War Papers

Captain Warren Olney, 65th U. S. Colored Infantry
A Paper Prepared and Read before the California Commandery of the
Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States
November 20, 1896

Transcribed by Douglas R. Niermeyer, Past Commander-in-Chief
Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States
(November 2005)

In Congress and on the stump, we frequently bear politicians using very reproachful language towards the South, and the people of the South on account of the Rebellion that was wiped out more than thirty years ago. It is a curious fact that the greater number of those speakers, who are most offensive in their language towards those who were once in rebellion, are men who did not, in the trying times of 1861 to 1865, risk their precious lives in fighting for the Union.

I am sorry to say that every now and then we have an outburst of the same kind of eloquence from members of the Grand Army, and even from companions of the Loyal Legion. It is somewhat surprising that these old soldiers who have met such brave foes upon many well-contested fields, should indulge in recrimination or abuse. Generally I think it is not those who were the best soldiers who indulge in this sort of talk. But sometimes we hear it from men who, we know, gallantly fought for their country in its day of trying need, and whose sacrifices entitle them to respectful attention. It is to this class of my comrades, and to those who have not really given the matter much consideration - that I desire to address myself. And here I may as well premise, that there were probably few youngsters who entered the Union army in the Spring of 1861, with as much bitterness towards the South in his soul as I possessed. I came from a family of abolitionists, and all of my boyhood and youth was passed in an atmosphere bitterly hostile to the Southern people on account of their treatment of their slaves, and of any unfortunate abolitionist who fell into their hands.

Going to Missouri in the summer of 1860, I lived in the interior of the State until just before war broke out. I quickly saw that any expression of my sentiments on the subject of slavery would not be tolerated in that community. Preferring to select my own time for leaving the State, and likewise preferring my suit of homespun to one of tar and feathers, and thinking walking in Missouri mud preferable to riding, when the riding is on a fence rail, that discretion which is the better part of valor kept guard over my tongue. But the fact that I dared not freely speak my sentiments was most exasperating, and hardened every conviction on the question of slavery. Apart from that subject the people were kind and hospitable. But it is dangerous to bottle a man up and refuse him the right to speak. Repression with most men won't work; it is apt to produce an explosion.

Missouri in the winter of 1861 was torn and rent with dissension over the question of disunion. In that part of the state where I was, all were agreed on the subject of slavery, but on the question of secession there was bitter discord; but neither a secessionist nor a Missouri man had any use for a Northener just at that time.

It soon became evident that I must seek a more hospitable climate. In the first part of April I started from the little town of Macon on the Hannibal and St. Joe Railroad, to walk across the prairies to the Missouri line, and then to my Iowa home. After two or three days of hard tramping I approached the Iowa line, and made inquiries as to where I should cross it. It was on the open, unsettled prairie, along a little traveled road, that I was painfully trudging - not a house in sight. But when I crossed the line into Iowa, I turned and shook my fist at Missouri. The picture seems absurd to me now. A beardless boy on the open prairie shaking his fist at a great state, and denouncing, and railing at it, in too bad language to be repeated.

Of course the boy was ready to fight. When Sumter was fired on he was more aroused than ever before or since, and at the first opportunity, be enlisted, and stuck by it until the Union was restored. But at that time personal animosity had died out. He could not help but pity the Southern people for their sufferings, and admire them for their courage.

When mustered out of service in August, 1865, the war was over so far as he was concerned. I think it was really over with the great mass of the men who had borne the burden of the conflict, and why not? The national authority, was recognized over every inch of our territory. The South had received such a .drubbing as no other people in modern times had received before, and I hope for the sake of our common humanity, no other people will ever again receive. Their peculiar institution was wiped out, their property destroyed, fifty per cent of their young men killed, or maimed for life, their homes burned, and, perhaps the hardest of all to them, their unparalleled hardships and sacrifices had all gone for naught.

Can you imagine a more humiliating position than the Southern people found themselves in at the close of the war? Defeated, and the world saying "rightly defeated," their cause lost, and the world glad of it, What return or consolation was there to them for their property and homes destroyed, their young men's lives, their own sufferings? There was nothing left them save their courage and the consciousness of honesty of conviction in their dreadful mistake.

