The Civil War in AmericaThe Illustrated London News, vol. 39, no. 1097, p. 22.
July 6, 1861
I REALLY have found it impossible to get my pen under way till now. Since I have been down here there has been so much ground to be gone over, such a distance between the subjects sketched, so much information to be gleaned on all sides, that this is positively the first opportunity I have had of writing.
My present head-quarters are in the camp of the 2nd New York Regiment (of which an Engraving was given in our last Number), and I should not be badly located were it not for the mosquitos and an occasional night alarm, both of which disturb one's rest considerably. The former inconvenience goes buzzing about the tent from night to morn, singing round the restless dreamer's ears like the whirr of a rifle-bullet, and waking him up with a start of agony as each shot from the enemy takes effect. The night alarms may possibly become less frequent as our sentries gain more experience in their duties: at present the men are green, and every rustle of the wind among the trees, every sound that breaks the stillness of the night, is taken for the advance of the Secessionists. And here, south of Mason and Dixon's line, on the borders of Virginia, every living thing that crawls the earth or has wings commences its revels at the approach of darkness and continues its riotous proceedings till dawn of day. The bull-frog and tree-toad hoarsely croak their dirges from swamp and wood, the whip-poor-will sighs forth his melancholy plaint, the screech-owl makes night hideous with his unearthly notes, while myriads of fireflies snap about in every direction like the sparks from a blacksmith's anvil, illumining the darkness with their tiny bright lamps. Apropos of green sentries, some very funny incidents have occurred lately, showing their ignorance of their duties. An officer with whom I am acquainted was returning to his quarters at a somewhat late hour, and had to pass through the lines of a strange camp to reach his own. As a matter of course, he was challenged by the sentinel, who was a German, and in answer to the "Who comes there?" replied, as usual, "Friend with the countersign." Now, the challenger should have called out "Approach, friend, and give the countersign," instead of which he, in this instance, yelled at the top of his voice, "Dat ish no goot! you not pass me mitout you say Richemonte." Richmond was the magic word before which all barriers were to fall, and our Lager Beer acquaintance took good care that this knowledge should be widely diffused. Again, the field officer of the day, with an escort, was visiting the posts on an unusually gloomy night, and was brought to a stand by an Irishman with the customary "Who comes there?" To this the Sergeant of the escort replied, "Grand Rounds with the countersign," and waited for the summons to advance, instead of which Pat exclaimed in angry tones, "Botheration to Gran Roons! who the divil is he? I thought it was the ralafe." However, all this will come right in time, and it is but justice to this young army to say that they are doing their best to make soldiers of themselves, and in reality are succeeding admirably.
On the first evening of my arrival at Washington I was honoured with an invitation to the reception at Mr. Secretary Seward's, the Minister of State, and on being presented was received most kindly by him. I found that the ILLUSTRATED LONDON NEWS had its place in the American Cabinet, and my late connection with it had made my name familiar to many whom I met in the Minister's rooms. In the course of a short conversation I had with the Secretary of State I was asked if I thought of following in Mr. Russell's footsteps—that is, going South, and I fancied I could perceive a shade of irritation at the course our great "word-painter" had thought fit to pursue. I disclaimed any idea of so doing, and replied that my fortunes, at least for the present, would be cast with the army of the Union, and that I should study to delineate truthfully, with pen and pencil, without prejudice one way or the other, all that came under my observation. I also suggested that had Mr. Russell, like myself, seen the North as I now saw it he would not have failed in doing justice to the single-hearted enthusiasm of those States whose best men are given to uphold the Union and defend the honour of the national flag. It should be recollected that when Mr. Russell landed the insult to the stars and stripes had not been offered at Fort Sumter, and in reality there was very little outwardly-shown feeling among Northern people. In opposition to this state of things "Our Special Correspondent" found in his journey south a population perspiring enthusiasm from every pore, and strong in their determination to fight to the last man for what they term their State rights. It would be difficult, indeed, to travel among a people so confident of the justice of their cause, and so sanguine of their ultimate success, without becoming to a certain extent a convert to their opinions. Southern hospitality and southern arguments, washed down with southern claret, may be supposed to go far to influence "the chiel amongst them taking notes;" but I very much doubt if Mr. Russell has committed himself in any way. Of one thing I am very certain—that he has truthfully and graphically given his experiences, and, it seems to me, without comment on either side. Be this as it may, Mr. Russell's letters have given great umbrage to the North, and he has personally been attacked by almost every New York paper, the Herald being most rabid in its remarks, and even—I am sorry to say it—threats. The insane ravings of this last journal against England and Englishmen generally would do more to create an ill feeling between the two countries than anything I have seen published on our side of the water; but, fortunately, no respectable person here pays the slightest attention to its "editorials," and I do not suppose they ever obtain the honour of being quoted at home.
