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Rebecca Harding Davis

American Writer


A selection from

Narrated by Carol Monda

Download mp3 file: The Civil War

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I lived, during three years of the war, on the border of West Virginia. Sectional pride or feeling never was so distinct or strong there as in the New England or lower Southern states. We occupied the place of Hawthorne's unfortunate man who saw both sides. In every village opinions clashed. The elders of the family, as a rule, sided with the Government; the young folks with the South.

Throughout the whole country, however, there was a time when the great mass of the people took no part in the quarrel. They were stunned, appalled. I never have seen an adequate description anywhere of the amazement, the uncomprehending horror of the bulk of the American people which preceded the firing of that gun at Sumter. Politicians or far-sighted leaders on both sides knew what was coming. And it is they who have written histories of the war. But to the easy-going millions, busied with their farms or shops, the onrushing disaster was as inexplicable as an earthquake. Their protest arose from sea to sea like the clamor of a gigantic hive of frightened bees.

Each man, however, after the American habit, soon grappled with the difficulty and discovered a cure for it. He urged his remedy incessantly - in church councils, in town meetings, at the street corners. The local newspapers were filled with these schemes for bringing calm and content again into the country.

One venerable neighbor of ours, I remember, insisted that, to warm the chilled loyalty of the nation, the Declaration should be read in every house, night and morning, at family prayers. Another, with the same intent, proposed that every boy in the public schools should at once commit the Constitution to memory. It was urged that women should sing the "Star-Spangled Banner" in season and out of season.

In several towns bands of young girls marched through the streets singing it in a kind of holy zeal, believing, poor children, as they were told, that they would soon "bring again peace unto Israel."

These efforts to keep off the approaching disaster were urged in both southern and northern towns. The superstitious fervor of the people was aroused. Devout old men who, with tears and wrestlings of soul for their country, prayed themselves to sleep at night, naturally had revelations before morning of some remedy for her mortal illness. Women, everywhere, neglected their sewing, housekeeping, and even their love affairs, to consult and bemoan together. They were usually less devout and more radical in their methods of cure than the men; demanding that somebody should at once be hanged or locked up for life. Whether the victim should be Buchanan, Lincoln, or Jefferson Davis depended upon the quarter of the Union in which the women happened to live.

Their loyalty, like that of their husbands, depended almost wholly on their geographical point of view.

Naturally, these hosts of terrified, sincere folk carried their remedies to the place where they would be of use. Their letters and petitions flooded Congress and the White House for a year.

As the skies darkened, the country was astir with alarmed folk hurrying to their own sections like frightened homing birds. The South had been filled with traders and teachers from the North; northern colleges and summering places depended largely on southern custom. There had always been much intermarriage in the well-to-do classes of the two sections.

These ties were torn apart now with fierce haste in the alarm which followed Lincoln's election. By the time that he started to Washington to be inaugurated, the tension of feeling throughout the country had reached its limit.

The great mass of the people as yet took little interest in any of the questions involved except the vital one - whether the Union should be preserved. The Union, to the average American of that day, was as essential a foundation of life as was his Bible or his God.

When Mr. Lincoln began his journey every eye was fixed on him in an agony of anxiety. How would he meet the crisis? Could he cope with it? It is only one of the facts of history that his cheerful, jocular bearing on the journey convinced the mass of people that he did not even know that there was a crisis. The stories he told to the waiting crowds at every station were funny, but nobody laughed at them.

The nation grew sick at heart.

The truth probably is, that while the soul of the man faced the great work before him, he hid his real thoughts from prying eyes behind his ordinary habits of speech.

The volunteers in both armies were, as a rule, a God-fearing, church-going body of men. I doubt whether an American army to-day would pay as much outward deference to religion. Stonewall Jackson was not the only commander who prayed at the head of his troops before going into action. North and South were equally confident that God was on their side, and appealed incessantly to him.

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.

The hospitals, the care of the sick and wounded, kindled innumerable fires of sympathy and friendship in the midst of the universal enmity.