The conquering soldiers of the Union, as they left the desolate and beaten South, returned to home, peace and plenty in the smiling North. They were truly conquerors and the welcome they received has been without a parallel in history.

True, the homes of the North mourned a numberless body of young men who had laid down their lives for the Union; but grief was tempered with the consciousness that these men were martyrs for a noble cause, and that the cause had won. The stricken homes of the South had no such consolation. Poverty, the humiliation of defeat, the consciousness that the world regarded their cause as ignoble, and their defeat as deserved, was the lot of the South. Shall brave men and true women chafe such wounds of brave foes?

Brave men and true women will not do it, unless it is done in thoughtlessness.

Even during the agony of the great conflict those who knew the people of the South could not forget their kindliness on all matters apart from the subject of slavery, and that they were our own countrymen.

No intelligent soldier could be blind to the fact that the rebels fully believed in the cause for which they fought. Do you suppose men would fight, and women endure as they did in the South, unless buoyed up with an unwavering belief in the justice of their cause? Human nature is the same everywhere, and unless people strongly believe they will not strongly fight. That the South fought with wonderful courage we all know, old soldiers best of all. Now for us to suppose that fighting as the men did, and suffering and euduring as the women did, they did not believe heart and soul in their cause, is absurd. Would a mother send her only son to the battle field if she had. not an overwhelming sense of duty to force her on? Admit that it is a mistaken sense, that the people of the South were entirely wrong. That does not affect the question of respect or forgiveness one particle. We respect the honest man and honest conviction, though mistaken.

A few weeks ago a monument was dedicated to the six thousand confederates who died in prison near Chicago, during the war. Some of our Grand Army members objected; but they seemed to have forgotten that these rebel soldiers must have been honest in their convictions, and true to their beliefs, or they would not have died in prison, when freedom was open to them by simply taking the oath of allegiance. And while our Grand Army men were objecting to the erection of this monument, the people of the South were sending train loads of flowers to be used in decorating the graves of Union soldiers about Chicago, as well as the graves of the confederates. Whose conduct will the world and posterity say is the more admirable?

To show how thoroughly imbued the people of the South were in the belief that their cause was just, I read to you an extract from a pamphlet written by our Comrade Captain Bell, giving his observations and experiences during the war.

It is about a mere boy.

"Soon after our arrival at Pulaski, one Samuel Davis was captured near our lines, with complete plans of our camps concealed on his person. He was tried as a spy, found guilty and sentenced to be hung. It was shown on the trial that the plans were furnished him by citizens of Pulaski, and he was told that he could save his own life if he would disclose the identity of the parties. This offer was declined, and the erection of a gallows, in full view of the jail where he was confined proceeded with. Several days elapsed while arrangements for the execution were being made, and the offer of freedom was several times repeated, but each time refused. On the day set for his death he was brought out to the gallows in an ambulance, seated on his coffin, in company with a chaplain, and preceded by a band playing a funeral dirge. We were formed in a hollow square around the gallows, and when the procession arrived, one corner of the square opened, and the prisoner and chaplain entered with four men carrying the coffin, which was placed at the gallows steps. Prayer was offered and Davis started up the steps, and just then was touched on the shoulder by an officer, who for the last time said: "Give the names of the men who furnished you these plans, and you will be granted an escort to Bragg's outposts and given your liberty." The boy looked about him. He was only eighteen years old, and life was bright and promising to him. Just overhead, idly Swinging back and forth, hung the noose; all around him were soldiers standing in line with muskets gleaming in the bright sunshine; at his feet was a box prepared for his body, now pulsing with young and vigorous life; in front were the steps which would lead him to a sudden and disgraceful death, and that death it was in his power to avoid - so easily. For an instant he hesitated and then the tempting offer was pushed aside forever. The steps are mounted, the young hero stands on the platform with hands tied behind him, the black hood is slipped over his head,! the noo se is adjusted, a spring is touched, the drop falls, the body swings and violently turns, then is still - and thus ends a tragedy wherein a smooth-face boy, without counsel, standing friendless in the midst of enemies, had, with a courage of the highest type, deliberately chosen death to life secured by means he deemed dishonorable. Of just such material was the Southern army formed. The execution of this brave lad seemed a dreadful act, but, as Gen. Sherman said to the citizens of Atlanta, 'war is a cruelty which cannot be refined. "

Admit that this boy was mistaken in his ideas of duty, nevertheless every brave man and every true woman must honor him.