In my last I said I would endeavour to say something about the merits of the fratricidal quarrel dividing the North and the South. For many years, until the election of Mr. Lincoln as President, the Central Government of the United States had been in the hands of the Southern party, or Democrats; and during their long period of office they reigned supremely over the North. Tired of this condition of things, the Republicans, or Northern politicians, determined at last to make an effort to overthrow the Democrats, and we all know how they succeeded. Aware of the storm that was brewing, and foreseeing the probable wreck of their political bark, the late Government, composed chiefly of Southern Ministers, prepared for eventualities by acting in a fashion which smacks very much of treason, considering their oath to the Constitution. They transported all kinds of war material South; they distributed the regular Army to remote points where it could be of little service to the incoming Administration, and even had an eye to its being cut off in the event of an uprising of the Southern States; in fact, their agents were diligently preparing for the present unfortunate state of affairs. Even admitting the right of the South to secede, surely it should have taken some constitutional mode of separation instead of commencing a civil war by firing the first shot on Fort Sumter, which the late Government had purposely left in a defenceless state. Is it just or generous, after enjoying the reins of power for years, for a defeated party to excite rebellion in the heart of a great nation and scatter a people whose emblem of nationality has floated proudly in every known portion of the world? What would the English people think if the Palmerston Administration after a defeat, being obligated to resign, were to create a revolution in the country simply because their political creed was no longer in the ascendant? This appears to me to be what the South has done.
Now, what is the distinction between the Democrat and the Republican? The Democrat advocates State rights and the extension of slavery into certain territories belonging to the United States' Government—territories that have not yet been admitted to the Union as States in themselves. "State rights" would seem to imply, and I believe it does, an independent power of action in individual States without reference to the central Government. Such a system once admitted would, I assume, develop itself to an extent scarcely anticipated by those who advocate it; and, instead of a partial Secession movement, every State would declare itself a separate sovereignty, and the Union no longer exist. As for the extension of slavery, this curse should be diminished, not increased; and such is the doctrine of the Republican party, who repudiate the idea of its being taken to those territories where it does not exist, to the exclusion of white labour and enterprise. The Republicans desire the non-extension of this evil, and are advocates of Free-Soil institutions, so that the tide of emigration flowing into North America may carry the energy of the white race to the cultivation of those lands termed territories lately purchased by the Federal Government.
Such are the points at issue between the North and the South, and it remains for others more competent than myself to judge between them. One thing is, however, certain—the North is determined to support the constituted Government and preserve the integrity of the stars and stripes; and to do this she will, if need be, send her thousands, nay, millions, to the field; and, powerful as she is, her ultimate success cannot for a moment be doubted.
A few days since, while scouting about for subjects, I found myself near the advanced posts in the neigbourhood of Fairfax Court House, Virginia. The latter place was in the occupation of the Confederate troops, and orders had been issued for a reconnaissance to be made in that direction to ascertain their numbers. A troop of United States' cavalry was detailed for this purpose, and they made a most gallant charge through the village, contending against a much superior force, and killing and wounding between twenty and thirty of the Confederates, besides bringing off five prisoners. I sent you a sketch of this skirmish in my last (engraved in our Number of the 22nd ult.). Probably the most harassed and exposed of the Union forces are the New York Fire Zouaves, a regiment that was recruited by the Late Colonel Elsworth from the fire companies of the Empire City. They have always been in the van since the commencement of hostilities. They were among the first to cross the Potomac into Virginia, and it was they who lost their Colonel at the occupation of Alexandria, shot by a Secessionist while capturing a Secession flag. Now they are encamped at the very advance, and there is not a night or day that passes that their pickets are not engaged with the enemy. I have made you drawings of their guard turning out to support outlying companies (engraved in our Number for June 22), and also of the burial of one of their men killed in a skirmish close to the camp. The sentry duty at the front is exceedingly hazardous, and very few of those who are posted at night expect to see another day dawn. The country all round is thickly covered with wood, and in the darkness the Secessionists, acquainted with every cowpath, creep softly towards the poor fellow pacing to and fro on the road, taking advantage of every shadow, and profiting by the rustle of every falling leaf, until close upon him, where either the bowie-knife or a rifle shot does the rest. Before assistance can reach the unfortunate sentinel the assassin-for this kind of warfare is nothing better than assassination-has fled through a track known only to himself, and, mounting his horse, tethered some two or three hundred yards off, he gallops to Fairfax, to boast of the valiant deed of which he is the hero.
In my next I shall give you my adventures with a scouting party, from which I have just returned with Sketches; also a description of the respective positions of the two armies, &c., &c.