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An essay by George William Curtis

Review Of Union Troops

Title:     Review Of Union Troops
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]


The victorious armies had marched home and into history. The two days of review at the end of May was a spectacle not likely to be forgotten by those who saw it or did not see it. It belonged to that series of events for which there is no precedence, because there never was before a continental republic. Like every remarkable occurrence in these remarkable days of ours, the disbanding of the armies of the East and West, and their quiet absorption into the mass of the people, is a spectacle which has another illustration to the extreme practicability of a popular government. Usually the return of the victorious army is dreaded by its country somewhat as its advance is by the enemy, and government provides other wars to employ it. But our men are citizens who have been defending their own rights. It is their own government they have been maintaining. The endeavor to represent the government as a power different from the people and dangerous to their liberty has failed several times during the war, and will always fail so long as the broadest base of the government is jealously guarded. And nothing is more honorable to human nature, nothing so truly vindicates the wisdom of our institutions and the faith that supports them, than that during the Civil War, of which the event seemed sometimes doubtful, there has not been even the suspicion of a desire upon the part of any popular general to seize power and dictate to the authorities. Indeed, in the only instance in which such a whisper was breathed the suggestion was known to come from the politicians who surrounded the general, and not from himself.

The review was, according to all reports, a noble sight. The Army of the Potomac, which, often baffled, at last struck the crowning blow of the war, and the Army of the West, whose history is immortal, poured through the capital amid the shouts and exultation of thousands of spectators, and marched, with the inspiring clash and peal of martial music, before the President, the Lieutenant-General, and the notable civilians all the day. The Western Army had with them the spoils of war: large red roosters and fighting-cocks, tied on to the backs of mules; cows, donkeys, and goats came also. The army moved as though Washington were but a village upon the road of its march through Georgia or the Carolinas. The critical spectators thought they observed the Western men were of a finer physique and more entirely American, and the Eastern of a stricter military drill. The slouched hat was worn by the officers and men of the West, the French kepi by the more showy Eastern officers. Sherman himself, the hero of the magnificent campaign which the Richmond papers said was merely the flight of an arrow through the air--but which literally pierced the rebellion to the heart--was saluted by the grandest acclamations. History will rank him with the really great soldiers. His men are very proud of him--how could they help it?--and if for a moment there was wonder at his arrangements with Johnson, there is no man now so poor as to doubt his sincerity or question his patriotism.

It would have been pleasant if, with the other heroes, the eager, proud crowd could have seen General Thomas, the soldier who, by indomitable tenacity, saved the day at Chickamauga and destroyed the rebel army before Nashville; but he was on duty elsewhere.

As the armies passed it must have been impossible to forget--as in reading of the spectacle we constantly remember--the disbanding of the army of the Revolution. The soldiers at the review are only a part of the men now in arms, yet they were about two hundred thousand. Since the war began there have been many more than a million in the armies. During the Revolution (as we learn from Professor G. W. Greene's very interesting volume on the Revolution), there were altogether in the service 239,791 regulars in the Continental army and 56,163 of the militia, and the sufferings of that early army are not to be described. "During the first winter soldiers thought it hard that they should have nothing to cook their food with; but they found, before the close, that it was harder still to have nothing to cook." Few Americans have ever known what it was to suffer for want of clothing; but thousands, as the war went on, saw their garments falling by piecemeal from around them, till scarce a shred remained to cover their nakedness. They made long marches without shoes, staining the frozen ground with the blood from their feet. They fought battles with guns which were hardly safe to bear half a charge of powder. They fought, or marched, or worked at the intrenchments all day, and laid them down at night with but one blanket to three men.

Mr. Greene tells us that the condition of the officers was hardly better than that of the men. They, too, had suffered cold and hunger; they, too, had been compelled to do duty without sufficient clothing, to march and watch and fight without sufficient food. We are told of a dinner where no officer was admitted who had a whole pair of pantaloons, and of all who were invited there was not one who did not establish his claims for admission.

The treatment of the army of the Revolution by the Continental Congress was unworthy the fame of that body which Lord Chatham so loftily praised to Dr. Franklin. The army was disbanded stealthily, "as if the nation were afraid to look their deliverers in the face; all through the summer of 1783 furloughs were granted freely, and the ranks gradually thinned. Then on the 18th of October a final proclamation was issued for their discharge. On the 2d of November Washington issued his final orders from Rocky Hill, near Princeton. On the 3d they were disbanded. There was no formal leave-taking. Each regiment, each company, went when it chose. Men who had stood side by side in battle, who had shared the same tent in summer, the same hut in winter, parted, never to meet again. Some still had homes, and, therefore, definite hopes. But hundreds knew not whither to go.... For a few days taverns and streets were crowded. For weeks soldiers were to be seen on every road, or lingering bewildered about public places, like men who were at a loss to know what to do with themselves. There were no ovations for them as they came back, toilworn before their time, to the places that had once known them; no ringing of bells; no eager opening of hospitable doors. The country was tired of the war, tired of the sound of the drum and fife; anxious to get back to sowing and reaping, to buying and selling, and town meetings, and general elections."

These were the veterans of one of the most glorious and important wars in the progress of the race. Yet the men who were so unhandsomely suffered to depart from the service were also grudgingly paid when they were released. "Their claims were disputed inch by inch. Money which should have been given cheerfully as a righteous debt was doled out with a reluctant hand as a degrading charity."

It is refreshing to turn from the page of this melancholy historian to the newspaper of to-day, and read that the men who have received the jubilant ovation of the review are not only to be paid in full and at once, as the most sacred of national debts, but that the most strenuous effort will be made to employ them by preference in the public offices to which they may be fitted, while private persons will bear in mind the same just and generous purpose. Indeed, there is no forgetfulness of the soldiers of to-day. The sense of their vital service to the country is universal and commanding. They will be honored heroes while they live, and our children shall be proud that we cherish them.