It is because the people of the South were in the wrong, but honestly believed themselves to be in the right, that we ought to exercise Christian charity and forgiveness.

"Oh, yes," say some, "that is all very nice and Christian, but treason must be made odious and the people who have caused rivers of blood and treasure to flow must be punished."

There are two reasons why society punishes offenders. The first and principal one is, to deter others from committing the same offense. The second, is to make the offender appreciate his own fault and thereby prevent him from again committing it. The idea of punishing a criminal out of mere revenge, or to do vengeance upon him, has long since become obsolete, and has no place in enlightened jurisprudence. In civilized society, as I said before, we punish with two objects in view: First, to deter others from committing the crime; second, for its effect upon the criminal himself.

Does any sane man or woman who reads and thinks, believe there is any danger of another rebellion? If there are any such, it is no use to argue with them. They are oblivious to the movement of the world, and of the country. During the last thirty years the tendency in Europe and America has been all one way; it is towards centralization, to unions of all the people speaking the same language in one great nation.

We who have reached middle life recollect the German people divided into fifteen or twenty nations; the Italians the same. Now bow is it? In our own country it is the same way. There is not a bit of disunion sentiment anywhere from Maine to California, from Minnesota to Florida. If there is any, at all, which I don't believe, it is only among the old-time rebels and is kept alive by nagging and irritating speeches on the part of our Northern politicians, and irritating remarks in the editorial columns of Northern newspapers. If there is any disunion sentiment in the South, it is not amongst those who actually fought for the lost cause. It is among the stay-at-homes. The men who have with their own eyes seen the horrors of war and of disunion, want no more of it. They are for peace and conciliation.

The rebel soldiers whom I know are, to a man, the most conservative and peaceful of human beings. I defy anyone to point out a real rebel soldier who is not for the Union and for peace, first, last and all the time. They have tried it on, their punishment was frightful, and no force could induce them to repeat the experiment.

Besides, the national feeling has grown beyond all belief. There was a time in 1811 when New England seriously threatened secession. Before that there had been Shay's Rebellion, and the Whiskey Insurrection. When we were boys there were lots of people in the North who believed our Constitution was a covenant with Hell and a league with damnation, while in the South, her leading men all anticipated and hoped for disunion. But now there is not a place within our borders where disunion sentiments would be tolerated for a moment. The national feeling possesses us all - East and West North and South.

Let me remind you of what took place in 1876-7, as showing so far as the South is concerned, that secession is the deadest of dead issues.

A presidential election had been held. The vote as first announced showed Tilden elected by a large majority. In Louisiana, Florida and Oregon the vote was close, but a majority of the votes cast in each of the three states was for Tilden. It was necessary for the electoral vote of all these three states to be counted for Hayes in order to elect him. Then it was that Returning Boards got in their work. In Louisiana the votes of some large Democratic parishes were thrown out, on the ground that colored voters had been bulldozed in those parishes, and that the ballots did not truly represent the majority of electors.

Who does not remember the howl that went tip from the Democracy when this was done? For the first time in sixteen years they had succeeded at the polls, and they saw themselves about to lose again.

Threats were made by the Democrats of the North to use force, to stop, what they called, stealing the presidency, and to seat their candidate. The South made very little demonstration. When Congress met, a bill was introduced and passed, largely by Southern votes to create an electoral commission. The South wanted no more revolutions, and therefore wanted a judicial tribunal organized to decide the question.

When it was found that this commission, by a vote of eight to seven, would sustain the action of the Returning Boards in all three of the States, the Democracy of the North were almost beside themselves with rage, and proposed all manner of revolutionary proceedings. The South said "No, there has been, enough trouble. This tribunal was created to pass on this question, and its decision, whatever it may be, must be respected." The firm front of the Southern members of Congress enabled Hayes to be peaceably seated in the presidential chair. Was not their action patriotic? But above all, did it not show conclusively that the people of the South no longer wanted disunion or revolution?

