January 12, 2012

'God save the American people from a government such as they would establish.'

Location: Munfordville, KY, USA
Unidentified Lancaster Soldier
Supposedly in 79th PA
Photo by Wm. Gill
(Richard Abel Collection)

Over the past couple days, a couple Civil War blogs (e.g., Civil War Memory) have lit up with discussions about the typically incendiary questions about motivations and causes of the Civil War.  Exchanges of ideas--some more illuminating than others--have, for instance, focused on Florida's reasons for secession and highlight the need to really to do good historical research if we want to have a basic grasp of people's incentives, motivations, and worldviews.  Although the question of why the North fought the Civil War does not get as much attention as why the South seceded, it's still a very difficult question to answer in a single soundbite, and I find myself still learning more and more as I dig into the primary sources.

So, coincidentally, 150 years ago this week, our 79th Pennsylvania soldier-correspondent, Corp. Elias H. Witmer (biography) of Company E, penned a lengthy letter to Lancaster's Daily Evening Express that exhibited some significant thoughts about the war, slavery, and the American political system.  It's colored by Witmer's background as a staunch Republican, a merchant who left a dry goods store in Mountville when he went to war, and a someone of old Mennonite heritage whose family over the generations had migrated to a more modern denomination.  Although Witmer was uniquely articulate in his views, I suspect his views represent a large number of enterprising and upwardly mobile Lancaster County farmers and merchants.

Looking at Paragraphs 7-10 as I've numbered them, we can infer a couple specific hopes and fears that can be connected to historians' more general assessments of the Civil War North.  In particular, it's fascinating how he views the Confederacy and its leaders as committed to forming an aristocracy that would destroy both the political freedoms and the economic opportunities of the upper-middle class with which Witmer personally identified.  His fears were heightened as the middle class seemed to be losing political and economic power across Europe, and he saw the Confederacy as part of a global trend against American values of capitalism, free labor, and social mobility and which sought to replace democracy with oligarchy.  Throw in some interest in the sufferings of Union sympathizers in the South and some apparently original poetry, and we get a much better sense of why Witmer left his Mountville dry goods store to join the Lancaster County Regiment. (Also, reference Gary Gallagher's The Union War for a generalization to the broader North, with some similar comments about Europe on pages 72-73.)

There's a lot more to this issue and others in the letter, such as views on alcohol and temperance, but that's enough for me tonight.  Enjoy another excellent 'E.H.W.' letter. 

From the January 11, 1862, Daily Evening Express (paragraph numbers are my addition):


CAMP WOOD, Ky., Jan. 7, 1862.

(1) The rainy weather which we have at present gives us leisure time, and I shall take advantage of the opportunity and write you a letter. Christmas is over and new year day has gone by; and we yet find ourselves in the State of Kentucky. Many in this army had expected to celebrate Christmas in Tennessee, but this expectation has not been realized. While our friends at home have enjoyed gay holidays, surrounded with luxuries incident to the occasion, there were over half a million of soldiers surrounding the camp fires, or some marching over frozen ground to the “gory field,” and some standing sentinel in some dreary spot, with a pilot biscuit to call to mind the days one year ago. But this was not the case with the “Lancaster County Regiment,” as almost every member was kindly remembered by his generous friends at home. The boxes sent as Christmas gifts to the volunteers in the army, were among the most welcome things in camp.

(2) An order has been issued by Gen. Buell to prohibit the sale of intoxicating liquors to all soldiers, which is among the most important orders of the army. Liquor had been sold in some regiments by the sutlers as freely as it is dealt out over the bar of a Lancaster groggery or lager from the swill tub of a Dutch brewery. No character is so disgusting as a drunken soldier, and while no army has ever gone to battle as the American army of 1861—characterized by so much morality, it would be injustice to them to allow a set of unprincipled sutlers to morally ruin the noble men who have sacrificed the comforts of home to fight the great battle of constitutional liberty. This great evil had, however, been confined to certain regiments, and bloated faces, greasy clothing, rusty muskets and a large sick list, were its fruits. Sutlers in general, rob the soldiers by exorbitant prices—which is bad enough, without robbing them of their manhood and ruining them forever. It is, however, a pleasant task to say that this is not the case with the “Lancaster County Regiment,” as the sound judgment of our commanding officer would, with his determined nature, drive the devils from his camp.