During those years of fierce struggle some little incident hourly showed how knit together at heart were the "two huge armed mobs," as Von Moltke called them, that were busy in slaughtering each other.

I remember a little story told me by Colonel Thomas Biddle, which will show you what I mean.

The colonel, then a young man on the staff of one of the Federal generals, - which, I have forgotten, - was ordered one day to reconnoitre the country lying around the camp, which was near Culpepper. He rode far into the hills until late in the afternoon, and, being hungry, stopped at a lonely farmhouse, tied his horse to the fence, and went in.

A raw-boned woman welcomed him.

"You're for the Union, eh?" she said. "So are we. Lookin' up the Secesh troops, I reckon. No, there's none of them about hyah. Teddy, see to the gentleman's horse."

A red-headed boy grinned and disappeared.

 "Had no dinner? I ken give yo nothin' but bread an' buttermilk. But it's fine buttermilk."

"If I have a weakness for anything it's for buttermilk," the colonel said, in telling the story. "And this was fresh, the butter floating in yellow flakes on top, a drink for the gods. I sat and ate and sipped it slowly, and she watched me with her beady black eyes.

" 'Now, whahabouts in the North do you come from?' she said.

" 'Philadelphia.'

" 'Oh!' Her face changed suddenly. 'Thah's a hospital thah; on Cherry Street. I reckon you don't know nothin' about it?' She leaned over the table, her face keen and eager.

" 'Of course I know it,' I said. 'I used to go there often. It cheers the boys up for somebody to look in on them.'

"Her eyes glittered with excitement. 'Thah's other boys than Yankees thah. Secesh; them as is wounded. My son's thah; he lost one leg.'

" 'What's your son's name?'

" 'Name of Briscoe.'

" 'Jem Briscoe? A long-jawed, lean fellow, with red hair?'

" 'Thet's Jem,' she leaned, panting, over the table. 'Foh God's sake! You seen Jem?'

" 'Yes,' I said, 'and liked him. I used to bring him tobacco sometimes and such trifles'-

 "She sprang at me and fairly dragged me to my feet.

" 'You knew Jem? You've been good to him! An' I've brought the men on you! Go! Foh God's sake! They'll shoot you for a spy - go! Thah they are!'

"I looked out of the window. A dozen mounted men were galloping up through the gorge.

"I rushed out of the house, threw myself on my horse, and dashed down the glen. I heard her yell: -

" 'I did n't know! Oh, make haste! Foh God's sake!'

"I drew my pistols from the holster, but they were dripping wet. Teddy had seen to that before he warned the rebels, whose camp was just behind the hill.

"Well, it was a hard race, but I won it. They fired a dozen bullets after me. I had good luck and reached the camp. It's queer, but from that day to this I can't taste buttermilk without a sick qualm at the stomach."

This story, too, sounds like a bit out of a novel. But I give it exactly as the colonel told it to me.

There was another curious incident which I know to be true in every detail.

A young man named Carroll enlisted in a Michigan regiment which, the next day, was ordered to Virginia. He had no kinsfolk but a sister, a young girl, who was neither mad nor an idiot, but was what the kindly Irish call "innocent." They believe that such half-witted, harmless folk are under the especial guardianship of God.

When Ellen was told that her brother had gone to the war, she followed him as a matter of course.

"Why, Joe could n't get along in those strange countries without me," she said. "Who would cook for him, or take care of him?"

She had but a few dollars, and soon lost them in the cars. She carried nothing with her but a little bag filled with Joe's neckties and bits of finery which she thought he would need.

"I will see him to-morrow, and he will buy me clothes and all I want there," she said.

This pretty, innocent girl traveled in safety thousands of miles, alone and penniless, and when she reached the Virginia mountains, wandered on foot from camp to camp, searching for her brother, always safe and unharmed.

In the universal hurry-burly and overturn of order in the country, all kinds of eccentric folk rushed into notice to fill the public eye for the moment and then to disappear. Every day brought a new preacher who had gone up to heavenly places the night before, and who could give us the exact opinion of Washington or Moses or St. Paul upon the war and its probable ending.

