Disgrace was a fate worse than death for a soldier. And thousands of soldiers died to prove it
Honor is a complicated word to define. The concept of honor, according to historian and ethicist Bertram Wyatt-Brown, “seems inherently and perversely contradictory: comic and tragic, romantic and shrewd, inhumane and magnanimous, brave and hypocritical, sane and mad.” Yet every conceivable aspect of honor, from its most selfless to its most desperate and deluded, influenced the actions of the privates and generals, the Billy Yanks and Johnny Rebs, from the first shot fired at Fort Sumter to the signing of the surrender at Appomattox in what Sir Winston Churchill would one day call “the last war between gentlemen.”
It can be argued that the opposite of honor is shame, and that fear of the latter inspires defense of the former. Consider a company of soldiers, standing at attention, awaiting the order to charge across an expanse of open field against a defensive position, into the mouths of cannons loaded with grapeshot, rifled muskets charged with bone-smashing .58-caliber Minié balls, and—in the event they make it across the field alive—the bayonets of the enemy. This was a scene played out on countless battlefields throughout the war—and with rare exception, the soldiers followed orders and charged, often into certain death. At Cold Harbor, on the night of June 2, 1864, an aide to General Grant watched as the soldiers pinned or sewed their names into the lining of their blouses and coats—“so that their dead bodies might be recognized upon the field, and their fate made known to their families back home.” Next day, as they charged Lee’s defenses in the face of devastating fire, they unconsciously bent forward, as if fighting their way through a driving storm. And—as they had predicted the night before—they died in droves. One private, seeing his comrades suddenly drop to the ground, assumed they’d been ordered to seek cover; he did likewise, only to discover they were all dead.
The unavoidable question: What can be more precious to a man than his life, and what choice more obvious than flight, when confronted with the possibility—or the certainty—of death? In Stephen Crane’s brilliant novel of the Civil War, The Red Badge of Courage, the young Union volunteer, Henry Fleming, betrays his own sense of personal valor by running from his first skirmish. Overcome with shame and seeing himself as a “craven loon,” Fleming ultimately finds redemption by seizing the company standard in a later engagement and leading his comrades in a successful charge. The shame of being branded a coward had become more loathsome to him than death.
The development of a military code of honor among officers can be traced to the Knights Templar, a religious/military order formed during the Crusades. Under their code of chivalry, a knight was forbidden, on pain of expulsion from the order, to engage in cowardice in battle, conspiracy against a fellow knight, desertion, lying, stealing, sodomy and murder. Over the centuries, such standards were adapted—to greater or lesser degrees—by the armies of various European nations. When the British established themselves in the New World, their military code of honor came with them. As one historian points out, “Honor was the most precious possession of a gentleman. It had no degrees—a gentleman could not lose a little honor….Honor was a mark of distinction that…enabled an officer to command men.”
Naturally, this European-style code of honor informed the first cadets of the fledgling U.S. Military Academy at West Point. During the first half of the 19th century, the academy was the training ground for more than 500 cadets who would serve either the Union or the Confederacy, and West Point’s honor code would influence their conduct throughout the war. Interestingly, this code of honorable behavior was not formally written down until the mid-20th century. In 1819, however, President James Monroe and Secretary of War John C. Calhoun declared West Point’s student body to be members of the Regular Army, and—despite having no written code of their own—the cadets became subject to the Articles of War. In the Articles, acts of conduct dishonorable to the service—lying, stealing, cheating, cowardice—were carefully spelled out, along with the penalty—which, as in the Regular Army, was determined by court-martial and frequently resulted in dismissal from the service.
Insofar as individual conduct was concerned, the cadets often took it upon themselves to deal with those who, in their estimation, had behaved dishonorably. For general infractions, punishment ranged from “coventry”—permanently shunning a fellow cadet—to actually escorting him to the next outbound train.
For offenses to one’s sense of honor, however, there was a darker aspect to this system of redress. Derived from the regular officer’s unwritten code, it followed the rule “Brook no insult.” In the words of one chronicler, “Protecting one’s reputation from all insults or reproofs, actual or imaginary, was one of the most conspicuous requirements of honorable conduct during this era.” Gentlemen who felt the slightest affront were duty-bound to respond with violence. Those who failed to respond either with or to a challenge were viewed as cowards, and faced ostracism. So prevalent was the practice of answering even trivial insults with force that West Point banned cadets from owning pistols or sabers—although many cadets kept weapons hidden away. According to eminent West Point historian James L. Morrison Jr., “The antebellum cadet was pugnacious; his sense of honor was prickly, and an insult or injustice almost inevitably provoked a scuffle….Usually, the altercations were simple fist fights, resulting only in bloody noses and black eyes, but occasionally the combatants resorted to weapons with intent to do bodily harm.”
