Skip to main content


From... Life In the Confederate Army: Being the Observations and Experiences Of An Alien In the South During the American Civil War (1888) by William Watson

From... Life In the Confederate Army: Being the Observations and Experiences Of An Alien In the South During the American Civil War (1888)
William Watson 
(From Skelmorlie Scotland)

Chapter VI


On the left bank of the Mississippi river, about 130 miles above New Orleans, is the city of Baton Rouge. This place is finely situated on the first point of high land which meets the eye on ascending the Mississippi, It stands on a pleasant elevation and is (or was at that time) a dry, clean town, and a somewhat pleasant place to live in.
The place was in 1860 the capital or seat of Government of the State of Louisiana. At the lower end of the city was situated the Capitol, or House of Parliament, or State Legislature, a somewhat imposing structure, and presenting a very fine appearance from the river. Here sat the State Legislators. Near to the Capitol, a little further down was another building of nearly the same size and design, and similar appearance from the river, but of a very different nature. It was the deaf and dumb asylum. There was also the State penitentiary and other State institutions. These buildings and a large part of the city were burned and levelled to the ground during the war. At the upper end of the city was one of the principal United States arsenals in the Souths and a garrison with barracks for about 1000 men.
In this arsenal large stores of ordnance, small arms, ammunition, and army equipments were manufactured and kept, and the place was garrisoned by a detachment of United States troops, a part of the regular standing army of the United States.
This arsenal was the depot from which all the forts in the gulf States were supplied with munitions of war. The forts on the Indian frontier, the forts at Galveston, and along the coasts of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, were also supplied from this depot. There were several powder magazines, immense piles of shot and shell, about 1000 pieces of heavy ordnance, and about 200,000 stands of small arms, many of the latter no doubt were not of the newest patterns, with large stores of ammunition and cavalry equipage.
A number of men were constantly employed here in the manufacture of gun-carriages and other stores and equipments. It might be said to have been the Woolwich of the South.
This city, though not by any means a large commercial city, was a place of considerable importance, was a great rendezvous of the sugar and cotton planters, and being the seat of Government and the residence of the Governor and other State officials, it was the centre of politics. It was in this place, after having been for some years engaged in engineering in different parts of the State, that I resided for several years immediately preceding the war, and I had become connected as a junior partner in an engineering establishment in the place. The same company also carried on a sawmilling and wood factory and a coal and steamboat business.
Though not a citizen of the United States, I had, partly for pleasure and partly for policy, been an active member of the town company of rifle volunteers.
In the summer of 1860 everything went well and prosperous in this place. The fluctuations of business were here not much felt. People in general were contented and happy, and the community had been greatly enlivened this summer by the first introduction of a state fair, or exhibition, which proved a great success. Permission to hold the fair within the spacious garrison grounds had been given by the United States officers, who vied with the citizens in their endeavours to encourage and promote the object. Visitors and exhibitors came from all parts of the United States. Many Northern manufacturers exhibited their goods and obtained orders, all tending to revive that friendly trade and communication which canting fanatics and strife manufacturers had done so much to impair. Many of the planters in the neighbourhood gave their slaves a holiday to visit the exhibition, and to see these sable gentry happy for the day, dressed in the height of fashion, meeting with friends from other plantations, gracefully pulling off their gloves to shake hands, or the "gentlemen" raising their hats to "ladies" at an introduction, was certainly a part of the exhibition not the least worth seeing. Several companies of volunteers from different parts of the State joined with the United States  troops stationed in the garrison in a grand review, and the several volunteer companies competed for prizes to be awarded to the best drilled companies, the officers of the army being the judges. The company of which I was a member won the second prize, which we carried off amid the loud plaudits of the officers and men of the United States army. We little dreamt at the time of the very different terms on which we were destined to meet ere one short year had passed.
The never-failing theme of politics, which during the excitement of the exhibition had partially been set aside by the population at this place, before the exhibition grounds had been cleared off, was renewed with a vigour as if to make up for lost time, and culminated in the dissolution of the Union, followed by the war and all its disastrous consequences. To break up and dissever a great Federal Union, the very name of which was and always had been cherished with almost a sacred reverence by a great people, and had been held up by them as the pride of the world, may be regarded as a most striking instance of the instability of public opinion. 
