Mollus War Papers

War Papers

William Sooy Smith, Late Brigadier General, U.S. Volunteers
Insignia Number 8295, Illinois Commandery
Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States
Read October 13, 1892

Transcribed by Thomas J. Ebert
(June 2007)

During the great war in which we participated, the American people were a nation of “hero-worshippers,” glad to sound the praises of armies that fought, and perhaps still more delighted to heap honors on the heads of those who led them. The heroes of the hour were generally the commanders of the armies, or at least of corps. Now and then the commander of a division, or even of a brigade, a regiment, or a company, favored by circumstances, rose to the surface, and was proudly tossed on the waves of popular applause. The people were pleased to bestow honors, and their favorites were no less pleased to received them. And this was right, when great services were really rendered, and the honors given fairly won.

But how often did the soldiers at the front feel indignant at the columns of fulsome falsehood they read in the newspapers that reached them, describing unimportant skirmishes as great battles, and lauding to the skies, for their bravery and skill, officers who perhaps had not even sniffed the smell of “villainous gunpowder,” when their handful of men had won the great victory? How often did they know that some straggling newspaper correspondent had found his way to the camp, and been furnished with tent and blanket, poor cigars, and worse whiskey; and in the plenitude of his gratitude, with his blood and imagination heated by his generous entertainment, and wishing to please the boys and their friends at home, and make popular the journal he served, had written spread-eagle nonsense, utterly regardless of truth? And even when great battles were really fought, who that took part in them would even have recognized the actual engagements from the written descriptions of them?

I remember after the battle of Perryville, reading of a certain general who, as the correspondent had it, rode from end to end of his wavering line, and rallied his troops by brandishing his glittering sword above his head, and shouting so that his voice was heard by his whole division above the roar of the battle! And this was not enough, but his sword had been broken, and he flourished the hilt with only a diminutive piece of the blade attached to it. Yet the real fact was that he moved his division in column of fours until its head was beaten off by the enemy’s fire, and then deployed it on a hillside sloping down toward the Confederate line, where every man was exposed, instead of forming behind the crest of the hill, where his line would have been protected and its fire effective. The result may be easily guessed. His loss was terrific, and that of the enemy in his front slight. This officer was brave to a fault; yet he was guilty of a blunder that cost the lives of many an unremembered soldier as brave as he.

At the battle of Shiloh, on the second day, my brigade consisted of four regiments, three of which were in line, and one was in reserve in a sheltered position a couple of hundred yards to the rear. On our right was Barnett’s Battery, supported by my strongest regiment. This regiment had just come to the front a full thousand strong. It was perfectly green, and without drill, discipline, or experience. It had received its arms but a few days or weeks before the battle; but this I did not know, as it was assigned to my brigade only the day before the fight. In the morning we were fiercely attacked by the enemy, and this regiment broke and ran away in spite of every effort that could be made to rally it. Barnett’s Battery was left without support, and was for a time in imminent danger of capture. My reserve regiment, numbering about five hundred men, was brought up as quickly as possible, and took its place in the line, opening fire just in time to repulse the enemy. I saw nothing more of my big regiment of raw recruits during the fight. A year or two after the war closed, I saw in the principal hotel of a neighboring city a large picture representing a regiment charging in gallant style. It alignment was perfect, and all its company and field officers were in their proper places. And what was my surprise when I read the legend, “Gallant charge of the ----- regiment at the battle of Shiloh,” the very regiment whose conduct I have described!

Later in the day it was the good fortune of my brigade to capture Standiford’s Mississippi Battery of six guns. We bivouacked on the field that night about the position that had been occupied by this battery. The next morning it was found that two of the guns had disappeared. Search was made for them, and it was discovered that one of the pieces had gone to replace a gun that had been lost by one of our batteries during the first day’s fight. No trace of the other could be found; but I have since been informed that it is now at the Capitol of the State from which my big regiment came, bearing the inscription, “Captured at the Battle of Shiloh,” by this very regiment. I could perhaps pardon the conduct of the regiment on the field; but the lying picture and the theft are without excuse or palliation. And yet, without knowledge of the facts, hundred and thousands of people have doubtless given to this regiment the homage of their admiration and gratitude.

By this time I fear that you may all be thinking that I am afraid of my subject, and that I am calling attention, not to the unremembered soldier, but to those who are too much remembered. I crave your indulgence for yet a little while, hoping that you will find all that you have thus far heard quite appropriate in an introductory way.

