A Rebel Clerk’s War Diary, Volume One

This is the first volume of John Beauchamp Jones’ diary he kept during the Civil War as a clerk in the confederate War Department. We think of a clerk as being a minor functionary, but Jones was actually a senior member of the War Department, close to the various Secretaries of War, and also someone who met and knew Jefferson Davis during the course of his duties. He was a fiction writer and an editor before the war, living in Burlington, NJ, publishing The Southern Monitor in Philadelphia, PA. While he owned no slaves he was nevertheless an enthusiastic supporter of the institution of slavery. “For years the Southern Monitor, Philadelphia, whose motto was ‘The Union as it was, the Constitution as it is,’ has foreseen and foretold the resistance of the Southern States, in the event of the success of a sectional party inimical to the institution of African slavery, upon which the welfare and existence of the Southern people seem to depend. And I must depart immediately; for I well know that the first gun fired at Fort Sumter will be the signal for an outburst of ungovernable fury, and I should be seized and thrown into prison.” [p. 2] During the Fort Sumter crisis, he moved south to take a position in the War Department, first in Montgomery, Alabama and then in Richmond, Virginia. You can download and read the book for free here.

Before the war, Jones had corresponded with a number of prominent southerners who would figure in the coming conflict. “But I must leave my papers, the accumulation of twenty-five years, comprising thousands of letters from predestined rebels. My wife opposes my suggestion that they be burned. Among them are some of the veto messages of President Tyler, and many letters from him, Governor Wise, etc. With the latter I had a correspondence in 1856, showing that this blow would probably have been struck then, if Fremont had been elected.” [pp. 13-14]

This book is a treasure trove of information about the confederacy. Jones observed and recorded all he could, from personal descriptions of various confederates to the prices of everyday items to all the rumors and gossip he heard. A man in his fifties during the war, Jones brought a matured judgment and disposition to his account. An ardent rebel, he still attempted to be as truthful as he could in his observations. While he recorded the rumors and gossip he heard, he also corrected the information found to be false in later entries. Unlike others, he also evaluated the information he heard, in many cases writing down the rumor he had heard and then saying he didn’t believe it to be true.

On April 10th and 11th of 1861, he moved through Virginia. “As we approached Richmond, it was observed that the people were more and more excited, and seemed to be pretty nearly unanimous for the immediate secession of the State. Everywhere the Convention then in session was denounced with bitterness, for its adherence to the Union; and Gov. Letcher was almost universally execrated for the chocks he had thrown under the car of secession and Southern independence. I heard very many who had voted for him, regret that they had ever supported the clique of politicians who managed to secure his nomination. And now I learned that a People’s Spontaneous Convention would assemble in Richmond on the 16th of the month, when, if the other body persisted in its opposition to the popular will, the most startling revolutionary measures would be adopted, involving, perhaps, arrests and executions. Several of the members of this body with whom I conversed bore arms upon their persons.” [pp. 15-16] Note this is prior to the firing on Fort Sumter and prior to Lincoln’s call for troops.

Jones was in Richmond when word came of Beauregard’s bombarding Fort Sumter. “Arrived at the Exchange Hotel, Richmond. A storm rages above, and below in the minds of men; but the commotion of the elements above attracts less attention than the tempest of excitement agitating the human breast. The news-boys are rushing in all directions with extras announcing the bombardment of Fort Sumter! This is the irrevocable blow! Every reflecting mind here should know that the only alternatives now are successful revolution or abject subjugation. But they do not lack for the want of information of the state of public sentiment in the North. It is in vain that the laggards are assured by persons just from the North, that the Republican leaders now composing the cabinet at Washington were prepared to hail the event at Charleston as the most auspicious that could have happened for the accomplishment of their designs; and that their purpose is the extinction of slavery, at least in the border States; the confiscation of the estates of rebels to reimburse the Federal Government for the expenses of the war which had been deliberately resolved on; and to gratify the cupidity of the ‘Wide-Awakes,’ and to give employment to foreign mercenaries.” [pp. 16-17]