Men and women whose eccentric ideas had been smothered hitherto, now blazoned them forth unchecked; or, if they had a gift for leadership or organization or for making money, the field, the spectators, and the reward all now were ready for them.

I knew one lad of sixteen who had saved, dime by dime, a couple of hundred dollars. When father and brothers were rushing, guns in hand, to the battlefield, he sat down to calculate how he could invest his money profitably.

"What is there in the South that will be kept out of the northern market by the war?" he questioned.

Turpentine! The idea was an inspiration.

He hurried out, spent every penny in turpentine, stored it for four years, and with the profits laid the foundation of a huge fortune.

A townsman of the turpentine lad had not his idea of glory. He was the scampish fellow of the town. No family nor church ever fathered or trained him. He made up his mind to take part in the war, single-handed. He had a good horse and got a commission as colonel from the Confederacy, donned the gray uniform, and rode through the Virginia border, leaving a trail of terror behind him. At last, in Moundsville, on the Ohio, he met a little Federal captain who had brought down $20,000 to pay the troops of the Mountain Department, and was talking about it too loudly. Jem held up the little man, took his money, turned it into the southern treasury, and, worst of all, sent the poor boy home on parole, to fight no more for his country.

Another singular feature of the war, which I think nobody has described, was the hopeless confusion which followed its close. When Johnny came marching home again he was a very disorganized member of society, and hard to deal with. You cannot take a man away from his work in life, whether that be selling sugar, practicing law, or making shoes, and set him to march and fight for five years, without turning his ideas and himself topsy-turvy.

The older men fell back into the grooves more readily than the lads, who had been fighting, when, in ordinary times, they would have been plodding through Cicero or algebra. Some of them harked back to college to gather up the knowledge they had missed; some of them took up awkwardly the tools of their trades, and some of them took to drink and made an end of it. The social complications of the readjustment were endless and droll.

I remember that a friend of mine, a venerable, gray-haired college professor, when hearing a class of freshmen at the beginning of the term in 1866, was struck by the peculiar hoarse voice of a boy from the South. When the class was over, he said to him, "I beg your pardon, but do you know Cato's Soliloquy?"

"Yes, sah," the lad said, blushing. "It is my favorite recitation."

"Do you remember that two years ago you were detailed to guard a sheep-pen in a Texan camp in which were some Yankee prisoners? It was a moonlight night, and as you marched up and down you thundered out: -

'Plato, thou reasonest well, Else why this pleasing doubt' " -

"I've no doubt I did," said the Texan. "But how - Where were you, sah?"

"Oh," said the old doctor, "I was in the pen."

The effervescence simmered down at last. Men standing up as targets to be shot at were all of one height, but in peace each gradually found his level again.

The abolition of slavery is the only result of this great war which we recognize. But there were other consequences almost as momentous.

The first huge fortunes in this country were made by army contractors in the North during the war.

The birth of the millionaire among us, and the disease of money-getting with which he has infected the nation, is not usually reckoned among the results of the great struggle.

Another more wholesome effect of the long quarrel was oddly enough that it made of us a homogeneous people, which we never had been before. The Pennsylvania Dutchman and the Californian learned to know each other as they sat over the camp-fire at night, and when the war was over they knew the Southerner better and liked him more than they had done before they set out to kill him.

Another good result was, that while the five years of idle camp life and slaughter made a sot of many a coarse-grained, stupid boy, and a pauper for life of the man willing to take alms from the country to whom he once gave paid service, it uplifted the whole lives of such men as went into it with a noble purpose.

When it was over, the farmer, the salesman, the shoemaker, took up the dull burden of his workaday life again, and carries it still.

But he never forgets that for five years he, too, was Achilles of the race of heroes. The fact that for one mile in his long journey he worked, not for money, but for a great idea, must be for him always a helpful and uplifting memory.

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