Why Do The Men Fight?
There is a story told about General Lee: After the battle of Second Manassas, General Lee was seated on Traveller at the Groveton crossroads, watching his soldiers digging graves for the burial of their pals. A drummer boy from the 40th Virginia Regiment, Field’s Brigade, Hill’s division approached him, trembling and in tears. Two days before, the boy had been at the railroad cut and had witnessed his regiment’s bloody struggle with the bluecoats of Leasure’s brigade, Kearny’s division, Heintzelman’s corps. And the day before he had steadily beaten his drum, despite the terrifying whine and explosion of the shells, advancing with the pitiful few left of the regiment after Pope’s final attack had failed.
Now, the drummer boy, his shock of sandy hair caked with greasy dirt, his shallow face black with smudges of powder, his homespun clothes in tatters, came up to Traveller’s stirrup and, laying a hand on the big stallion’s moist shoulder, said to General Lee, in a quavering voice: “Please sir, why must the men fight?”
For a moment, General Lee’s dark eyes fell full on the drummer boy’s face; then his gaze swept away over the dismal battlefield, and he raised a gauntleted hand and rubbed the back of his neck wearily, thinking of what to say.
With the horrible field in front of him, he knew it would be a waste of words to recount the political history of the Union: the eighty years of rising tension between the sections—the political storms in the congress that produced the Missouri Compromise in 1820, and its repeal in 1850; the incessant harangues of the abolitionists, made in the Senate, the pulpit and the press; the violent, bitter struggle for control of the Kansas territory; the wanton murders John Brown committed seizing Harper’s Ferry in 1859; even Lincoln’s instigation of the war, using Fort Sumter like a stone thrown into a hornet’s nest, was too abstract, too ambiguous an answer.
General Lee looked down at the drummer boy. He might say, he thought, catching the brightness in the boy’s eyes, that the men must fight for slavery—must fight to keep the institution secure, that Cotton is king, and with African negro slaves, the South owns the king—but that, too, was still too abstract an answer. And that Cotton was king certainly had nothing to do with Virginia. For Virginia it was simply a matter of refusing Lincoln’s call to suppress secession.
But how to tell the boy what caused the civil war?
“How old are you, son?” General Lee asked, shifting his seat in the saddle and reaching down to put a hand on the boy’s shoulder.
General Lee sighed, straightened, and looked away again; his thoughts embracing the blackness of his generalship: The war was being fought by boys. Almost one tenth of the soldiers in his army had enlisted at fifteen, half were seventeen or younger, most of the rest no older than twenty-one. All their future was like a dark corridor reeking of misery and death, its door at the end a pin-point.
For an instant, a flash of lamentation swept through General Lee’s mind, his wasted calling, his hopeless future, already burdening him with dreams of souls streaming from the battlefields he had created. He breathed in suddenly with all his might the sweet smell of death that rose from the battlefield and it deepened his sadness. And he could think of nothing to say, except the truth, felt nothing but the urgent need to give the boy the answer, soothing the turmoil in his mind.
“Where do you hail from, son?” he queried, looking down at the boy with a quiet smile of affection, as though he were a favorite friend.
“From Loudoun County, sir,” the boy replied, his heart throbbing.
“Do you have brothers?”
“Yes,” the drummer boy answered; “my brother, sixteen years old, was first of the family to enlist, and then I followed.”
General Lee looked off again toward the battlefield, nodding his head slowly. The boy could see a crease show on Lee’s smooth brow. A moment passed and still looking at the field, bathed now in the glow of twilight, Lee said, “Suppose Pope had beaten us here and Richmond was now falling, and the war was ending. How would you feel, son?”
The drummer boy looked up at General Lee earnestly, his hands gripping suddenly Traveller’s black mane. “Beaten you mean?” the boy said incredulously, “Beaten?” His eyes were like deep wells of light searching Lee’s face for confirmation.
“Yes, that is what I mean,” Lee replied softly.
A look of bewilderment came over the drummer boy’s face. He stared fixedly at Lee, his eyes widened, and the muscles of his face were quivering, as though he were struggling in confusion to comprehend. His flashing thoughts were of his mother and sisters at home, in Middleburg—he saw the column of bluecoat soldiers marching in the main street, squads breaking off down the lanes and one of them invading their home, the soldiers jeering at the women, jostling them aside, rummaging about breaking things, taking things. He felt suddenly more miserable than he could imagine possible. His powder-smirched face flamed red with blushing, as his pounding heart rushed blood through his veins. He felt a terrible impotency and, suddenly, he withdrew his hands from Traveller’s neck and balled them into fists in a rage. He felt an intense shame, self-contempt, loss of self-respect; realizing the whole world would be laughing if the battle had been lost.
General Lee remained silent, watching the boy. He saw that the boy was gaining the light, that he was gaining control of himself, settling his emotions with a cold countenance, with an inner spring of steel welling up. The boy saw now that the war was a dire necessity, costly but worth the cost to hold out to the last, that every nation needs men willing to die for its survival, and Virginia and her allies must prove themselves no less a nation than the Union.
The drummer boy’s eyes cleared and the muscles of his face became chiseled as in brown stone. He hitched up the straps of his drum cradle and, folding his arms across his chest, stepped back a pace. The wafting sound of a bugle faintly echoed Tattoo over the field. Both he and Lee turned their heads to the sound and listened. They could see the soldiers in the field had finished with their digging and the day was done.
The sound of horses galloping came to their ears and their eyes turned from their mutual look of warm understanding, and they saw the bobbing figures of a crowd of riders coming toward them on the pike.
“You see my staff officers have found me,” Lee said,.looking down at the boy, “and no doubt your sergeant is worried about you.”
“Yes, sir!” the drummer boy said and he raised his hand in salute, sad it was the end of his time with Lee.
General Lee raised his rein-hand just an inch and Traveller pranced forward a step, his head coming up with his ears pricked. “Well, then, go son,” Lee said as he returned the boy’s salute. “Your regiment will need you in the ranks.” And he put Traveller to the trot and moved to meet the cavalcade.
Written by: Joe Ryan
Told by Luther Hopkins, in his 1908 book— From Bull Run to Appomattox: A Boy’s View. Published by Fleet=McGinley Co., Baltimore
Battle of Gettysburg
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