic; poignant and compassionate or cold and threatening; obedient or disobedient; complaining or grateful.

Gratitude and praise were direct and often excessive, while condemnation was indirect (faint praise or omission). Hostility was direct or via undercurrent of seething contempt.

Letters between opponents could be nasty but often were respectful, perhaps because writers and recipients frequently were West Point graduates and classmates. Early in the war (1862), Ulysses S. Grant noted that all communications received from Southern officers “have been courteous and kind in spirit and have been replied to in the same tone. I regret the necessity for any other class of correspondence.”

Letters between officers on the same side reflected conflict among comrades, especially between field commanders and headquarters, making conflict with the enemy secondary.

Civilized Warfare Among Opponents: A Paradox?

July 21, 1862: Gen. Robert E. Lee wrote Maj. Gen. George McClellan concerning Confederate citizens being forced to take oaths of allegiance to, and paroles not to bear arms against, the United States; those refusing went to prison. Lee wrote that if Confederates in the military notwithstanding such parole were captured and considered as breaching parole, the Confederacy would “resort to retaliatory measures as the only means of compelling the observance of the rules of civilized warfare.”

Nov. 11, 1864: A businesslike letter to Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan from Confederate John S. Mosby noted that Brig. Gen. George Custer had ordered six of Mosby’s men executed and that another had been hanged elsewhere. “A label affixed to the coat of one of the murdered men declared that ‘this would be the fate of Mosby and all his men.’ ” Mosby wrote that in retaliation “seven of your men were, by my order, executed on the Valley pike, your highway of travel. Hereafter any prisoners falling into my hands will be treated with the kindness due their condition, unless some new act of barbarity shall compel me reluctantly to adopt a course of policy repulsive to humanity. Very respectfully, your obedient servant, JOHN. S. MOSBY, Lieutenant Colonel.”

Civilized Warfare: On the Same Side.

April 18, 1862: A Col. Brabble explained his disobedience of orders to send one of his North Carolina companies to protect laborers. “[I]f it was meant that one of my companies should march 7 miles rather than a company of … Georgia or … Louisiana [men] should march half the distance, I must say, though with all respect for the general, that I should prefer to suffer the consequences of disobedience, even should the penalty be death, rather than execute it.” He noted how diligently his men had worked in contrast to other Confederate troops.

Brabble concluded, “While engaged in a war for what I claim to be my rights I cannot submit to what I believe to be unjust discrimination.”

Maj. Gen. Benjamin Huger recommended presidential dismissal of Brabble for willful disobedience, “especially when the order was to move toward the enemy.”

Brabble survived headquarters but not Spotsylvania.

Civilized Warfare: Between Enemies (“Getting Personal”)

March 12, 1863: Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart wrote that while Confederate general officers knew then-Capt. John Mosby for his successful, bold operations, “[N]one know his daring enterprise and dashing heroism better than those foul invaders, though strangers themselves to such noble traits.”

March 25, 1863: Stuart wrote Mosby about organizing Mosby’s men but avoiding the term “Partisan Ranger,” which was in “bad repute.” “Call your command ‘Mosby’s Regulars,’ and it will give it a tone of meaning and solid worth which all the world will soon recognize, and you will inscribe the name of a fearless band of heroes on the pages of our country’s history, and enshrine it in the hearts of a grateful people.”

Stuart thanked him for Mosby’s gift of Brig. Gen. Edwin H. Stoughton’s saddle, taken during a midnight raid that resulted in the capture of Stoughton and 32 other men.

Stuart continued: “We must have that unprincipled scoundrel Wyndham. Can you catch him? Do not get caught.” At Fairfax, Mosby missed capturing Col. Percy Wyndham, an Englishman serving with Union cavalry whose tactics, Mosby said, were “learned in European Wars and were of no more use to him than a suit of armor of the Middle Ages.” Wyndham called Mosby a “horse-thief”; Mosby replied that “all the horses I had stolen had had riders, and the riders had had sabers and pistols.”

Stuart urged Mosby to guard his own safety and not have any “headquarters but ‘in the saddle.’ ”

Standard of Conduct: North and South

Nov. 14, 1862: R.H. Chilton, Confederate assistant adjutant-general, wrote that Gen. Robert E. Lee “is pained to learn that the vice of gambling exists, and is becoming common in this army.” He noted that no one expected that “a habit so pernicious and demoralizing would be found among men engaged in a cause, of all others, demanding the highest virtue and purest morality in its supporters. [Lee] regards it as wholly inconsistent with the character of a Southern soldier and subversive of good order and discipline in the army.”

Chilton also criticized Confederates who ignored their own character and obligations to comrades by buying “food and other things” to sell “at exorbitant prices to their” comrades. “It is not surprising that those who have descended to such conduct should be guilty of the crime of imposing on the humane and charitable for the purpose of carrying on their unworthy traffic. A just regard for the reputation of this army requires the immediate suppression of this great evil.”

July 6, 1861: A Union order required that various Articles of War be read and posted, noting that the commanding general depended “upon the loyal men of his command, who are here to assert the supremacy of the laws of the country, to see that they are not violated with impunity by wretches who assume the garb of the soldier only to disgrace it.”

Sarcasm: Privates Needed

July 11, 1864:# On July 6, a brigadier in New York, obviously wanting some action, offered his services to Henry W. Halleck. On July 11 came the classic reply: With Confederates on Washington’s outskirts, he wrote, “We have five times as many generals here as we want, but are greatly in need of privates. Any one volunteering in that capacity will be thankfully received.”

Charles A. Jones is a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, a lawyer and writer in Norfolk, with ancestors in North Carolina regiments.

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