While in Richmond he met with both former Governor Wise and former US President John Tyler. “After tea I called upon Gov. Wise, who occupied lodgings at the same hotel. He was worn out, and prostrated by a distressing cough which threatened pneumonia. But ever and anon his eagle eye assumed its wonted brilliancy. He was surrounded by a number of his devoted friends, who listened with rapt attention to his surpassing eloquence. A test question, indicative of the purpose of the Convention to adjourn without action, had that day been carried by a decided majority. The governor once rose from his recumbent position on the sofa and said, whatever the majority of Union men in the Convention might do, or leave undone, Virginia must array herself on one side or the other. She must fight either Lincoln or Davis. If the latter, he would renounce her, and tender his sword and his life to the Southern Confederacy. And although it was apparent that his physique was reduced, as he said, to a mere ‘bag of bones,’ yet it was evident that his spirit yet struggled with all its native fire and animation. Soon after President Tyler came in. I had not seen him for several years, and was surprised to find him, under the weight of so many years, unchanged in activity and energy of body and mind. He was quite as ardent in his advocacy of prompt State action as Wise. Having recently abandoned the presidency of the Peace Congress at Washington, in despair of obtaining concessions or guarantees of safety from the rampant powers then in the ascendency, he nevertheless believed, as did a majority of the statesmen of the South, that, even then, in the event of the secession of all the Southern States, presenting thus a united front, no war of great magnitude would ensue. I know better, from my residence in the North, and from the confessions of the Republicans with whom I have been thrown in contact; but I will not dissent voluntarily from the opinions of such statesmen. I can only, when my opinion is desired, intimate my conviction that a great war of the sections might have been averted, if the South had made an adequate coup d’état before the inauguration of Lincoln, and while the Democratic party everywhere was yet writhing under the sting and mortification of defeat. Then the arm of the Republican party would have been paralyzed, for the attitude of the Democratic party would at least have been a menacing one; but now, the Government has been suffered to fall into the possession of the enemy, the sword and the purse have been seized, and it is too late to dream of peace—in or out of the Union. Submission will be dishonor. Secession can only be death, which is preferable.” [pp. 17-18]

His April 23 entry reads, “Several prominent citizens telegraphed President Davis to-day to hasten to Virginia with as many troops as he can catch up, assuring him that his army will grow like a snow-ball as it progresses. I have no doubt it would. I think it would swell to 50,000 before reaching Washington, and that the people on the route would supply the quartermaster’s stores, and improvise an adequate commissariat. I believe he could drive the Abolitionists out of Washington even yet, if he would make a bold dash, and that there would be a universal uprising in all the border States this side of the Susquehanna. But he does not respond. Virginia was too late moving, and North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Missouri have not seceded yet—though all of them will soon follow Virginia. Besides, the vote on the ratification in this State is to take place a month hence. It would be an infringement of State rights, and would be construed as an invasion of Virginia! Could the Union men in the Convention, after being forced to pass the ordinance, have dealt a more fatal blow to their country? But that is not all. The governor is appointing his Union partisans to military positions. Nevertheless, as time rolls on, and eternal separation is pronounced by the events that must be developed, they may prove true to the best interests of their native land.” [pp. 26-27] Throughout he makes no bones about this being a war against abolitionists and for the preservation of slavery. There’s only one state right at stake here, the state right to have slavery. “By their emancipation and confiscation measures, the Yankees have made this a war of extermination, and added new zeal and resolution to our brave defenders. All hope of a reconstruction of the Union is relinquished by the few, comparatively, in the South, who still clung to the delusion. It is well. If the enemy had pursued a different course we should never have had the same unanimity. If they had made war only on men in arms, and spared private property, according to the usages of civilized nations, there would, at least, have been a neutral party in the South, and never the same energy and determination to contest the last inch of soil with the cruel invader. Now they will find that 3,000,000 of troops cannot subjugate us, and if subjugated, that a standing army of half a million would be required to keep us in subjection.” [pp. 141-142] “It is said Lincoln has issued a proclamation declaring the slaves of Rebels free, on and after the 1st of January, 1863. This will only intensify the war, and add largely to our numbers in the field.” [p. 157] “Lincoln’s proclamation was the subject of discussion in the Senate yesterday. Some of the gravest of our senators favor the raising of the black flag, asking and giving no quarter hereafter.” [p. 159] “Yesterday in both Houses of Congress resolutions were introduced for the purpose of retaliating upon the North the barbarities contemplated in Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. The Abolitionists of the North want McClellan removed—I hope they may have their will. The reason assigned by his friends for his not advancing farther into Virginia, is that he has not troops enough, and the Secretary of War has them not to send him. I hope this may be so. Still, I think he must fight soon if he remains near Martinsburg.” [pp. 161-162] “And what are we fighting for? What does the Northern Government propose to accomplish by the invasion? Is it supposed that six or eight million of free people can be exterminated? How many butchers would be required to accomplish the beneficent feat? More, many more, than can be sent hither. The Southern people, in such a cause, would fight to the last, and when the men all fell, the women and children would snatch their arms and slay the oppressors. Without complete annihilation, it is the merest nonsense to suppose our property can be confiscated.” [p. 206] “Our men fight to kill now, since the emancipation doom has been pronounced. But we have had a hard rain and nightly frosts, which will put an end to campaigning during the remainder of the winter. The fighting will be on the water, or near it. The legislature is in session, and resolutions inimical to the passport system have already been introduced. But where are State Rights now?” [p. 237]

