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Recollections From 1860 to 1865 by John Henry Lewis

Recollections From 1860 to 1865, pp. 3-12
John Henry Lewis

Ex-Lieutenant in Huger’s, and R. H. Anderson’s, and Pickett's Divisions, Army of Northern Virginia.

In the spring of 1860 the writer of this little book was in the city of Savannah, State of Georgia. There had been unrest in the South for a number of years, but since the John Brown raid the year before it had somewhat increased, until now it had culminated in talk of separation, and even war. In April of this year the Democratic convention met at Charleston, South Carolina, and had dissolved in discord, which caused things in political circles to assume a very threatening outlook, for unless the Democratic party both North and South united there was a possibility—in fact, a great probability—that the Abolitionists, or Black Republican party, as it was then called, would elect the President; and that event to the people of the extreme South seemed to mean separation, or perhaps war, as in all this talk of separation there was always linked with it a possibility of war.

This subject continued to be discussed everywhere, and finally in June the Black Republican party met in Chicago, Illinois, and made its nominations for President and Vice-President, Lincoln and Hamlin. On the receipt of this news the people of the South became more earnest in their talk, and did not hesitate to openly talk of secession and war. They even at this early date commenced to form clubs for war purposes. Thus things went on, and the bitterness grew as the time for the election approached. I being a Virginian by birth and a Southerner by education naturally sided with the South, and opposed the Republican party; but not being quite as hotheaded as the extreme Southerners, I looked on the situation with more coolness than they.

In the early days, or in fact from June to November, as I said, the talk of war increased. It was thought by the people of the North that only slave owners were engaged in this war talk. This was an error; the major portion of the people of the city of Savannah, and I think of all the extreme Southern States, were, or seemed to be from my observation, generally united on the subject. It was not a question of slaves, or of dollars and cents; but among intelligent citizens of all classes it was principle and right, as they understood it. As I said, being a Virginian I was not quite as hotheaded as the people of this city, and I listened to the talk of war with a hope that in some way it would be averted. I was no politician, and did not know how it might be done; it was all hope with me. 

The latter part of October I returned to my home in Virginia (Portsmouth), and I found that war and secession was also the general topic there, but not quite to the extent that it was further south. Still the question was never lost sight of, and it grew as time passed. The election came, and the wires flashed through the country the election of Lincoln for President of the United States.

The smoking embers of discord at once broke into a flame, and commenced to burn with fearful ferocity. As had been surmised, the people of the States of South Carolina, Georgia, Texas, Louisiana, Florida, and Alabama openly asserted that they would not submit to the rule of the Black Republican party, and would secede from the Government of the United States.

While there were but few out-and-out Secessionists at this time in Virginia, 90 per cent of the Virginians were in sympathy with their sister States of the South, and while they hoped there would be no war, and were in favor of using all honorable means to avert such a calamity, yet Virginia, with all of the border States, deep down in their "heart of hearts," had fully determined that if the Southern States did secede, that no troops should cross their border to coerce them into submission.

As early as December 20 South Carolina had formally seceded from the United States, and the States of Georgia, Texas, Louisiana, Florida, and Alabama had followed her in quick succession. Time passed on, and the early spring of 1861 found the country in great unrest and excitement. In the month of March there were differences of opinion in the border States as to the action they would take, but I was of the opinion that, when all honorable means of settlement had been exhausted, that the border States would take sides with the South. It could not well be otherwise; and so it proved. Time passed with this continual excitement; Virginia had elected members to a convention to meet in Richmond in April, to decide the course Virginia would take. It was rather of a Union complexion, but while in session events took place that altered the entire situation, and on the 18th of April, 1861, the convention passed the ordinance of secession. The news was flashed over the State, and all differences of opinion disappeared, with few exceptions. And the grand old State bared her bosom for the conflict; she had cast her lot with her sisters of the South.

And taking in consideration her former position among the States, and her high and honorable career in ^the past, there was no doubt that she as a State would remain steadfast to the end. The people felt that they had exhausted all honorable means to avert the catastrophe; they had stood as mediators between the extremists of the North and South, and there was but one course left; she chose what she believed to be the path of honor and what she believed to be right.

I well remember the receipt of the news and its effect in my town, Portsmouth. Up to that time there had been differences of opinion; but immediately on the seceding of the State the whole population became united, as they had been taught from childhood that while it was a duty to love their country, it was obligatory to love their State and obey her decrees "first, last, and all the time." Believing thus, it is no wonder that when on April 20 the Government called out the Third Virginia Regiment of Volunteers seven hundred men promptly answered the call, and were ready to do battle for the State and the South.

This regiment was assembled at one o'clock on April 20, 1861, and on that night the war commenced jn earnest; it is true that Sumter had been fired on and evacuated; but that night, at the Gosport navy-yard, was seen the terrors of what war would be; the yard with all its shipping and buildings, and vast stores of ammunition, went up in flames; and amid the red glare of fire, with the boom of artillery from loaded guns left on the old battle ship Pennsylvania, and as the fire reached them were discharged; amid this glare and the passing of the Federal fleet down the river, with shotted guns and ports open for action, bearing on the two cities, that section of Virginia, and the whole State was firmly cemented to the cause of the South; and men who had been opposed to war, and were lukewarm, became hot advocates and rushed to do battle for their State and the cause of the South.