This was the more striking in this case when it is remembered that the section which had hitherto been apparently, and I believe sincerely, the most zealous in their desire to maintain the Union should make the first move to disintegrate it.
I well remember the storm of indignation which scarcely a year before passed over the whole South when the first idea of disunion was mooted in Congress—this was by a Northern abolitionist. It was when Mr. N. P. Banks, Speaker in the House of Representatives, at Washington, in a moment of excitement used the expression—"Let the Union slide!"—"Let Mr. Banks slide," was the echo from nearly every journal and man in the South. Such a treasonable expression coming from the leader of a party was denounced and regarded as most damaging to that party, and liberally applied against them by Southern orators. Yet, strange to say, before two years had passed, Mr. Banks was fighting against the South to keep the Union from " sliding," and the South, which had denounced Mr. Banks for the expression, was fighting to be separated from the Union.
I may here observe that at the time Butler seized the specie and closed up the banks in New Orleans, this same Banks (then General Banks) was hard pressed by Stonewall Jackson in Northern Virginia, and was the subject of the following jeu d' esprit:—"While Butler plays his roguish pranks, And stops the run of Southern banks, Our Stonewall Jackson by his cunning, Keeps Northern Banks for ever running."
To fully account for what would seem to be a strange revulsion of sentiment, and how that revolution was brought about and secession accomplished, would be presumption in an obscure  individual entirely outside of political or Government circles.
I can merely attempt to describe to the best of my recollection events as they happened under my own observation and experience, and which were daily witnessed and commented upon at the time by myself and others of my acquaintance and associates, most of whom were better tutored and took more interest in politics than myself.
To do this it will be necessary to advert to the political subjects which then agitated the public mind, and give an outline of the different parties how they originated and existed in 1860.
The all-absorbing topic at this time was the election of a President. This is an election in which the general people take more interest than any other. It takes place every fourth year, and is a national question equally interesting to all parts of the Union, and may be taken as a test of the public sentiment on the leading political questions of the day.
It is an election which calls forth an enormous amount of political oratory, and the influence of each party is strained to the utmost. Nevertheless, I believe there is less actual corruption either in the nomination or in the voting in this election than in most other elections. But there seems to me to be a rather singular defect in the system of electing a President.
The President is supposed to be elected by the popular vote of the whole nation (South Carolina excepted), every citizen giving his vote singly and individually for the candidate of his choice, which he does by dropping into the ballot-box a billet with the names of the candidates he favours for president and vice-president. The vote is taken in every part of the United States in one day. Notwithstanding this a candidate may be elected against whom by far the largest number of individual votes have been polled. 
This does not arise from any corruption in the election, but by the system of carrying out the election by means of what is called the Electoral College.
Each State forms an electoral district, and each State, according to the number of its population, is entitled to a certain number of electors or electoral votes for president. This system, as generally described, would imply that the people only vote for a certain number of electors to whom is entrusted the power of electing a president; but this is not so. Electors are no doubt appointed by each State for their respective candidates, but these electors are merely nominal, and have no power whatever beyond formally presenting the vote of the State in favour of the candidate who has polled the greatest number of individual votes in the State.
The candidate who polls the greatest number of individual votes in a State carries that State with the whole electoral votes of that State, and any candidate to be elected must have a majority of electoral votes over all the other candidates combined should there be more than two. Notwithstanding, a discrepancy may arise in this way:—Take, for instance, the State of New York, allowing it to have, say, 300,000 voters, and is entitled in proportion to 45 electoral votes. Virginia has, say, 100,000 voters, and is entitled in proportion to 15 electoral votes. A. and B. are candidates for president. In the State of New York, when the votes in the ballot-boxes are counted, it is found that A. has polled 160,000 votes and B. has polled 140,000. Thus A. has carried the State and gained 45 electoral votes for president.
In the State of Virginia, when the votes in the ballot boxes are counted, it is found that A. has polled only 15,000 votes and B. 85,000; thus it will be seen that in those two States only 175,000 of the citizen voters have voted for A., yet he has obtained 45 electoral votes for president, while 225,000 have voted for B. and he has only 15 electoral votes for president.