Jones is very resentful of men he considers “Northerners” being given high positions in the confederacy. “There is an outcry against the appointment of two major-generals, recommended, perhaps, by Mr. Benjamin, Gustavus W. Smith and Gen. Lovell, both recently from New York. They came over since the battle of Manassas. Mr. Benjamin is perfectly indifferent to the criticisms and censures of the people and the press. He knows his own ground; and since he is sustained by the President, we must suppose he knows his own footing in the government. If defeated in the legislature, he may have a six years’ tenure in the cabinet.” [pp. 89-90] “February 2d.—The rumor of yesterday originated in the assertion of a Yankee paper that New Orleans would be taken without firing a gun. Some of our people fear it may be so, since Mr. Benjamin’s friend, Gen. Lovell, who came from New York since the battle of Manassas, is charged with the defense of the city. He delivered lectures, it is said, last summer on the defenses of New York—in that city. Have we not Southern men of sufficient genius to make generals of, for the defense of the South, without sending to New York for military commanders?” [p. 108] “If we gain our independence by the valor of our people, or assisted by European intervention, I wonder whether President Davis will be regarded by the world as a second Washington? What will his own country say of him? I know not, of course; but I know what quite a number here say of him now. They say he is a small specimen of a statesman, and no military chieftain at all. And worse still, that he is a capricious tyrant, for lifting up Yankees and keeping down great Southern men. Wise, Floyd, etc. are kept in obscurity; while Pemberton, who commanded the Massachusetts troops, under Lincoln, in April, 1861, is made a lieutenant-general; G. W. Smith and Lovell, who were office-holders in New York, when the battle of Manassas was fought, are made major-generals, and the former put in command over Wise in Virginia, and all the generals in North Carolina. Ripley, another Northern general, was sent to South Carolina, and Winder, from Maryland, has been allowed to play the despot in Richmond and Petersburg. Washington was maligned.” [p. 178] “Well, the President is a bold man! He has put in Randolph’s place, temporarily at least, Major-Gen. Gustavus W. Smith—who was Street Commissioner in the City of New York, on the day that Capt. G. W. Randolph was fighting the New Yorkers at Bethel!” [p. 191] “Major-Gen. French, in command at Petersburg, is a Northern man. Our native generals are brigadiers. It is amazing that all the superior officers in command near the capital should be Northern men. Can this be the influence of Gen. Cooper? It may prove disastrous!” [p. 245] “Col. Gorgas, Chief of Ordnance, a Pennsylvanian, sent into the department to-day, with a request that it be filed, his oath of allegiance to this government, and renunciation of that of the United States, and of his native State. This would indicate that the location of his nativity has been the subject of remark. What significance is to be attributed to this step at this late day, I know not, and care not. An error was committed in placing Northern men in high positions to the exclusion of Southern men, quite as capable of filling them.” [p. 270]