(3) The stupendous iron railroad bridge which spans Green river, and which had been partially destroyed through Buckner’s vandalism, is now under reconstruction and will be completed in about a week. A pontoon has been built for the crossing of the troops, which will do away with all fears of fording the stream.

(4) It is amusing to read the different reports published relative to the movements and position of Buell’s army, and charge him with inefficiency because he has not taken Bowling Green before this. Let such learn the vast labor to be performed before a battle at that point can be fought and a victory there won. The destruction of the bridge was the great and the only cause of our encampment at this point. This is now nearly finished, and when completed we are inclined to believe that we will advance. But we cannot sling our knapsacks and go at Bowling Green, as the railroad five miles in advance is torn up, the sills burnt, and rails destroyed, and every obstruction placed in our way which possibly could be done. The tunnel, three hundred feet in length, on the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, about twenty miles south of this, is also blown up. Can any person expect that this division of the American army can be expected to march in advance of the railroad communication? The army must be fed and everything must be transported in the army wagons, and the present supplies of teams would fail to transport sufficient to keep it from starvation.

(5) Sudden marches upon Bowling Green are all a myth, and time is required before we can reach it. No army is more eager for an engagement whenever prudence shall dictate, but their friends shall not mourn their defeat through reckless bravery. I doubt whether you could find another division in the grand American army that is managed with so much judgment and forethought as this under Gen. Buell.

(6) Rebel scouts come within three miles of our picket line, in troops of two and three hundred. Their nearest encampment is ten miles south, near Cave City, under command of General Hindman, whose army numbers six or eight thousand and are called the advance of the rebels; but they might be more properly called the rear guard of their retreating forces. A Lieutenant who had been a prisoner at Bowling Green for several months, has been released and arrived at camp a few days ago, who reports their forces at 30,000 and they in a very unhealthy condition. Twenty-five hundred have died and five thousand have been sent to the Nashville Hospitals. Rebel deserters arrive daily, while scores of slaves arrive at camp with requests from their masters to give them protection. They are accepted and employed as private citizens, but no encouragement is given them by General McCook. On last week fifteen were stolen from the immediate neighborhood, and it is alleged by their masters that they are taken to Bowling Green, and there put into the rebel army, or sold for its benefit.

(7) It is a useless task to attempt to portray the treatment which the Union men received from the hands of the rebel army, as such an attempt would fail to chronicle the vile and atrocious conduct of men who seek to destroy the principles which governed their manhood, before the misguided leaders precipitated them in an unholy rebellion. A glance over the face of this community is the best description of their depraved, nature; houses are ransacked and deserted, lands uncultivated, business houses closed, and enterprise of every class stagnated.

(8) It is equally true of the rebel forces in Kentucky, as on the Potomac that they have sunk in morality to an extent unprecedented in American Society. Bowling Green is a heinous stage of corruption. Drunken brawls, brutal prize fights, assassinations, and riotous destruction—reigns supreme; vice has become honorable, rascality a virtue, and the men themselves very devils incarnate. Every rebel deserter brings the disgusting details of their depravity, loaded with crime, dyed in a brother’s blood, and their midnight hours, “when honest men repose,” are spent in orgies more frantic than Bachanalian revelry. Drunken with the fumes of plunder and the excitement of the gambling table, the boasted chivalry spend their days in serving their country. While their leader boasts that he has not come to destroy and make war upon the government, but only to protect the soil of Kentucky from the hordes of Northern invaders, he is piling up with one hand and puling down with the other. He speaks words of friendship, but practices deeds which a respectable demon would blush to own. A leopard cannot hide his spots, or a camel his hump, neither can Buckner his misguided career. The destruction of the bridge and railroad cannot be covered up by pretended innocence, but must be accounted for by a suspension in the air. Zollicoffer too, who has outraged the people and endeavored to subjugate Kentucky into the Southern Confederacy, in his late proclamation says that, “he does not come to wage war, but to protect the people.” He protects the people with his proclamation, but with fire-brand in the one hand and the dagger in the other, draws the life blood from the Union loving men, and scatters devastation wherever he goes.