All of the border States soon followed Virginia and the South became united "for weal or woe," and so remained until the final climax at Appomattox. There might have been, and probably was, mismanagement on the part of the civil Government of the Confederate States, but there was no weakness, no shrinking, in her soldiers. From each and every part of the South her sons came forward to the support of her cause, and from Manassas to Appomattox in the East, and from Shiloh to the surrender of Johnson in North Carolina, and beyond the mighty Mississippi, all stood shoulder to shoulder as they had bound themselves in the beginning, and they fell together in the mighty crash, everything gone save honor and the memory of the graves of their comrades. These were left them as a heritage, as a reminder of the heroic struggle, and it becomes the duty of the living to see that the memory of our dead does not suffer, and to teach our children and the youth of our southland their duty to the memories of their ancestors.

In a few days after Virginia joined hands with the Southern States troops began to arrive within her borders from the South, this being tidewater one of the important points they naturally were sent here. And, being myself in this locality, Ports mouth, Virginia, I shall commence my recollections at this point, and give them as I progress from place to place. Remember that these recollections are written from memory, and perhaps dates may vary a little, but in the main will be correct. The statements will be given as they occurred, without drawing on the imagination. In fact, I shall try to make these recollections true to history as regards the incidents therein.

Naturally, all was bustle and hurry; war was new to us. With soldiers arriving and to be provided for, new officers to appoint, such as quartermasters and commissaries, the vast amount of camp equipage and rations, kept everybody on the move, but soon things began to assume shape, and quiet and order were restored. The Virginia troops and all of the material of war captured in the Gosport navy-yard remained under the Virginia authorities for a time, about two months; the heavy guns were being shipped to various points south, and distributed to the different batteries in the harbor. Soon we were in condition in and around Norfolk and Portsmouth to resist any fleet that might attempt to enter. The troops as they arrived were placed in camp, and began the routine life of the soldier, drilling, doing guard duty, eating and sleeping; in fact, in a month or so a great many of the soldiers began to look on the matter as a holiday, and few thought they would ever be called on to fight, it seemed to the great fear at this time with many of the soldiers that the war would close before they would have th e pleasure of killing some one; many of us had in after years worried for fear somebody might kill us. 

Thus the days went by, and with the pranks of the boys who were learning all kinds of deviltry, as soldiers in camp generally learn; even then camp hung heavy on all hands; but this was only the beginning. New things and new duties were to come, of which we little dreamed. Great numbers of soldiers had assembled in that vicinity, and were placed first under the command of General Gwynn, but at the time of which I write were under the command of General Huger, of South Carolina. There was possibly 10,000 men in that vicinity, and all seemed to be trying to do as little as they could and get as much pleasure out of the situation, and all were always ready to draw their rations and pay. I recollect the first pay was paid Virginia troops by the State, and the next pay was by the Confederate States, in new Confederate notes, and the people were paying 20 per cent premium for it as souvenirs. Some of the people who bought at that time had boxes of it at the close of the war One gentleman, a dealer in wood, at that time told me at the close of the war he had about ir'200,000 of it, and as Congress made no provision for its redemption I suppose he has it yet. But at the time of which I write there were few people who did not believe the war would be over in less than a year, with the independence of the South.

We had quite a long line of coast and considerable back territory to guard in that department, but very little fighting in the first year. One incident took place early in June that varied the monotony for a time. Early in May the company to which I belonged had been posted at Pigs Point, at the mouth of the Nansemond River, and had constructed a battery, mounting several heavy guns. On June 5 the steamer Harriet Lane approached within about one and one-fourth miles, and opened fire on us. The battery was in command of Catesby Jones of the Confederate Navy, who afterwards was second officer of the Merrimac, the famous iron clad. The men had been drilled by him, and among other accomplishments they were taught to lie down to escape the fire of an enemy, and it was surprising to see them execute this movement. They would fall at a flash, seldom waiting for any command, hut sure to obey it promptly when given. The fight went on for about 20 minutes, and tho steamer withdrew with several wounded. This little affair was looked upon as quite a battle, and created siderable excitement in that vicinity, and in Norfolk and Portsmouth.

As it was only 13 miles from from those two cities, the news soon reached them with various shades of truth; many were killed by common report, but as a matter of fact, no one was injured. But as we were soldiers of Portsmouth it was but natural that there would be some uneasiness felt by our friends. While there was no one hurt, I assure you that every man in that company, from the captain to the cook, became heroes in their own estimation, and all of them desired at once to go to town that they might show the people what a hero looked like.

I have often in after years looked back on this event and smiled at the vanity of man, but as I write this memory also goes back to the past and deep feelings of sorrow rise up when I remember many a man, who was present on that occasion, now sleeping in bloody graves on far distant fields, who had become real heroes, and died amid the shock of battle, giving their lives for a cause that they believed to be right and just, and leaving a name and memory behind them that should be cherished and remembered with honor, as should the memories of all the soldiers of the South as long as the sun shines on this Southland of ours. The North has its pension list as a reminder of its glory, but the South has nothing but its honor and its graves, as a reminder of duty done, and may this and all future generations resolve to protect the one and cherish the memory of the other by continuing to scatter flowers on their graves. I thank God that the rising monuments of lasting granite and marble throughout tne South give evidence that the present generation will leave reminders for future generations that we did reverence and honor our dead, and may every old soldier teach his children and the rising youth that they should as a duty to themselves protect the honor and memory of their ancestors.

John H. Lewis, Recollections From 1860 to 1865 (Washington D. C.: Peake & Company, Publishers, 1895), 3-12.


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