Jones even comes across a woman soldier. “November 20th.—I had a protracted and interesting interview to-day with a gaudily dressed and rather diminutive lieutenant, who applied for a passport to the Mississippi River, via Chattanooga, and insisted upon my giving him transportation also. This demand led to interrogatories, and it appeared that he was not going under special orders of the adjutant-general. It was unusual for officers, on leave, to apply for transportation, and my curiosity was excited. I asked to see his furlough. This was refused; but he told me to what company he belonged, and I knew there was such a company in Bishop or Gen. Polk’s command. Finally he escaped further interrogatories by snatching up the passport I had signed and departing hastily. But instead of the usual military salute at parting, he courtesied. This, when I reflected on the fineness of his speech, the fullness of his breast, his attitudes and his short steps, led me to believe the person was a woman instead of a lieutenant. Gen. Winder coming in shortly after, upon hearing my description of the stranger, said he would ascertain all about the sex.

“November 21st.—My mysterious lieutenant was arrested this morning, on the western route, and proved, as I suspected, to be a woman. But Gen. Winder was ordered by the Secretary to have her released.” [p. 94]

Jones, on the one hand, wasn’t happy with restrictions on civil liberties the confederacy implemented. On April 17, 1862 he wrote, “To-day Congress passed an act providing for the termination of martial law within thirty days after the meeting of the next session. This was as far as they could venture; for, indeed, a majority seem to be intimidated at the glitter of bayonets in the streets, wielded by the authority of martial law. The press, too, has taken the alarm, and several of the publishers have confessed a fear of having their offices closed, if they dare to speak the sentiments struggling for utterance. It is, indeed, a reign of terror! Every Virginian, and other loyal citizens of the South—members of Congress and all—must now, before obtaining Gen. Winder’s permission to leave the city for their homes, bow down before the aliens in the Provost Marshal’s office, and subscribe to an oath of allegiance, while a file of bayonets are pointed at his back!” [p. 120] On the other hand, he also complained about laxity in giving passes to people who were going north to, he suspected, provide information to the Federals.

And what would a confederate memoir be without a dash of lost cause mythology? Here we have the “happy slave” myth, which Jones no doubt actually believed was true: “The negroes are the best-clad people in the South. They have their Sunday clothing, and the half-worn garments of their masters and mistresses; and having worn these but once a week, they have a decidedly fresher aspect than the dresses of their owners. They are well fed, too, at any cost, and present a happy appearance. And they are happy. It is a great mistake of the Abolitionists, in supposing the slaves hail their coming with delight; on the contrary, nearly all the negroes regard their approach with horror. It might be well for the South if 500,000 of the slaves were suddenly emancipated. The loss would not be felt—and the North would soon be conscious of having gained nothing! My friend, Dr. Powell, near the city, abandoned his farm last summer, when it was partly in possession of the enemy, leaving fifty negroes on it—which he could have sold for $50,000. They promised not to leave him, and they kept their word. Judge Donnell, in North Carolina, has left his plantation with several hundred thousand dollars worth on it—rather risking their loss than to sell them.” [pp. 202-203] “It is said the Federal Congress is about to provide for the organization of 100 regiments of negroes. This does not occasion anxiety here. The slaves, once armed, would cut their way back to their masters.” [p. 224] “A large body of slaves passed through the city to-day, singing happily. They had been working on the fortifications north of the city, and go to work on them south of it. They have no faith in the efficacy of Lincoln’s Emancipation. But it is different in Norfolk; 4000 enfranchised slaves marched in procession through the town the other day in a sort of frantic jubilee. They will bewail their error; and so will the Abolitionists. They will consume the enemy’s commissary stores; and if they be armed, we shall get their arms.” [p. 233]

Jones sheds light on the reason why the Federals halted prisoner exchanges. “The United States agent of exchange has sent a notice to our agent that the negroes we capture from them in battle must be exchanged as other soldiers are, according to the cartel, which said nothing about color; and if the act of Congress in relation to such soldiers be executed, the United States would retaliate to the utmost extremity.” [p. 380]

This is really an outstanding primary resource. Jones has a wonderful writing style and he has a plethora of observations regarding the inner workings of the confederate government and War Department. I highly recommend it for students of the war.


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