Author George Washington Cable was one former Confederate who did not regret losing the Civil War.
When Union Captain Theodorus Bailey walked unarmed into hostile New Orleans in April 1862, an admiring local teenager watched him covertly from the family store. To 17-year-old George Washington Cable, Bailey’s walk was “one of the bravest deeds I ever saw done.” Nevertheless, it merely highlighted a “day of terrors” for Cable and other Crescent City residents, a day the future writer later described vividly. “The alarm-bells told us the city was in danger and called every man to his mustering-point,” Cable wrote. “The children poured out from the school gates and ran crying to their homes, meeting their sobbing mothers at their thresholds. The men fell into ranks. I was left entirely alone in charge of the store….But I did not stay. I went to the riverside. There, until far into the night, I saw hundreds of drays carrying cotton out of the presses and yards to the wharves, where it was fired. The glare of those serpentine miles of flame set men and women weeping and wailing thirty miles away.”
The next day, Cable returned to his store, where he watched Bailey and Lieutenant George Perkins defy a howling mob of angry New Orleanians. The Northern sailors’ gallantry was quickly supplanted by the ham-fisted reign of Maj. Gen. Benjamin “Beast” Butler, the new military governor of Louisi-ana, and Cable and his two sisters were forced to leave New Orleans after the young women, “two harmless girls of twenty-two and twenty,” refused to take an oath of allegiance to the Federal government.
Leaving New Orleans marked the beginning of Cable’s three-year career as a Confederate cavalryman. Joining Company J of the 4th Mississippi Cavalry, the diminutive Cable did his part to harass Union infantry and steamboats inside his native state, and he later joined the fearsome Nathan Bedford Forrest in opposing Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s drive into Mississippi.
Shot in the chest during an ambush in February 1864, Cable recovered in time to take part in the Battle of Tupelo that July. He subsequently served with Forrest until the bitter end, personally writing out the general’s manumission orders freeing his slaves in the last days of the war. His was a war not of romantic, sword-swinging cavalry charges, but of sudden hit-and-run skirmishes in which men were killed singly by pistol shots at close range, in personal clashes that seemed more like murder than organized warfare. It was a war filled with “rains, bad food, ill-chosen camps, terrible roads, horses sick and raw-boned, chills, jaundice, emaciation, and marches and counter-marches through blistering noons and skyless nights.”
Perhaps the unromantic nature of the war colored Cable’s postwar perspective, for he soon came to view the conflict as sheer folly, a curse on his native land that was the direct result of slavery and all its attendant evils. After the war, Cable began writing the local-color stories that first established his literary reputation. To Cable, secession was a terrible, misguided decision “exercised contrary to the belief and advice of hundreds of thousands of Southern men. That doubtful doctrine was not our cause….It was the only ground upon which some of our Southern advisers cast up the defenses behind which our actual cause lay fortified. Our real cause–the motive–was no intricate question. A president was elected lawfully by a party that believed simply what virtually the whole intelligence of the South now ad-mits, viz., that African slavery… was an error in its every aspect, was cursing the whole land. And we chose the risks of war rather than in any manner to jeopardize an institution which we have since learned to execrate.”
Cable’s growing social conscience and his early support for black voting rights and equal education led to his ostracization in his native South. Even his service in the Confederate Army did not shield him from widespread censure for daring to write that blacks “must share and enjoy in com-mon with the white race the whole scale of public rights and advantages provided under the American government.” Such writings anticipated by a good 75 years the civil rights movement in the South and marked Cable as the first truly self-reconstructed Confederate.
At the same time, it made him persona non grata to many readers in his home region. Fellow Southern writer Paul Hamilton Hayne labeled him a “mongrel cur,” and Cable himself characterized his literary reputation as one of a renegade who had “reaped golden harvests by haranguing Northern audiences on the fascinating subject of the Southern sins.” Exhausted by years of public controversy, Cable moved to Northampton, Mass., in 1885 and lived the last 40 years of his life as a voluntary exile from the very land he had once fought so hard to defend.
Roy Morris, Jr., Editor, America’s Civil War