There is thus no necessity for punishing the South in order to prevent another rebellion.

The second object of punishment is for its influence upon the criminal. But have not the people of the South been taught a lesson which they will never forget? Any further punishment which we might inflict would only embitter them and delay the perfect union of our people. Therefore there is no rational reason left for punishment. To inflict any more would be out of cold and cruel revenge.

But people say, "We don't want to punish, we don't want to degrade the South, yet it does gall us to have these people who tried to break up the Union, flaunting in our faces their grief for the lost cause. It irritates us to see Southern brigadiers in Congress, and sometimes controlling it. The very men who brought our country to the verge of ruin are in high places, even holding Cabinet positions. The solid South is an offense to us. Let the rebels take a back seat; we don't want to punish them, but after having tried to break up the Government, let them modestly keep out of sight for a while."

That's the way lots of us talk and feel. Now let us discuss this matter soberly and as reasonable human beings who know something about our form of Government, and the principles upon which it is based; who also know something of human nature and the springs which move men, and, above all, as men who love their country, adore its flag, and are willing to make still further sacrifices if necessary, to cement and consolidate it.

Now what a great many of our people feel like saying, and do say to the South, and I am sorry that we sympathize with them in saying it, is:

"You are rebels, we gave you a most tremendous thrashing. Until you get on your knees, we claim the right to run this Government, and you ought to submit to whatever we do. It is only out of grace that we didn't hang you."

It ought to occur to us that any people who would submit to such language and treatment are unfit to trust with citizenship at all.

When the rebellion was over we had two courses open to us. First; treat the Southern States as conquered provinces and rule them by military force, or second: Treat them as still members of the Union. The first course was simply an impossibility in such a Republic, and with such a civilization as ours. Lincoln and the statesmen of his time saw this at once; there never was any serious thought that such a scheme would be practicable. The only course left was to treat the Southern States as still ail integral part of the nation, and adopt such constitutional amendments as would abolish slavery and give the citizens of every state equal protection before the law. This was done. Our statesmen, and everybody else who gave the matter a moment's thought, knew what result would follow. We expected it. The Southern people being entitled to representation, sent the men who had their confidence to Congress. A large part of them were leaders in the war; of course they remained leaders in state politics. They were elected to state offices and to Congress. Who expected anything different? How could it be different under the system we adopted? Having continued the existence of the States, as free members of the American commonwealth, all the rest followed as the night the day. The question of secession being settled forever, who is so foolish as to expect that upon all other questions the people lately in rebellion will not, by their representatives in Congress, express their wishes and feelings? What are they in Congress for but for that purpose? What did we permit them to be represented in Congress for, if it was not to speak for their constituents? To make them take a back seat is simply impossible, if the Southern people are to be represented in Congress at all. To ask that this be done at any time since 1865 is as wise as to ask for a piece of the moon. If we give to the Southern people the right of representation at all, they are entitled to a free representation and to free speech. The Sou! thern pe ople are free to choose their own representatives, of course they will choose those in whom they have confidence. He is the good citizen who cheerfully looks matters political in the face and conforms to necessary conditions. He is a bad citizen who is continually kicking against the inevitable.

Now if our premises are correct, is it wise, or statesmanlike or Christian for our members of Congress, our newspapers, our Grand Army men to be continually twitting these Southerners of their crime of rebellion? These men are in public life by our own free choice. In fact there was no other wise course for us to pursue. Being there, they have a right to express themselves upon all questions that come up. As the Southern people are now a portion of the Union they have a right to think, talk and vote, without being reminded at every turn that they are rebels deserving to be hanged, and that their leaders would have been hanged but for our great goodness and condescension. Such Phariseeism is intolerable; worse than that it is extremely bad policy.