This, of course, is showing a possibility and an extreme case, and there is no doubt when the whole of the States come to be taken together the chances of the candidates become more equalized. Nevertheless the instance given shows the possibility of a president being elected by a minority, particularly if a political question arises affecting the geographical position, as was the case in 1860.
I understand that Mr. Lincoln, though having a majority of electoral votes over all the other candidates combined, was still very much in the minority by the popular vote. This of course could be easily accounted for, as the South was almost unanimously against him, and in some of the States his name never appeared at all; while in some of the Northern States which gave him a large electoral vote, he carried the State by a very small majority. He was therefore what was called a minority president.
The long-standing political parties in the United States were the Whig party, which dated from the revolution and war of independence. The Democratic party sprung up shortly after the death of Washington, about the beginning of the present century, and during the administration of Thomas Jefferson, who has been called the father of democracy. It was strengthened some twenty-five years later by Andrew Jackson, and got into the ascendancy, and the Whig party began to go down.
In 1853 another party was started on the ruins of the Whig party, called the "Native American" or "Know-nothing" party. This party was somewhat hostile to foreigners and naturalised citizens, and lasted but a short time. 
Another party then sprung up in opposition to the Democratic party, afterwards called the Republican party. This party was composed of different sects, all more or less opposed to slavery. This party in 1856 ran John C. Fremont as a candidate for president against James Buchanan for the Democratic party, and Mr. Filmore for the Native American party, when Mr. Buchanan was elected by a majority over Mr. Fremont and Mr. Filmore combined. One of the professed objects of the Fremont party was said to be the settlement of the negro question by establishing a negro republic in Africa or some other place. Hence it got in the South the name of the "Black Republican party."
In 1860, when Mr. Buchanan's term of office was drawing to a close, the position of parties was somewhat confused and complicated. The Democratic party having been long in power was now regarded by many, both North and South, as having become hopelessly corrupt. The Native American party having made such a poor show at the election of 1856 by carrying only one State (the State of Maryland) was now considered extinct.
The Republican party had considerably increased in the North, but as it was hostile to slavery, it was rigidly suppressed in the South, and as it increased in strength, so increased the hostile feeling between North and South. Dark hints as to the danger of a dissolution of the Union now began to be thrown out.
The alleged corruptness of the Democratic party, and the danger of disunion supposed to arise from the increasing power of the Republican party in the North, was the means of stirring up in 1860 a large portion of the more moderate men of all parties, both North and South, to organise a party whose avowed principles were to uphold the Constitution, the Union, and the enforcement of the laws. The Democrats opposed that party, considering such sentiments quite superfluous.
The Constitution, they considered, was embodied in the principles and platform of the Democratic party. The Union they considered to be in no danger, and they scouted the idea of a disruption. The only union they considered necessary to preserve was the union of the Democratic party. The enforcement of the laws, they considered, was quite sufficiently attended to, at least for their purpose. Probably some of their leaders supposed that if the laws were very rigidly enforced, they might not then have been enjoying that glorious liberty they were so constantly prating about.
There was, no doubt, a few of the leading politicians of each party who entertained a slight idea of this kind. After holding a convention at Charleston, the Southern parties failed to come to any agreement upon a candidate, and the convention broke up, each determining to act independently, the Democrats nominating as their candidate John C. Breckenridge, who was vice-president during Buchanan's administration, and Mr. Lane as vice-president.
The Constitutional and Union party nominated as their candidate John Bell for president, and Edward Everitt for vice-president.
The Republican party, who held a convention at Chicago, nominated as their candidate Mr. Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, There was also another candidate, a Mr, Douglas of Illinois, who came forward in the interests of the Northern Democrats, so that there were in all four candidates in the field for president, each party holding forth their respective views, and the political atmosphere was much troubled, a great many of the people not knowing or regarding much the different narrow points set forth by the leaders as questions of vital importance, and the result of the election seemed to depend a good deal upon chance.
Mr. Lincoln was not at that time regarded as an abolitionist or in favour of abolishing slavery within the States where it at the time existed. He was what was called a "Free Soiler," that is, he was against any further extension of slavery, and was for confining it to certain limits south of a certain parallel of latitude, and that it should be prohibited in any of the territories.
