Southern Invincibility A History of the Confederate Heart
By Wiley Sword
St. Martin's Griffin Copyright © 2000 Wiley Sword
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780312263966
Southern InvincibilityChapter OneAN OMINOUS CIRCUMSTANCEA
lexander Frederick Fleet--"Fred" to his family and friends--was a precocious youth of seventeen and a student at the University of Virginia in the fall of 1860. Like many others, he regarded the election of Abraham Lincoln as a harbinger of terrible difficulties. Uppermost on everyone's mind was the burning question of the hour--should the Southern states secede? "Upon due recollection, I reckon [so]," lamented Fred in a letter home on November 10, 1860--"although I am not so certain ... . The South had better secede now, while she can [since moderate James Buchanan is still president] and not wait until she cannot." As he wrote, he ominously noted that there were about 150 rowdy Virginia students roaming about the campus wearing blue cockades in their hats, "after the South Carolina fashion."1A few months later, in February 1861, Fred Fleet had caught the flame. Military companies were drilling on the school lawn every evening, proud and natty in their red flannel jackets, black pants, and glazed military caps. Fred admired their polished muskets, privately purchased by the students, which sparkled in the fading sunlight. Daily, he eagerly devoured the local newspapers. "It will be the worst thing ... if Virginia doesn't secede and go along with the South," Fred warned his family. "A good many of the Southern students [from the lower South] say they will hold a meeting and all go home,and they, you know, constitute about half of the whole [student body]."2Fred Fleet continued to be enthralled with the disunion fuss. A relative in Washington, D.C., described to him Lincoln's appearance in the city during early March 1861:
Old Abe ... is now our master (think of that!) ... . Yesterday ... about 12:30 [P.M.] he started from Willard's [Hotel] down the [Pennsylvania] Avenue to the Capitol, riding in a carriage with Mr. Buchanan and two other men. The procession was led by the marshals, etc. Next [came] the military (D.C., not regulars), next the open carriage with Abe ... in it, completely surrounded with soldiers--so fearful was the infernal scoundrel of assassination. Next came a concern drawn by six white horses, each of which had a white cloth over him on which was inscribed UNION. On the side of the car ... another white cloth was hung having the word CONSTITUTION written in letters about a foot long--which broke as it was going up the avenue, an ominous circumstance ... . 3
Fred Fleet had heard and seen enough, and he was soon among the ranks of Southern soldiers. He enlisted on June 13, 1861 as first sergeant in the "Jackson Grays," which would become Company I, 26th Virginia Volunteer Infantry. Despite his mother's admonition that "neither Pa nor I [are] willing for you to go to war until there is greater necessity for it than ... at present," Fred had acted on emotion. His younger brother, Benny, who had supported Virginia's remaining in the Union, was chided by Fred for his "ignorance of the state of affairs."4Fred Fleet's enthusiasm was boundless. Less than sixty days later the new sergeant boasted of his good health, and wrote how pleased he was with a soldier's life: "I have nothing like as hard a time as I expected." When he witnessed a grand review by the celebrity general John Bankhead Magruder, Fleet admired "Prince John's" "splendid uniform, with a wide gold band across his body, and crimson velvet interwoven in a beautiful way." Magruder seemed to be "a most graceful rider, and shows off finely," observed Fred. When further inspired by the "bands playing lively airs," Fleet "imagined how splendidly [Winfield] Scott's 'Grand Army' must have looked [during the Mexican War]."5The hardships of war seemed but an indistinct shadow in the distance. Fred Fleet fervently wrote, "Last week was full of exciting interest ... . It was reported by official authority that we would certainly have an attack here [at Glouchester Point, Virginia]." When an enemy man-of-war came within a few miles, there was a flurry of activity; yet the ship soon disappeared, "and the excitement in some degree cooled down."6Only when Major General George B. McClellan's Union army invaded the Virginia peninsula in the early spring of 1862 did Fleet witness battle's stern array and hear the sobering crash of heavy guns. On April 12 the Yankees were reported "as being on the next road and advancing rapidly." "You may imagine that we felt a little queer when the ball [was] opened by the enemy's artillery, ... [and we] expected to see a heavy column of infantry advance right upon us ... You may say what you please about not being scared and all that, but until you become somewhat accustomed to it, I don't believe there is any man who is not a little agitated when he first hears the roar of cannon."7Sergeant Fleet was beginning to comprehend the true essence of war. If you look deeply into his eyes in a photograph taken about this time, a subtle air of glib uncertainty is evident--a look of pride and yet also of ill-at-ease distraction. His expression is a reflection of the Southern dilemma. Like the Southern Confederacy, Sergeant Fleet's face exuded youthful hope and energy, yet he was heavily burdened with the imminent ordeal of facing an enormous challenge. Though Fleet lacked maturity, his genes and heritage determined that he would take on the task with a Virginian's pride and confidence. Words can't precisely convey Fred Fleet's inner turmoil, but the eye catches the essence of this problem. If his placid facade partially obscures his inexperience, it fails to mask the real threat: would his inner self be able to cope with the dire personal challenges ahead?"I felt right much excited," admitted Sergeant Fleet in telling of his initial exposure to enemy fire, "but as the firing proceeded, I became more composed." This first fight had been brief--only a skirmish--and the true test of a bloody battle lay ahead. The enemy was said to outnumber them considerably, Fred acknowledged; yet he was not discouraged. "We know that the race is not to the swift, nor [the] battle to the strong, [and] feeling a confidence in the justice of our cause, and remembering we are fighting for our homes andall we hold dear on earth, I trust God may give us the victory," he wrote ... . "Do not be uneasy about me, for I will try to do my duty."8For Fred Fleet and a myriad of other Southerners, the consequences of boldly stepping into the great chasm of war involved not only a plunge into the vast unknown but a simple yet profound question: would the perception of warfare become the reality?SOUTHERN INVINCIBILITY. Copyright © 1999 by Wiley Sword. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010. Continues...
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