Looking Back Without Anger

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He made no bones about having taken pride in his work. He remembered Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg best, he wrote, for the “rare and beautiful opportunities” they afforded him for blowing apart the advancing enemy. And he remained matter-of-fact about the horrors he witnessed: “I saw in a pile three of [the] Hampton Legion killed by a solid shot. One of them had his arms raised & extended exactly as if he were aiming his musket. The shot had passed through his body from side to side just below his arm pits. Evidently he was aiming when struck, for had his arms been down they would have been cut off. It would seem as if the shot not only killed but stiffened at least the muscles of the arms in the positions in which they were.”

But many of his most eloquent memories had little to do with combat. More than three decades after Chancellorsville, he still recalled a tin cup filled with coffee, brought to him there by one Captain Parker: ”#8230; to this day, I never drink a cup of real good coffee, but the picture comes up of the good captain approaching in the fire light with the cup in his hand, & I hear his gentle voice, & he sits down by me under a tree & while I am cooling & drinking it he explains in his short quick sentences where the coffee came from, & exhibits one or more little buckskin bags full of ground coffee & sugar already mixed … all taken from the bodies of the dead, left by the enemy in his retreat.”

Alexander’s memoirs are refreshingly free of the sanctity with which his contemporaries often sought to cloak their shortcomings: “It is customary to say that ‘Providence did not intend that we should win,’ but I do not subscribe in the least to that doctrine. Providence did not care a row of pins about it. If it did it was a very unintelligent Providence not to bring the business to a close—the close it wanted— in less than four years of most terrible & bloody war.

Alexander’s memoirs are free of the sanctity with which his contemporaries often sought to cloak their shortcomings.

”… I think it was a serious incubus upon us that during the whole war our president & many of our generals really & actually believed that there was this mysterious Providence always hovering over the field & ready to interfere on one side or the other, & that prayers & piety might win its favor from day to day. One of our good old preachers once voiced it in a prayer. … ‘Oh Lord! Come down we pray thee & take a proper view of the situation, & give us the victory over our enemies.’ But it was a weakness to imagine that victory could ever come in even the slightest degree from anything except our own exertions.”

Not even the exertions of Robert E. Lee were immune from Alexander’s dispassionate eye. An ardent gunner, who believed it always “better to lie down & shoot at them coming a half mile than to have them lie down & shoot at you,” he sometimes found Lee’s celebrated audacity trying. Among the errors to which his commander’s excessive boldness drove him, he believed, were his decision to stand and fight at Sharpsburg (where only McClellan’s timorousness saved Lee from disaster) and “in taking the aggressive at all” at Gettysburg. The intensely human commander whom Alexander describes in action is both more interesting and less uniformly virtuous than the Lee of legend. Flinty in the face of human suffering, he cannot bear to see a horse mishandled, does not easily admit even trivial errors, and exhibits during moments of great tension an angry jerking of the head that the wary members of his staff called “snapping at his ear.”

Alexander never regretted having cast his lot with the doomed Confederacy, but he is not notably sentimental even about that. As the end approached, he wrote his wife that rather than submit to the imprisonment he was sure would follow a Confederate surrender, he planned to flee to Brazil, which was then about to go to war with Paraguay, win a commission in its army, and send for her and the children: ”… judging from the map,” he added, ”… for once I would be on the winning side.” (He surely would have been; in the war that followed, Brazilian forces were joined by those of Uruguay and Argentina, and more than half of Paraguay’s population died.)

Lee thought Alexander’s hiring himself out to a foreign power a poor idea. Brazilian diplomats were not encouraging. In the end Alexander returned to his wife without telling her he was coming. “But although she thought me far on my road to Brazil, she knew the rush of my feet up the stairs the moment she heard it, & as I opened the door she was in the middle of the room advancing to meet me.”