This view did not seem unreasonable to moderate men in the South, and I believe was privately acquiesced in by most reasonable men, but it was not the Southern politics of the day. The seeds of discord had been too thickly sown, and the strife and enmity so effectually stirred up between North and South by the canting abolitionists of the North and the bullying fire-eaters of the South, that every word was distrusted, and such doctrine dared not be even talked of in the South.
Mr. Lincoln's nomination, his election, and subsequent popularity I consider arose more from a train of circumstances than from any high qualification as a statesman. Some of these circumstances had a smack of the humorous or comical, which is a most powerful factor in American politics and elections. He was facetious in conversation, and his speeches were characterised by an amount of humour which never failed to bring him thunders of applause; and let a man get the name of being a humourist and every sentence he utters is considered as entitled to a laugh, although it may be difficult sometimes to see where the laugh comes in. The anecdotes attributed to Lincoln, some of which were not of the most refined nature, would have filled a volume.
I have always observed that some trivial incident or event coupled with a candidate's name or profession, and more especially if this has obtained for him some favourable sobriquet, is a most powerful agency, particularly with mob or bunkum at elections.
When Mr. Lincoln's name was put before the Republican party as a candidate for president at the Chicago convention, as a testimonial of his qualification a bundle of old fence rails was carried into the convention hall by some of his admirers and supporters, and displayed as having been split by him in his younger days. While this was used as a text in the speeches of his supporters, it called forth a good deal of joking and jeering from his opponents, and was the cause of some squibs appearing in the newspapers, such as—"Mr. Editor. Please put down my name as a candidate for President of the United States. I split rails in this State thirty years ago; I am sound on the goose. Yours, Bill Stubbins."
All this, however, only tended to bring Lincoln's name more before the public, and whether he obtained the nomination on the strength of his skill in splitting rails or from some other qualification I don't know, but there was something in the matter so pertaining to rural or backwood life as to make the name savour of homely, honest industry, that it obtained for him the sobriquet of "Honest Abe."
This appellation was, perhaps, one of the chief agents that elected him to office, and gave him his high popularity; and I have no doubt that thousands voted merely for "Honest Abe" without knowing or considering what was the qualification or policy of the man himself. This sobriquet adhered to him and strengthened his popularity to the end of his days, and added greatly to the deep emotion and excitement caused by his tragical end. He was no doubt a good, honest, and well meaning man, altogether too honest and simple for the trying position he had to fill and the artful wire-pullers around him.
But I never could see that he possessed any extraordinary talent or sagacity as a statesman. Nothing in my opinion can be more absurdly ridiculous or traducive to the memory of one of the world's greatest men than the presumption of comparing even in the smallest degree Lincoln with Washington, if it was for nothing more than the respect for virtue that the very presence of Washington commanded.
It might be said that, while the most unprincipled jobbery and corruption would revel in Lincoln's very presence, the perpetrators of it hoodwinking him by flattery or using him as a buffet, one stern look from George Washington, as he stood forth a pillar of what was noble and good in man, would have paralyzed them with terror.
When Mr. Lincoln was nominated I do confidently believe that among the great masses of Southern people the thought was not for one moment indulged that his election would cause a dissolution of the Union. Mr. Lincoln was not regarded by the South as a man of extreme partisan views or a man of great political powers, and he openly declared that his policy was not to interfere in any way with slavery in the States where it already existed. Thus his nomination did not cause much excitement among the great body of the real industrious people, and a very general expression that I often heard privately made was, that they believed Mr. Lincoln would make a very good President. Unfortunately this was only the heartfelt sentiments in the homes and domestic circles of the quiet, industrious people who would have only to wait until the political trumpet sounded.
If the South had any justifiable cause to rise in rebellion on Lincoln's election it could not be attributed so much to him personally or to his avowed policy, as to his supposed connection or alliance with a party who adopted an insidious policy too common throughout the world, and who, while pursuing aggression under the shield of fraternity and good will, keep edging closer to get their knee on the throat of their victim, and meantime reply in the blandest manner to any remonstrance in this wise, " Oh, my dear sir, our intentions, are pacific, we would not injure you for the world," while nevertheless they continue carrying on their encroachments.

