Looking Back Without Anger

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The recent publication of Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander (University of North Carolina Press) is in at least two ways an astonishment. First, it is not a reprint but a brand new book by one of the South’s ablest soldiers, 124 years after Appomattox. Porter Alexander of Georgia, the best artillerist in Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, saw as much of the war as any man on either side and was central to the action at First Bull Run, the Seven Days, Fredericksburg, Sharpsburg, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor and during the last retreat from Petersburg.

 

More surprising still is the compelling, intensely personal style in which it is written. Alexander’s new memoirs are relaxed and engaging, lacking the self-importance that mars the memoirs of a good many soldiers with weaker claims to distinction than his, and refreshingly candid about his own frailties and those of some of the Confederacy’s most revered commanders.

In 1907 the old soldier published Military Memoirs of a Confederate. It is sober, magisterial history—Douglas Southall Freeman believed it the “best critique of the operations of the Army of Northern Virginia”—from which most traces of Alexander’s personal experience were carefully expunged in the interests of objectivity. The newly published book was actually written first, at the relentless urging of his wife and daughter, and was meant only for his descendants. The tattered manuscript, divided among ledger books and loose pages, was long thought simply to be the first draft of his published history, and the historian Gary W. Gallagher has done a genuine service in reassembling and editing it for publication.

Porter Alexander was just thirteen in 1848 when he heard from an old man who liked to take him fishing that some Southern hotheads were already talking of secession. “I remember well the spot in the road where we were,” he wrote, “& the pang which the idea sent through me, & my thinking that I would rather lose my gun—my dearest possession on earth—than see it happen.” When it did happen, he was already the co-inventor of the wigwag system of semaphore and among the most promising young West Pointers in the Federal Army, stationed with his new bride in Washington Territory. A friend, Lt. James B. McPherson, urged him to stay put. The Southern cause was hopeless, he assured Alexander, and by staying on the Pacific Coast he would “not be required to go into the field against your own people.”

Alexander still had no wish for his native state to leave the Union, but “as soon as the right to secede was denied by the North,” he explained, “I strongly approved of its assertion & maintenance by force if necessary. … The Confederacy was raising an army. The only place for me was in that army.”

“What I want,” he told his old comrades when asking them to send him their recollections for a history of James Longstreet’s corps he never quite got around to writing, “is not the general facts that everybody knows but the details.” It is his own remarkable memory for such details that enables us vividly to experience something of what he experienced: the mud daubing that drifted down to spoil his dinner of “sliced up meat & dished up vegetables” after a Federal shell tore through Wilmer McLean’s log kitchen near Bull Run; the “loud spat” of a shell fragment hitting his horse’s neck at Spotsylvania; the savor of the “two thick camp biscuits, each with a slice of fat bacon in it” upon which he gnawed while waiting for the surgeon after a bullet smashed his shoulder in front of Petersburg.

Alexander’s memory enabled him to summon up whole scenes, unabridged and peopled by soldiers who sound like soldiers. After First Bull Run, for example, he came upon a sergeant major dragging a frightened little man in civilian dress out of the woods and marching him before Col. Ellerbe Cash of South Carolina. As Alexander rode up, the colonel “had drawn his revolver & was trying to shoot the little citizen who was dodging behind the big sergeant major as Cash turned his horse about & tried to get at him, poking at him with the pistol & swearing with a fluency which would have been creditable to a wagonmaster. ‘You infernal s. of a b.! You came to see the fun did you? God damn your dirty soul I’ll show you,’ & he spurred his horse to get around the sergeant major.”

Alexander asked Cash what was going on.

“‘He’s a member of Congress, God damn him,’ said the colonel. ‘Came out here to see the fun! Came to see us whipped & killed! God damn him. If it was not for such as he there would be no war. They’ve made it & then come to gloat over it! God damn him, I’ll show him.’ ”

The colonel’s intended target, Rep. Alfred Ely of New York, had failed to escape with his sightseeing companions after their carriage overturned during the Federal rout. Alexander told Cash to hold his fire; unarmed prisoners were not to be harmed. The colonel wheeled his horse and ordered the sergeant major back into the thicket: ”… go & hunt the woods for Senator [Lafayette Sabine] Foster [of Connecticut]. He is hiding here somewhere. Go & find him, & God damn you, if you bring him in alive I’ll cut your ears off.” Luckily for Senator Foster, he was not in the neighborhood, and Alexander saw that Representative Ely was shipped intact to Richmond.