Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  At the End of the War

Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

At the End of the War

By Rossiter Johnson (1840–1931)

[A Short History of the War of Secession. 1888.]

THE HOME-COMING at the North was almost as sorrowful as at the South, because of those that came not. In all the festivities and rejoicings there was hardly a participator whose joy was not saddened by missing some well-known face and form now numbered with the silent three hundred thousand. Grant was there, the commander that had never taken a step backward; and Farragut was there, the sailor without an equal; and the unfailing Sherman, and the patient Thomas, and the intrepid Hancock, and the fiery Sheridan, and the brilliant Custer, and many of lesser rank, who in a smaller theatre of conflict would have won a larger fame. But where was young Ellsworth? Shot dead as soon as he crossed the Potomac. And Winthrop—killed in the first battle, with his best books unwritten. And Lyon—fallen at the head of his little army in Missouri, the first summer of the war. And Baker—sacrificed at Ball’s Bluff. And Kearny at Chantilly, and Reno at South Mountain, and Mansfield at Antietam, and Reynolds at Gettysburg, and Wadsworth in the Wilderness, and Sedgwick at Spottsylvania, and McPherson before Atlanta, and Craven in his monitor at the bottom of the sea, and thousands of others, the best and bravest, all gone—all, like Latour, the immortal captain, dead on the field of honor, but none the less dead and a loss to their mourning country. The hackneyed allegory of Curtius had been given a startling illustration and a new significance. The South, too, had lost heavily of her foremost citizens in the great struggle—Bee and Bartow at Bull Run; Albert Sidney Johnson, leading a desperate charge at Shiloh; Zollicoffer, soldier and journalist, at Mill Spring; Stonewall Jackson, Lee’s right arm, at Chancellorsville; Polk, priest and warrior, at Lost Mountain; Armistead, wavering between two allegiances and fighting alternately for each, and Barksdale and Garnets—all at Gettysburg; Hill at Petersburg; and the dashing Stuart, and Daniel, and Perrin, and Dearing, and Doles, and numberless others. The sudden hush and sense of awe that impresses a child when he steps upon a single grave may well overcome the strongest man when he looks upon the face of his country scarred with battle-fields like these, and considers what blood of manhood was rudely wasted there. And the slain were mostly young, unmarried men, whose native virtues fill no living veins, and will not shine again on any field.

It is poor business measuring the mouldered ramparts and counting the silent guns, marking the deserted battle-fields and decorating the grassy graves, unless we can learn from it all some nobler lesson than to destroy. Men write of this as of other wars as if the only thing necessary to be impressed upon the rising generation were the virtue of physical courage and contempt of death. It seems to me that is the last thing that we need to teach; for since the days of John Smith in Virginia and the men of the Mayflower in Massachusetts, no generation of Americans has shown any lack of it. From Louisburg to Petersburg—a hundred and twenty years, the full span of four generations—they have stood to their guns and been shot down in greater comparative numbers than any other race on earth. In the War of Secession there was not a State, not a county, probably not a town, between the Great Lakes and the Gulf, that was not represented on fields where all that men could do with powder and steel was done, and valor was exhibited at its highest pitch. It was a common saying in the Army of the Potomac that courage was the cheapest thing there; and it might have been said of all the other armies as well. There is not the slightest necessity for lauding American bravery or impressing it upon American youth. But there is the gravest necessity for teaching them respect for law, and reverence for human life, and regard for the rights of their fellow-men, and all that is significant in the history of our country—lest their feet run to evil and they make haste to shed innocent blood. I would be glad to convince my compatriots that it is not enough to think they are right, but they are bound to know they are right, before they rush into any experiments that are to cost the lives of men and the tears of orphans, in their own land or in any other. I would warn them to beware of provincial conceit. I would have them comprehend that one may fight bravely, and still be a perjured felon; that one may die humbly, and still be a patriot whom his country cannot afford to lose; that as might does not make right, so neither do rags and bare feet necessarily argue a noble cause. I would teach them that it is criminal either to hide the truth or to refuse assent to that which they see must follow logically from ascertained truth. I would show them that a political lie is as despicable as a personal lie, whether uttered in an editorial, or a platform, or a president’s message, or a colored cartoon, or a disingenuous ballot; and that political chicanery, when long persisted in, is liable to settle its shameful account in a stoppage of civilization and a spilling of life. These are simple lessons, yet they are not taught in a day, and some whom we call educated go through life without mastering them at all.

It may be useful to learn from one war how to conduct another; but it is infinitely better to learn how to avert another. I am doubly anxious to impress this consideration upon my readers, because history seems to show us that armed conflicts have a tendency to come in pairs, with an interval of a few years, and because I think I see, in certain circumstances now existing within our beloved Republic, the elements of a second civil war. No American citizen should lightly repeat that the result is worth all it cost, unless he has considered how heavy was the cost, and is doing his utmost to perpetuate the result. To strive to forget the great war, for the sake of sentimental politics, is to cast away our dearest experience and invite, in some troubled future, the destruction we so hardly escaped in the past. There can be remembrance without animosity, but there cannot be oblivion without peril.