William Watson, Life In the Confederate Army: Being the Observations and Experiences (New York: Scribner & Welford, 1888), 59-68.


Popular posts from this blog

Origin of the Confederate Battle Flag

Origin of the Confederate Battle Flag

[The facts concerning the origin of the battle flag contained in this article are derived from a speech by General Beauregard before a special meeting of Louisiana Division, Army of Northern Virginia Association, December 6, 1878.—EDITOR.]
This banner, the witness and inspiration of many victories, which was proudly borne on every field from enemy. General Beauregard was momentarily expecting help from the right, and the uncertainty and anxiety of this hour amounted to anguish.
Still the column pressed on. Calling a staff officer, General Beauregard instructed him to go at once to General Johnston, at the Lewis house, and say that the enemy were receiving heavy re-enforcements, that the troops on the plateau were very much scattered, and that he would be compelled to retire to the Lewis house and there reform hoping that the troops ordered up from the right would arrive in time to enable him to establish and hold the new line.
Meanwhile, the unknown t…

Some Truths of History (I) by Thaddeus Kosciusko Oglesby

SOME TRUTHS OF HISTORY:  A Vindication of the South Against the Encyclopedia Britannica and Other Maligners by Thaddeus Kosciusko Oglesby
Since the Evolution days the few thinkers of America born south of Mason and Dixon's line — out-numbered by those belonging to the single State of Massachusetts — have commonly migrated to New York or Boston in search of a university training. In the world of letters, at least, the Southern States have shone by reflected light; nor is it too much to say that mainly by their connection with the North the Carolinas have been saved from sinking to the level of Mexico or the Antilles. Like the Spartan marshaling his helots, the planter lounging among his slaves was made dead to art. It has only flourished freely in a free soil, and for almost all its vitality and aspirations we must turn to New England." — Encyclopedia Britannica {ninth edition), Volume 1, p. 719. 
If the sons and daughters of the South do not themselves uphold the truth of histor…

Confederate & Union Soldiers Had Slaves Compiled by Dr. Richard Lee Montgomery

Confederate & Union Soldiers Had Slaves Compiled by Dr. Richard Lee Montgomery
“They do not tell that General Grant, a slaveholder, was put as leader of the Northern Army and General Lee, who had freed his slaves, as the leader of the Southern Army, but they do say that the war was fought to hold the slaves yet do not tell that only 200,000 slaveholders were in the Southern Army, while 315,000 slaveholders were in the Northern Army.” Mildred Lewis Rutherford, Truths of History: A Fair, Unbiased, Impartial, Unprejudiced and Conscientious Study of History. Object: To Secure a Peaceful Settlement of the Many Perplexing Questions Now Causing Contention Between the North and the South (Athens, Georgia, 1920), iv.

By Fannie Eoline Selph: “The War between the States was not caused by the question of the emancipation of the slaves, nor did it begin with the firing on Fort Sumter. The cause and its declaration centered in the order issued by Abraham Lincoln for 2,400 men and 265 guns for the de…