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London: Saturday, January 10, 1863

The Illustrated London News, vol. 42, no. 1183, p. 38.

January 10, 1863

London: Saturday, January 10, 1863.

The attitude of the Federals up to the time of sending away the last mail resembles that of the crew of a vessel which has just sustained a most terrific shock from a monster wave. The fierce blow has been delivered, the ship has reeled, and there ensues a moment of paralysed wonder. By this time, no doubt, the public mind has recovered its elasticity, and is engaged with the fearful details of the Fredericksburg disaster; but we have only evidence how the people have been, for once, stunned by a defeat. And no wonder. A nation that did not feel deeply wounded and humiliated by such a blow would, indeed, be unworthy. It is not the mere fact that a fine army has been crushed and its remnant sent in disgrace across the little river that had been absurdly called its Granicus--heavy reverses have been sustained ere this, and the beaten side has lost nothing save the day and many men, and has rallied and retrieved its laurels; it is that the Fredericksburg disaster is a blow driven home to the very heart of the American system--a blow which has demonstrated to the world that the institutions under which such an event is possible can no longer be relied upon as State mechanism. It is not that an accident has happened to machinery; it is that the machine has proved a failure.

General Burnside has had the courage, or tact, or reckless—

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ness to declare himself solely responsible for the movements which ended in the carnage of Fredericksburg. But the people are not to be deceived by any such transparent advice. It may be perfectly true that the final arrangements for the attack were the General's own; they could hardly be otherwise; but it is notorious that the advance itself was a political as much as a military movement, and was a necessity of party. This is the fatal truth; and in the fact that, in order to meet the exigencies of party, as understood in America, it is permitted to slaughter 10,000 men, is or should be the death-sentence of the present system. It was well known that the attack could be successful only by a miracle, and M'Clellan had preferred to sacrifice his own position as head of the army rather than hurl it upon almost certain destruction. But the party found a General who owned himself no great master of war, and who did not hesitate to rush upon the Confederate intrenchments in a way that proved that he had not under-estimated his own professional ignorance. He was not even supplied with the means of making his mad attack in the best way; his pontoons were "forgotten;" and the whole chapter, from the beginning to the end, was one of misfortune. Still, and here is the most lamentable thing of all, the politicians of the North do not appear to consider that anything discreditable has been done. They are staggered by the magnitude of the slaughter which a party move has caused, but they are unable to see that such a step was one of guilt, or that the conduct of a campaign should be dictated by military considerations and not by the momentary need of a faction. It is difficult for English readers to realise this state of things. Perhaps they may form a very rough idea of it by supposing that we are at war with France; that a French army lies in a very strong position near Boulogne; that the Government, say Lord Palmerston's, is very unpopular, and public credit not good; and that Mr. Disraeli's friends have been winning a great many elections, and threaten a crisis. At this moment, and desirous to please the people by a sign of vigour, Lord Palmerston and the War Secretary intimate to Lord Clyde that at all hazards he must attack the French. Lord Clyde obeys, and leads the army into a semicircle of fire, where, throughout a whole day, our men are mowed down by artillery against which he can do nothing. At night he retreats, leaving ten thousand soldiers on the field; but Lord Palmerston has asserted his reputation for being in earnest, and Mr. Disraeli does not give notice of a vote of want of confidence. That is not a parallel case, but it is sufficiently like what has occurred to make an English reader indignant that such a state of things can be held compatible with Christian civilisation.

This fourth defeat of the North is no doubt very important, but it is not one which adds much to the glory of the South. The day could not have gone otherwise than as it did, and Lee and Jackson must have been astounded at the madness which delivered over the troops of the North to such inevitable destruction. The Confederates had really little to do but to serve their guns, and this they did admirably. Such part of the affair as partook of the nature of a battle did no discredit to either side, and Jackson himself was either forced back, or chose to retreat for a considerable distance. We do not believe the majority of the stories that impute bad fighting to the Northerners. If they fought badly at all it was because they were badly led; and the murderous system--there is no other word for it--of intrusting important movements to officers who have never been educated and have been chosen by election, is responsible for anything like disgrace that may have attached to any of the regiments. The individual American fights excellently while he can depend upon himself; but the moment he is asked for the soldier's faith in his officer he is helpless, for he is in the habit of thinking, and his reason tells him that the officer will probably lead him to be knocked on the head to no good purpose. Then, very likely, the American walks away or runs away; but it is sheer insolence to call this cowardice. Give him officers, and teach him to obey them unhesitatingly, and the chronicle of this war will tell another story.

But it is the system that is ruining the fortunes of the Republic, in the field and out of it. There is no such thing as political conscience; and the soldiers are as much made the counters in the game as they ever were in the old monarchical wars of Europe, against which so many well-deserved taunts used to be launched by popular writers. Only, upon the old kingly vices the Republicans have engrafted new ones of their own. The Kings sent their men to the battle, but it was at least under commanders who knew their business, and who did not throw away life unnecessarily except under circumstances of a very peculiar description. Generals were sometimes accused of not utterly defeating an enemy because it was highly desirable that he should be left strong enough to ensure another year's campaign; but when they fought him they did so in a rational manner, had an object in view, and either gained it or retired in fitting time if the object were unattainable. But the American system sends men into the field under the leadership of officers who are chosen because they have political influence, or can make loud speeches, or are very liberal with their liquor at the tavern bar; or even because they have kept a tavern bar, and have not been over harsh in insisting on the payment of scores. With such machinery of war the enlightened people of America are content, or have been content, to fight the greatest contest which the present generation has seen. It is hardly conceivable that they will not one of these days make short work with a system which makes a battle a mere savage scramble, to which (again thanks to the system) men are hounded on to satisfy the exigencies of faction.

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