We all know that during the war there was a very large class of officers who studied and used every available means for getting all the notoriety and praise they could for what they did, and even for what they did not do. Many of them had friends at court, and did more at Washington to get promotion than they did in the field to earn it. We know that men were made brigadiers, and even major-generals, who had never been in a single battle, and knew little of military affairs theoretically, and absolutely nothing of them practically. We know what war horses they bestrode, and what wonderful plumes and epaulettes they wore.

And even some of most deserving were praised, as they felt and acknowledged, far beyond what was due to their actual services. When the purpose of Government to create the rank of Lieutenant-General and confer it on Grant was first made known to him, he disapproved of it, and stated that up to that time he thought no one had demonstrated his superiority over all the rest sufficiently to make it advisable to create this grade for his benefit. How refreshing was this modesty, contrasted with the scramble for promotion in which so many were engaged!

As time goes on, the great public drops its recollection the many, and exaggerates more and more the merits of the few. And even now, when but about a quarter of a century has elapsed since the close of the war, there are just three men who tower far above all the rest, --- Grant, Sherman and Sheridan. And it is only probable, but almost certain, that in 1965 few will hear of two of these, --- Sherman and Sheridan, --- and the great world will remember the name of Grant alone, and that with an admiration approaching the idolatry which we bestow upon Washington, of all the Revolutionary heroes. And really, with all due respect to the opinions of zealous friends, it is fair to say that there are others who were entitled to as much praise as either Sherman or Sheridan, whose names are now seldom mentioned; for example, Meade and Thomas. Sherman, with many opportunities, hardly ever won a decisive victory in a single great engagement, certainly none equal to that won by Meade at Gettysburg, or Thomas at Nashville. And surely, while we all appreciate and admire “Little Phil,” we know that his services were not so great as those of Meade or Thomas. His promotion came too late and his opportunities were too few. And now let us see whether all this is digression, or is directly pertinent to our subject.

If it has been shown that our people, in their eagerness to praise, have bestowed their praises unfairly, to just that extent the deserving have been defrauded; and what makes it worse and more aggravating, the unworthy have also filched from the truly great the fame they fairly earned but were too modest to claim.

How can our country ever undo the wrong that was done to Buell, Warren, Fitz John, Porter, and many others who rendered gallant, efficient, and meritorious service on many hard fought fields, from the Potomac to the James, and from the Ohio to the Gulf and the sea?

We each know a whole class of officers, belonging to all the grades, from second lieutenant to major general, who were always with their commands, exerting themselves faithfully to keep them well equipped, drilled, disciplined, and in the highest condition of efficiency; who were always present to command and lead them in battle, in obedience to a strict sense of duty and to the inspiration of a pure and lofty patriotism; who did much and said little; who were known by all of us as noble men and first-class soldiers; and who are already unremembered, or almost forgotten. Such men as T. J. Wood, Kearney, Griffin, Charles Woods, Stanley Crooker, Sill, Terrill, Heintzelman, Reynolds, Ord, A. J. Smith, will easily be recalled, and there are dozens and hundreds more. I cannot resist the temptation to support what I have maintained in this paragraph by the following statement: ----

For more than a year prior to the battle of Stone River Sill was in command of the division of the Army of the Ohio (afterwards the Army of the Cumberland), and was idolized by his command. A few days before the battle he was removed and given a brigade under a division commander whom he ranked in this army, but not in the church to which the general commanding that army belonged. He accepted his humiliation uncomplainingly, led his brigade into the action, where it broke, and he was killed while gallantly striving to rally it. Quiet, modest, faithful, brave, and skillful, he fell lamented by all who knew him, and his name to-day sounds strange in the ears of the American people.

Terrill, a Virginian, proud of his native State, but prouder still of our great nation, and grateful for the education he had received at West Point, stuck to the flag., and, with tears in his eyes, told me, but a few days before the battle of Perryville, that for so doing he had been disowned by his father. He was mortally wounded in that battle while bravely fighting his brigade; and he too is unremembered, except by those of his many warm personal friends who still survive him, and appreciate his patriotic devotion to his country.

I need not multiply such instances to fortify the general statement that there were dozens and hundreds of Sills and Terrills whom you can recall, who laid down their lives in like manner, and now sleep with the unremembered soldiers.

It is the misfortune of the common soldier to be remembered only in the mass. He can get no distinct individual fame. The phalanx of Philip, under him and his illustrious son, conquered the world; but the name of a single one of the heroes who held one of the spears that formed that glittering and resistless wall, no man knows.

The world may never forget the brilliant Coriscan who tore through Europe like a cyclone; but it has not, and never had, acquaintance with those who, stretched on Africa’s sands, turned their sightless eyes to its burning sun, or, frozen stiff and stark, made food for wolves on Russian snows.

