Detailed Minutiae of Soldier Life in the Army of Northern Virginia

This is a book by Carlton McCarthy, who was an artillerist in the Richmond Howitzers, enlisting after his brother was killed at the 1864 Battle of Cold Harbor. After the war he was the mayor of Richmond for two terms and was the first state accountant for Virginia.

You can download and read the book for free here, here, here, here, and here.

This memoir is another contribution to the lost cause myth. We first have the “overwhelming numbers” myth: “The Confederate soldier opposed immense odds. In the ‘seven days battles’ around Richmond, 80,000 drove to the James River 115,000 of the enemy. At Fredericksburg, in 1862, 78,000 of them routed 110,000 Federal troops. At Chancellorsville, in 1863, 57,000 under Lee and Jackson whipped, and but for the death of Jackson would have annihilated, an army of 132,000 men,—more than double their own number. At Gettysburg, 62,000 of them assailed the heights manned by 112,000. At the Wilderness, in 1864, 63,000 met and successfully resisted 141,000 of the enemy. At Appomattox, in April, 1865, 8,000 of them surrendered to the host commanded by Grant.” [pp. 3-4] The numbers of the confederates are deliberately diminished to less than the actual numbers while the numbers for Federal soldiers are deliberately increased to more than the actual numbers. He also claims, “It should be remembered also that, while the South was restricted to its own territory for supplies, and its own people for men, the North drew on the world for material, and on every nation of the earth for men.” [pp. 4-5] This is the myth that the Federals had unlimited manpower and unlimited resources, which was assuredly not the case, as anyone who’s read any real history of the time can tell you.

McCarthy also gives us the “happy slave” myth: “Quite a large number had a ‘boy’ along to do the cooking and washing. Think of it! a Confederate soldier with a body servant all his own, to bring him a drink of water, black his boots, dust his clothes, cook his corn bread and bacon, and put wood on his fire. Never was there fonder admiration than these darkies displayed for their masters. Their chief delight and glory was to praise the courage and good looks of ‘Mahse Tom,’ and prophesy great things about his future. Many a ringing laugh and shout of fun originated in the queer remarks, shining countenance, and glistening teeth of this now forever departed character.” [p. 19]

We can see what he thinks of immigrants and African-Americans in this passage: “And besides, the newspapers did not mention the English, Irish, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Swiss, Portuguese, and negroes, who were to swell the numbers of the enemy, and as our army grew less make his larger. True, there was not much fight in all this rubbish, but they answered well enough for drivers of wagons and ambulances, guarding stores and lines of communication, and doing all sorts of duty, while the good material was doing the fighting.” [p. 34]

In short, McCarthy is a highly bigoted person whose observations of people are colored by his bigotry and his political outlook interferes with his accuracy in relating the history of events. Nevertheless, his account is very valuable for the student of the war because of the richness of his descriptions of what the common soldiers experienced. We should focus not so much on his claims about events and people but rather on how the soldiers did things, how the soldiers lived, and how they interacted with each other. That is what makes this book so important for us. This is why you should read it.

The book concludes with a chapter on the confederate flag, and the final paragraph tells us, “This much about the battle-flag, to accomplish, if possible, two things: first, preserve the little history connected with the origin of the flag; and, second, place the battle flag in a place of security, as it were, separated from all the political significance which attaches to the Confederate flag, and depending for its future place solely upon the deeds of the armies which bore it, amid hardships untold, to many victories.” [p. 224] It seems the descendants of the confederate soldiers ignored this admonition. They not only didn’t separate it from political significance, but they placed its political significance at the center of the flag.

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