Over the extent of writing this Enfilading Lines blog, I have often quoted a favorite writer from the Civil War era – George Freeman Noyes and his 1863 book The Bivouac and the Battlefield: Campaign Sketches in Virginia and Maryland. It was somewhere about this time 150 years ago in 1863 that his service obligation expired. He was on the staff of Abner Doubleday during the time that Doubleday was in the 1st Corps – hence my interest in him. As a lawyer and highly educated man, his writing is always colorful – filled as well with abolitionist fervor and emotional Unionist sentiments … very visible today in this final series of excepts.
He here begins his finale by expressions of his respect and affections for the Army of the Potomac, writing of their time in winter quarters after the Mud March:
Thwarted by the elements in its late movement, there was nothing for the Army of the Potomac to do but to go into winter quarters and await a more propitious season. Baffled but not discouraged, this was only one more of those disappointments through which that army has passed, with a courage and determination more ennobling than any success, on its way to future victories. Its day of glory is sure to come. On many a battlefield it has illustrated a heroic valor which has won for it on the Peninsula, in Maryland, and in Eastern Virginia magnificent partial successes—the promise and prophecy of that substantial and decisive victory yet to come. Let me pay to it the homage of my admiration and gratitude for its past sacrifices, and attest my belief, founded upon the evidence of my own experiences, that it is yet to cover itself with patriotic glory. How splendidly this army can fight; how, when a forlorn hope was needed, the men have been always ready; how, after weeks of hard marching and fighting, they have moved with alacrity against the enemy, has been partially delineated in these pages. If the fault has been with its leaders, this is not the place to criticize them, nor do I feel in the mood. Let the dead Past bury its dead.
Noyes turns his attention to some extended evaluation of the character of leadership to be found in the AOP. Certainly these opinions would be inappropriate during his time of service, and they are a bit unusual it would seem during the time of war, yet he does not mention names and is indeed effusive with praise at various junctures – being quite generous in his overall evaluation of the army.
He begins this section by speaking of what was an awkward situation at the war’s start – that regular army officers had to work with volunteers. Of course, at the very beginning, it was presumed by most that this conflict would be over in a jiffy.
When this war began, there existed among officers of the regular army a strong prejudice against the volunteers; but this has, among those who have seen much fighting, almost wholly disappeared. Still, one serious defect, the want of proper discipline, greatly vitiates and impairs the fighting value of our citizen troops—a defect having its origin mainly in the method of their enlistment. Under that method a captain found in his ranks his equals, his friends, his schoolmates and neighbors. To subject these to a strict military discipline was, from the nature of the case, well-nigh impossible. Moreover, a good many poor sticks, from one reason and another, managed to get into positions for which they were totally unfitted, and it took some time to get rid of them. I have known an entire regiment, made up of excellent fighting material, rendered comparatively worthless by having at its head a skulker or two with shoulder-straps. And if there be one lesson which I think I have well learned during my limited experiences, it is the absolute necessity of having for field officers men who respect themselves, men who stand firmly on their own feet-self-possessed, self-contained, elevated and strengthened by a sense of patriotic duty. Imagine a whining incapable leading a regiment upon a desperate bayonet charge! The very first element of discipline is of course respect, and only a whole man can command the respect of his inferiors. No regimental field officer should hold in his hand the great responsibility of the leadership of a thousand men unless he has passed a thorough examination, which shall test not so much his knowledge of tactics as his self-respect, manliness, reserved force, character.
Noyes certainly makes a valid point about the nature of popularly-chosen or politically-connected officers of regiments, etc. It was a mixed bag for sure. A bit further on he continues with his opining on the state of military leadership coming even from West Point.
Even our West Point school, to whose thorough sifting processes we owe that annual platoon of accomplished officers, scholars, and gentlemen, whose military knowledge has drilled and organized our newly-formed armies, and whose valor and discipline has set so good an example to our volunteers-even West Point, with all its training, cannot manufacture a first-rate officer unless that indispensable ingredient be furnished: a man. Good regimental leaders being thus selected by a commission more anxious for manhood than for those matters of drill which come so easily to ordinary comprehension, we shall soon have that discipline we so much need—a discipline which to the inexperienced might appear almost cruel, but which is really merciful and humane. Absolute obedience at the risk of being cut down on the instant for neglect, the punishment of a coward on the spot—this in mercy to his comrades, and as a necessity to the country, should be the iron rule of our army in battle. …
… This straggling from the line of march should be stopped, even if it require the severest punishment, while the coward in battle should be made to fear the sword of his officer more than the bullets of the enemy. The great majority of our volunteers, brave fellows as they are, are ready and willing to do their whole duty; it is in justice to them that I advocate a more careful selection of regimental officers, and a more rigid discipline. To stand up and face the dread realities of battle requires not only manly pride and the incitement of patriotic impulses, but also a severity of discipline which shall surround each command as with a ring of iron. What every soldier needs is to know that the quickest escape for him out of this bloody lane is to beat the enemy …
As a guy behind the lines dealing with supply, Noyes goes off into quite an extended section of opinion on the waste of ammunition in battle. I don’t really know how to evaluate the validity of his statements here, though they are not rendered without certainty. But Noyes wrote nothing without a solid air of authority! I’ll not include the details, but he quotes extensive numerical analyses compared to European theatres of conflict, compares it also to quotes from Confederate captives about their more limited use of ammunition, and concludes essentially that AOP guys needed to “take much better aim, and consequently waste far less.”
Closely connected with this subject of want of discipline is that of the enormous waste of ammunition in battle. Having gotten our soldier before the enemy, and compelled him by this iron rule to stay there and fight, the next point is that he fight to some purpose. … There is altogether too much of this wild, reckless firing, the men discharging their pieces before bringing them fairly down to a level, and utterly regardless of taking aim. … I would rather have five hundred men who fired thus, once in two minutes, than a thousand who should be anxious only to discharge their muskets.
So Noyes concludes with a characteristic note of good cheer and hope …
In conclusion, then, let me once more record my heartfelt admiration of the Army of the Potomac as a worthy coadjutor of our glorious armies of the West, and my belief that it will yet crown its many reverses and sacrifices by decisive victories. And my last words can be only those of hope and encouragement; for, as I review the events of the past two years, I have greater love for our Constitution, which has proved itself a chart sufficiently comprehensive to guide us even over the untried and stormy seas of this rebellion; for our form of government, as challenging the world for the rapidity with which it has organized its power into immense armies and navies; for my country, hardly feeling this draft upon its resources, and growing richer every day; for my countrymen, now beginning to take hold in earnest of this war as a matter of settled and permanent business; for our great underlying principle of Liberty, every day attesting its applicability to men of every color and every rank. It may be that we are to have more reverses mingled with our victories; but these delays are all right, are indeed necessary to ensure for our national disease a permanent cure. One thing is certain, that the man who lends neither his wealth, his influence, nor his right arm to aid on the war, has no right whatever to complain of any delay in its prosecution. Rights and duties are correlative, and only he who performs his duty to the government has any right to criticize its action. As yet, we have hardly begun to bring out our full resources. … In such a contest, upon whose result Freedom herself depends, there must be no such word as fail. The omens are all propitious; patience, courage, constancy must be ours, and may God defend the right! THE END.
I’m sad to see his writing end, as it takes away a good resource I’ve been using. I realize that written war reflections are of a varied nature as to accuracy and authority. But, in my mind, lending credence to this one as valuable is that it was published as the war was in process, not something after 40 years had passed.