It was the valor and patriotism and sterling character of the soldiers of our Revolution, even more than the energy, bravery, and skill of their commanders, that made them successful in their seven years’ struggle with on of the most powerful military nations of the world. And it is so with all wars. The quality of the rank and file of an army is the prime cause of its success or failure; and the Greek proverb that “An army of lions with a stag to command,” is not and never was true. The simple truth is, that the historian, chronicling the events that mark the birth, growth and downfall of nations, mentions only the names of the most prominent actors, and with a mere stroke of the pen disposes of the thousands who suffer and die.

We remember how eloquently, during the great war, orators promised immortality of fame to the men who donned the blue, shouldered their muskets, left their mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, their wives and their children, and went to the front to suffer by millions, and to die by tens of thousands. They and their children’s children to the latest generation were to be held in grateful remembrance, and, like, Jefferson and Adams, “their names were to endure as long as if written in letters of the living light betwixt Orion and the Pleiades.”

How they marched through the dust and mud and rain, bearing the burdens of pack-mules by day and by night, often on short rations, enduring the pangs of hunger and thirst! How often did they lie in bivouac in their wet blankets, drenched with rain or covered with snow, getting up to a hasty breakfast of hard-tack, bacon, and coffee, long before daylight, to form in line and fight in bloody battles the live-long day! And who can adequately describe the picture which their blood painted on the field strewn with their mangled bodies, or the scenes which our hospitals presented after a fight?

“Sad, sad indeed are the sights of a foughten field.” And sad, too, were the home scenes after a battle. Breathlessly the soldiers’ dear ones waited for tidings from them, and tremblingly they scanned the long lists that were published of the killed, wounded and missing.

In our pension-offices, custom-houses, and post-offices throughout the country, and in the departments of Washington, many old soldiers and many widows and children of soldiers are employed. More should be. And even as employees in our private businesses, other things being equal, they should have preference. Our wonderfully generous provision of pensions for soldiers and their widows proves that they are collectively held in grateful remembrance by our people; but the truth still remains that as individuals they are not honored as they should be.

In the Kremlin in Moscow, passing through the palace, I saw stately columns covered from base to capitol with the names of thousands of common soldiers and officers who had fought gallantly and died for their country. And I thought, this much-abused Russia here sets an example to the world in giving as far as possible to the common soldier lasting recognition for his merits, and a record to which his descendents may point with pride.

The real heroes of our war were John Smith and William Jones and the thousands of nameless ones who were shot down as they fought standing on blistered feet with empty stomachs, and were buried somewhere. No monuments mark their resting-places, only cheap little slabs soon to fall down and disappear.

I wish that our Government would erect at the seat of government a shaft as high as the Washington monument, and cover it with non-corrodible bronze on which should be inscribed the name of every officer and soldier who during the war won special mention in official reports for gallant and meritorious conduct in action.

On all great civic occasions, in the midst of pomp and pageantry and ceremonial, --- such as the celebration of the anniversary of the discovery of the American continent, --- prominent places should always be reserved for the surviving veterans, common soldiers as well as officers; and dear as is our starry banner to the sight of our people should be that of their furrowed cheeks and snow-white hair. I wish that every position in the civil service of our country, at home and abroad, were filled by an old soldier, as long as one could be found suitable in every way to fill it. I wish that every veteran might have enough of this world’s goods to place him beyond want, and make him comfortable in his old age. And I especially wish that all whose conduct in life is worthy should be held in such esteem, and receive such kind and generous treatment, that they would be made to feel that their services are appreciated, and that they are respected and honored by the country they saved from division and destruction.

There are many who have the pleasant consciousness of long and arduous service cheerfully and faithfully rendered, who have not had the experience of Cincinnatus while living, and who cannot hope for the perennial fame when dead. But that consciousness, and the glorious privilege of living as free men in our beloved country, and the pride and satisfaction that we feel in the fact that, united and great and powerful, we hand it over to our children and their descendents as their richest and best heritage, is our ample and soul-satisfying reward. And so, with no envy toward those who have filled and still fill the public eye, let us enjoy all the well-earned viands that our memories spread before us, and, rejoicing that we fought and still live as American citizens, march down the hill and lie with those who sleep at its base, --- the “unremembered soldiers” of all the centuries.

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Smith W.S. 1894. THE UNREMEMBERED SOLDIER, Military Essays and Recollections: Papers read before the Commandery of the State of Illinois, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States. A.C. McClurg and Company, Chicago, Illinois, Volume 2, pp.489-497.

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