(9) It becomes more apparent every day, that the leaders of this rebellion are striving to establish a government upon aristocratic principles.  Mason, Cobb, Davis, Floyd and Yancey would like to have an aristocracy. Would you? oh thoughtless millionaires who like to extract each day a few additional sweat drops from the brows of your industrious mechanics and ill paid laborers, whose daily bread is too often purchased with the very life-drops of anguish. They would dye the annals of their country with paupers’ tears, and blot out her glory with the blood stain of famished merchants. They boast loud of the workings of the government they aim to establish. “Oh ye traitors, turn to the tax ridden masses of England, whose hard earned mites are at most but half enough to satisfy the wants of nature. Oh! Ye howling herd of aristocratic wolves and noble vultures, extracting half of the poor man’s loaf, and for aught you care leave his family starve. Their aristocratic avarice must be satisfied, through human hearts bleed and immortal, souls are wrong to satiate their lust. God save the American people from a government such as they would establish.

(10) Turn to the laboring classes of Europe, bowed down by the shackles of an imbecile nobility, and read its fruits in the sunken eye, the haggard look, the emaciated frame and the half-clad form. Ask the “hewers of wood and drawers of water” of Britain, Russia, France and Austria. Ask the oppressed sentiments of the freedom loving men of the South, whether such a government is preferable to the domain over which the ensign of American liberty floats? Their hopes of establishing such a government is preferable to the domain over which the ensign of the American liberty floats? Their hopes of establishing such a government must eventually prove a dream of empty speculation. Truth and justice must ultimately triumph over error and wrong. Tyranny will be crushed and rebellion suppressed. Though our domestic strifes are not limited to wordy wars and our social leg is terribly fractured, our national neck never has been nor ever will be broken.

(11) The same patriotic impulses which beat around the camp-fires in the dark days of our national birth, and the sacred blood which stained many a battle-field in the “times which tried men’s souls,” will not be dishonored by the noble posterity who have gone forth in the present campaign. The South may foam, and England may bark, yet the United States will vindicate their honor in every emergence. Fear not, ye faltering sages who look out into the broad future and contemplate the result of the present issues-the cannons of peace will again boom in all the States freighted with the grand burthen of liberty, and the flash of exultant camp-fires will make the new world lurid—

Stand by the sacred flag of stars
Amid the cannon’s loudest rattle,
And pluck the hero’s honored name
Out of the smoke and flame of battle.

Fear never clouds the soldier’s brow
When whistling bullets sing of glory,
When clashing swords and waving plumes
Tell of the deeds that live in story.

Strike, fellow-soldiers, for the right,
Strike for the insulted land that bore you,
And falter not, while high in air,
The glorious stars and stripes wave o’er you.

March, brave men, march and never falter
Till traitors bow the willing knee,
Upon your country’s sacred altar
Rest every hope of liberty.

The “Constitution and the Union,”
Let this be made our battle-cry—
With rebel hosts hold no communion
Till, conquered, they for “quarter” cry.

Friends watch your actions, watch and love you,
Their prayers at night to God ascend,
That He’ll protect the flag above you,
And strength and wisdom to you lend.

Minstrels shall praise the glowing deeds,
In songs of grand heroics’ reason,
That vindicated God and Right
And crushed the myrmidons of treason.

Draw swords and bayonets in bravery
And march with hope and valor on,
Till treason’s perfidy and knavery,
Are with the evils past and gone.

E. H. W.


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