November 7, 2014
I recently read Recollections Of A Confederate Staff Officer, by Moxley Sorrel. I enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed Sam Watkins’ Company Aytch. While Watkins fought in the Western theater, Sorrel was in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia; Sorrel was the chief-of-staff to General James Longstreet. Douglas Southall Freeman called Sorrel’s book “one of the most charming of all books on the War Between the States.... a most readable volume [with] a hundred touches of humor and revealing strokes of swift characterization.”1
Like most officers, Sorrel came from an upper-class family. His father was one of Savannah’s wealthiest businessmen, his mother was from an old Virginia family, the Moxleys. The Savannah house where Sorrel grew up has been called “one of the finest examples of Greek Revival architecture in the United States,”2 and it’s now open to the public.
Moxley Sorrel, at the time of the Civil War
Sorrel tells how, after the bloody battle of Fredericksburg, Union and Confederate pickets began chatting and trading.
A longing for home was one of the strongest emotions in the army:
Religion seemed to appeal to the soldiers’ softer sides. Later in the war, there was a religious revival, and soldiers frequently attended religious meetings; historians speak of “the ‘Great Revival’ that swept through Union and Confederate armies during the autumn and winter of 1863-64.”3
Here’s how Sorrel describes Longstreet:
Sorrel says that Longstreet “held his men, as it were, in the hollow of his hand (his abilities for handling large bodies under fire being remarkable).” Sorrel speaks of “his never-failing valor and tenacity.” At Antietam, Longstreet “seemed everywhere along his extended lines, and his tenacity and deep-set resolution, his inmost courage, which appeared to swell with the growing peril to the army, undoubtedly stimulated the troops to greater action, and held them in place despite all weakness.”
Longstreet tried to find a way to end the war. During his Tennessee campaign, he sent a letter to his Union counterpart, General Schofield, suggesting they explore ways to cease fighting. But Schofield deferred to the civilian authority, Lincoln. Longstreet believed that the politicians had started the war, and the generals were best suited to end it.4
Longstreet was fond of poker and parties, and graduated near the bottom of his West Point class. But then a change came over him:
Longstreet knew many Union officers from West Point, from the Mexican-American War, from Army service in the West, etc.
Sorrel gives us a memorable description of Grant, whom he met in Savannah when Grant was running (or thinking about running) for a third term as President. Reviewing Grant’s career, Sorrel says
On the evening Sorrel met him,
Grant is also clear and forceful in his writing style. His memoirs have a high reputation.
In the final phase of the war, when Grant came East to do battle with Lee, he began a war of attrition, utilizing his larger numbers. The South was running out of soldiers, and could only recruit more by “robbing the cradle and the grave” — that is, enlisting the old and the young. But how could Grant tell his soldiers that he was waging a war of attrition, that he was going to trade two of their lives for one Confederate life? Wasn’t the policy of attrition bound to cause some grumbling in Union ranks?
During the Wilderness campaign, Lee continually moved south, a step ahead of Grant; Lee kept his forces between Grant and the Confederate capital at Richmond. Finally the two armies reached Cold Harbor:
Sorrel describes Lee thus:
Sorrel describes the fateful decision to invade Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863:
Perhaps the Confederates were emboldened by their victories at Fredericksburg (December, 1862), and Chancellorsville (May, 1863). The invasion of Pennsylvania ended in defeat at Gettysburg (July, 1863). Sorrel blames this defeat not on the Union’s superior numbers, not on the absence of Stonewall Jackson (killed at Chancellorsville), but on the absence of Jeb Stuart’s cavalry, which had wandered far from Lee’s forces. “Major McClellan, Stuart’s A. A. G. and chief of staff, in his history of that cavalry (an excellent work) declares that in his opinion the absence of Stuart was the cause of Lee’s trouble; and for myself I have never doubted it.”5
In the absence of Stuart, Lee and Longstreet depended on information supplied by a spy named Harrison. Harrison’s information prompted Lee to collect his forces at Gettysburg, and thus ignited the great battle; Sorrel says that Harrison’s information was “all important as to the results of that campaign.” Sorrel knew Harrison, and calls him a “dark character.” On one occasion, Harrison seemed to anticipate that Sorrel would visit Richmond:
Perhaps it isn’t surprising that the same man would be both actor and spy; acting and spying are similar professions. Actors and spies both pretend to be someone they aren’t. Aldrich Ames, a CIA agent who became a double-agent for the Soviets, flunked out of the University of Chicago around 1960 because he had a consuming passion for drama.