Suppose a member of a partnership commits a great fault against his partners and the firm, which brings it to the brink of ruin. The other partners overrule him, discipline him thoroughly, but do not eject him from the concern. He sees himself that be has made a mistake; but suppose his partners keep continually reminding him of what a booby he has been, and how much mischief lie has done by his conduct. What would be the effect of such treatment oil the erring partner?

A father has a large family of children; one of them tells a lie on his brothers and sisters and gets them into serious trouble, until the truth is ascertained, and then the father gives the little rascal a good trouncing. Now suppose these other children who are injured by the lie, keep reminding him of what a mean thing he did, and what a thrashing lie got for it. What effect will it have on that child's temper? How can that family live in peace so long as such a mean spirit prevails? If I were that father I should have more hope of the sinning child than the despicable little Pharisees who are continually nagging him. The whipping very likely cleansed the moral tone of that child's nature.

We have all seen such things happen. The moral tone of the South was improved by its defeat. I verily believe that if this nation should be involved in great peril, the very first section to spring to arms in support of the Union, would be the South. The whole trend of thought and discussion in that section justifies the assumption. It would be in accordance with known Characteristics of human nature. The Southern people would hasten to show the world, and the rest of our political family, their loyalty to the Union.

But you say that it galls you to see the Southerners flaunting their lost cause in our faces. My reply is, that they don't. What is it that they do? Well, they have reunions of their old soldiers, and who can blame them for it? It is perfectly natural for these old Confederate soldiers to hold their reunions. What generous man would forbid it? The Southern people have erected some monuments to prominent leaders of the lost cause, and particularly to Jeff Davis. I don't recall their having done anything more serious than that. In some localities most brutal crimes have been committed against negroes and Ku-Klux outrages were once rife; but those crimes were local in character and indicate a low and savage state of civilization. I don't know of any worse crimes than some of those committed on Chinamen on the Pacific Coast, and on non-union laborers all over the country, or on English landlords in Ireland, But we can't indict a people for such sporadic outbursts of a brutal element existing in every community. The most effective way to induce a people, with such savage elements in it, to condone the brutal offenses of their neighbors is to abuse the whole community, and charge it as responsible for the crime.

But returning to the Jeff Davis monument, we expect too much when we expect that a people who have fought for a principle and lost, will not cherish the memory of their leaders. You are asking air impossibility. The South was conquered after as gallant a fight as the history of the world can show. The cause of secession is given up, but when you ask them to give up the memory of their heroes and leaders, you are asking too much of human nature. You ask what you have no right to ask of any people. You ask what will be refused, and you thereby help to glorify in their minds the very cause you seek to discredit. As long as the South is loyal to the Union, let them cherish the memory of their lost cause. It has become only a sentiment, it cannot harm us. For my part, I respect them for it. In fact if they did not, it would show them to be a pusillanimous people, unworthy the fight we made to keep them in the Union, and that we ought to have let them go.

They are our countrymen; they are flesh of our flesh, and blood of our blood. The time will surely come, it is now upon us, when the sons of American sires, whether born North or South, will point with pride to Picket's charge at Gettysburg, as well as to Thomas's stand at Chicamaugua, and Sherman's March to the Sea. It was good American blood filling the veins of Union and Confederate alike that made the contest so long and stubborn,

Englishmen and Scotchmen are of different races, and at one time spoke a different language. They fought each other for hundreds of years, but the welding process of time has now made them one people. Both are proud of their common heritage of valor displayed on many a hotly contested field.

So it is already with us, and that feeling is bound to increase as time passes. Our descendents will be proud that the same blood flows in their veins that was freely given, whether from the North or the South, at Shiloh, at Antietam, at the Wilderness. We have had our fight. It took us four years to fight it out, but the job was well done. The issues of the war are settled forever. The Union is established as firm as the Eternal Hills. Columbia's children are again united, and he is no true patriot who, by word or deed, would keep up the discord that thirty-five years ago came so near wrecking our American commonwealth.


Olney, W. 1896. NAGGING THE SOUTH. A Paper Prepared and Read before the California Commandery of the
Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, November 20, 1896. Published by the Commandery, Shannon-Conmy Printing Company, San Francisco, California. 11p.

Copyright © 2005 Douglas Niermeyer, Missouri Commandery, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States

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