It is not easy even yet, although the victors have returned and are disbanded, fully to comprehend that the war is over and the country saved. But it is so, and the living and the dead are joined in a glorious remembrance. How many an eye must have grown dim, swimming in tears as it gazed on the splendid pageant because of the brave and beautiful who had shared the peril and the long, long doubt and struggle, but not the triumph of victory and return. The victory is won; the country is saved; but at what inestimable cost! Four years ago Theodore Winthrop fell at Great Bethel, on a summer morning, and those that loved him learned that the war had begun. Three years ago, on a winter evening, Joseph Curtis sank dead from his horse at Fredericksburg, and Theodore Parkman perished at Princeton on an autumn day. Two years ago, on a soft midsummer night, Robert Shaw fell upon the ramparts of Wagner, and was "buried with his niggers." Eight months ago, in the Shenandoah Valley, Charles Lowell died at Cedar Creek, in the very shock of victory. They were five only, all young, and they gave gladly for us all that makes life glad and beautiful. Yet how many as young and brave and beloved as they have died like them, and, like them, are remembered and mourned! They, too, let us believe, smile still above us, and bend over us with serene joy at this happy time. Let their sweet memory hallow our jubilee! Let us take care that our lives are worthy their glorious death.


APRIL, 1865

A most genial and friendly letter to the Easy Chair, dated simply "Home," and speaking tenderly of the late President, reminds us that our loss is a blow to every home in the country. This peculiar personal affection for Mr. Lincoln was so evident that every orator spoke of it, and with an emotion that attends a private sorrow. No tribute could be so pathetic and so suggestive of the character of the man who had more deeply endeared himself to the heart and fixed himself in the confidence of the American people than any man in our history. Among the inscriptions that were displayed during the days of mourning in the city there was one hung upon a shop that was touching in its very baldness: "Alas! alas! our father Abraham is dead." That was the feeling in all true hearts and homes. It was a feeling which no Cæsar, no Charlemagne, no Napoleon ever inspired. The Netherlands wept with a sorrow as sore for the Prince of Orange, France bewailed with romantic grief the death of Henry IV. But the people of England and France were comparatively few, and the relation between the victims and the mourners was that of prince and subjects. Our leader was one of the poorest of the people. He was great in their greatness. They felt with him and for him as one of themselves, and in his fall, more truly than Rome in that of Cæsar, we all fell down.

The month of April, 1865, was curiously eventful in the annals of this country. General Grant moved upon the enemy's works, and Petersburg and Richmond fell. He pursued and fought the retreating army, and the rebel commander-in-chief surrendered. In the very jubilee of a national joy the President was murdered. While yet his body was borne across the country by the reverent hands of a nation, his murderer was tracked, brought to bay, shot, and buried in a nameless spot to protect his corpse from wild popular fury. In the midst of the tragical days General Sherman, whom, only last month, the Easy Chair was celebrating as so skilful and resistless a soldier, instead of summoning Johnston to a surrender upon the terms granted to Lee, allowed himself to sign recognition of the rebel government and to open a future political discord, while he was yet able to prescribe the simple surrender of an army. The shock of disappointment and regret was universal. The authorities unanimously disapproved his convention. The Lieutenant-General went immediately to the front, and the month that had opened with President Lincoln trusted and beloved, with Davis defended by Lee and his army in the rebel capital, and Sherman confronted by Johnston, and Mobile holding out, closed with the rebel capital in possession of the government, Lee a paroled prisoner, his army disbanded, Davis a skulking fugitive, Johnston and his army paroled prisoners, Mobile captured, President Lincoln dead, President Johnson at the head of the government, and the assassin dead and buried.

Through such a succession of great events this country had never as rapidly passed. It swept the scale of emotion. From the height of joy triumphant it sank to the very depths of sorrow, from confidence and pride in a military leader it passed to humiliating amazement, yet not for a moment paused in its work or shook in its purpose, and was never so calm, so strong, so grand, as in that tumult of emotion.

Every man who has been proud of his country hitherto has now profounder cause for pride. Our system has been tried in every way; it rises purified from the fire. No one man is essential to her, however deeply beloved, however generously trusted. The history of the war from May, 1861, to May, 1865, proves that she cannot be hopelessly bereaved. The sceptics who have sneered, the timid who have feared, the shrewd who have doubted, must now see that the principles of popular government have been amply vindicated. We have only clearly to understand and fearlessly to trust these principles, and the future, like the past, is secure.

In the earlier days of the war a sagacious foreign observer, resident in the country, said that he feared we were making a mistake perilous to the American principle. The suspension of the habeas corpus he thought a very dangerous political, however necessary a military, experiment it might be. But he was answered by another European, who had been a political pupil of Cavour's, that, unlike such an act in other countries, it was here done by the people themselves, and they must be trusted in it, or else the whole American experiment failed. Such power must be used, he said; the crucial test is the way in which it is used. If the people cannot use it in a way which shall be permanently harmless, then they are not capable of self-government. Oh, wise young judge! In the whole world no heart will be more sincerely glad, no face more bright with joy, or sadder with sorrow, at the strange April news from America than yours!

What a May day! Stricken as all hearts are, what a May day! Budding and blooming on every hand, on every hill-side and meadow and wood, flushing and glittering with the lavish beauty of the spring softly gliding over grieving hearts, and with her royal touch healing our varied sorrow, came the Queen of May, for whom the people sighed and the land yearned, came the well-beloved, the long-desired, palms in her hand and doves flying before her; and the name of that May-day Queen was Peace.

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Review Of Union Troops