Henry Thomas Harrison, Longstreet’s spy
Sorrel views Pickett’s Charge as a heroic assault that was almost successful:
Sorrel was once asked to carry a message to the legendary Stonewall Jackson (Thomas Jonathan Jackson):
Jackson’s infantry marched so far and so fast that they were dubbed “foot cavalry.” As Sorrel puts it, “Jackson’s marches, in swiftness, daring, and originality of execution, were almost extraordinary.”
In Jackson’s final moments, we find the peace and bliss that’s sometimes found in dying people:
Psychologists tell us that a devotion to animals sometimes goes hand in hand with a hostility to people.6 I suspect that extreme piety might also go hand in hand with a hostility to people. Stonewall Jackson was notable for extreme piety and extreme ruthlessness toward his soldiers. His cold bearing made him unpopular as a teacher, and (early in the war) unpopular as a commander. Sam Watkins says,
Jackson’s coldness and ruthlessness can be traced to his hard childhood. His father died when he was 2, his mother when he was about 7. He was sent to live with various relatives, some of whom treated him “as an outsider.”7 As a youngster, he showed a proclivity for long marches; he once hiked 18 miles, alone, through the wilderness, while running away from an unloving relative.
Lee also had limited contact with his father, who was a famous cavalry officer in the American Revolution, and later a Governor of Virginia. His father was 51 when Robert was born. Robert was the fifth child in the family; if you count the children from his father’s first marriage, Robert was the eighth child. When Robert was 2, his father was imprisoned for debt. When Robert was 5, his father went to the West Indies, to convalesce from injuries sustained during a political riot; his father left his wife and children behind in Virginia. He never saw Robert again; he died when Robert was 11.
In mythology, the hero is often father-less.8 Both Jackson and Lee exemplify this pattern, this archetype. Perhaps a father-less boy is more hardy, more independent, than other boys. In my book of aphorisms, I said
On a trip to Richmond, Sorrel met Jefferson Davis:
Sorrel has high praise for E. P. Alexander (Edward Porter Alexander):
Alexander’s Military Memoirs of a Confederate “have received much praise for their insight and objectivity,”9 and Freeman includes them on his list of the best Civil War memoirs.
A. I saw Woody Allen: A Documentary, which was made by Robert Weide and is part of the PBS series American Masters. Though it’s 194 minutes long, there’s never a dull moment. Allen says his movies are light entertainment, and if we treat them as such, we’ll probably enjoy them. I recently enjoyed Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
B. I discovered a historian named Edmund S. Morgan. Morgan specialized in early American history. He died in 2013 at the age of 97. For many years, he was a professor at Yale. Among his books are The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop, The Gentle Puritan: A Life of Ezra Stiles, 1727-1795, and studies of Franklin and Washington.
C. The RISD Museum currently has an exhibition called What Nerve! Does this title reveal something about modern art? Is the modern artist trying to display “nerve,” audacity? If so, this is a sharp contrast with earlier artists, who tried to display a mastery of their craft, a taste for beauty, etc.
|1.|| One reader compared Sorrel’s book to Adventures in the Rifle Brigade, by John (Jack) Kincaid, a veteran of the Napoleonic wars. back|
|2.|| Wikipedia back|
|3.|| Company Aytch, edited by Philip Leigh, Ch. 11, footnote 7 back|
|4.|| “Like most of us,” Sorrel writes, “[Longstreet] wanted peace and the honorable termination of the war and cessation of bloodshed. He felt that it was not to be accomplished by the politicians. They had plunged the country into civil war, he reasoned. They would be the last to bring it to an end. The hope was that the generals on both sides might give the movement such an impetus that statecraft must necessarily take it up with probably good results. It was with this view that some letters passed between Longstreet and Schofield. The former pressed that view, and, assuming the Union General, like himself, wanted peace, he urged a joint initiative from which much could be hoped. It was illusory. Schofield’s letter was calm and noncommittal. Finally he had to say what was sure to be said, that it was not his part to deal with such matters, which were properly to be discussed by the Executive.” back|
|5.|| Freeman includes McClellan’s book on his list of “Notable Biographies.” back|
|6.|| “One trait found most commonly as a reaction formation to cruelty toward people is most pronounced in Schopenhauer: a deep compassion for the sufferings of animals.”(Edward Hitschmann, Great Men: Psychoanalytic Studies, “Schopenhauer: Attempt at the Psychoanalysis of a Philosopher”) back|
|7.|| Wikipedia back|
|8.|| When I discussed the medieval hero Perceval, I said, “Like many heroes, Perceval is fatherless, and is raised by his mother in a forest, far from civilization.” back|