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.

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.”