By the time the cadets graduated from West Point and joined the regular officer corps, the practice of fighting for one’s honor had become second nature; it was no less than was expected by their peers. The Army officially frowned upon dueling among its officers. In fact, Article 25 of the Articles of War prohibited the practice, stating that any officer who engaged in dueling would be cashiered. Article 28 went a step further, and expressly forbade calling a fellow officer a coward for turning down a challenge:
Any officer or soldier who shall upbraid another for refusing a challenge, shall himself be punished as a challenger; and all officers and soldiers are hereby discharged from any disgrace, or opinion of disadvantage which might arise, from their having refused to accept of challenges, as they will only have acted in obedience to the laws, and done their duty as good soldiers, who subject themselves to discipline.
Nonetheless, dueling in the service persisted, practiced by officers who cited a higher moral imperative in the face of a disagreeable—or “dishonorable”—law.
On the field, there was a common saying among the troops that “the post of danger is the post of honor.” No post was more perilous than that of standard bearer, and yet, on either side, there was never a lack of volunteers to carry the flag into battle. In fact, a number of Union soldiers—including the 16-year-old future father of General Douglas MacArthur—were awarded the newly established Medal of Honor for bearing the standard under fire, as well as for capturing the enemy’s flag. One New York colonel recorded the death of his regimental color-bearer at Gettysburg: “Sergeant Michael Cuddy…displayed the most heroic bravery. When he fell, mortally wounded, he rose by convulsive efforts and triumphantly waved in the face of the rebels, not 10 yards distant, that flag he loved so dearly of which he was so proud and for which his valuable life, without a murmur, was freely given up.”
The troops had a favorite anecdote about a soldier in an outfit that was about to engage the enemy. As the regiment formed to charge, and the enemy guns opened up, a rabbit suddenly broke from cover and ran to the rear. A soldier, on seeing the rabbit’s dash for safety, shouted, “Go it, cottontail! I’d go it, too, if it weren’t for my reputation!” Both Yankees and Rebels claimed the story as true, and went so far as to name the soldier involved. It matters not at all who said it, or if the story is, in fact, apocryphal; the message is universal. With the path to safety open before him, the soldier elects to risk death for the sake of his “reputation”—his honor. To run would be to incur the condemnation of his comrades.
To many, the shame of losing was equal to the ignominy of cowardice. When Union General Philip Sheridan trapped Jeb Stuart’s cavalry at Yellow Tavern in May 1864, Stuart—mortally wounded and seeing his men breaking before the Union onslaught—shouted as he was driven from the field, “Go back! Do your duty as I have done mine! I would rather die than be whipped!” It was a sentiment shared by the men of both armies.
At times, soldiers otherwise renowned for their strong sense of honor behaved abysmally. For a century and a half, Maj. Gen. George Pickett has been a revered charter member of the pantheon of Confederate knights, and is known to history as the commander who valiantly led his men in that doomed, glorious charge at Gettysburg. What many students of the war do not know, however, is that he was also responsible for one of its most horrific acts. After mishandling the February 1, 1864, amphibious attack on the Union forces at New Bern, N.C., Pickett captured some 53 Federal prisoners, all of whom were local North Carolinians, and some 22 of whom had previously served in the state’s home guard. Accusing them of desertion—although leaving the home guard was not a crime in the state—he ordered courts-martial for the prisoners. The verdicts were a foregone conclusion, and over the course of the next few weeks, he hanged all 22. In the absence of black hoods, Pickett ordered their heads covered with corn sacks. On a large, hastily built scaffold, he hanged 13 prisoners at one time, including a 14-year-old drummer boy. Their weeping families and friends watched helplessly while his soldiers jeered. Pickett allowed his men to strip the bodies, and buried in a mass grave all who were not claimed by their families.
Union Maj. Gen. John Peck, commander of the District of North Carolina, learned of the trials, and wrote to Pickett, beseeching him not to let his recent “hasty retreat” at New Bern cause him to treat the men as other than prisoners of war. By the time the letter reached Pickett, 20 of the men had already perished, and the remaining two faced imminent death. Pickett replied that deserters deserved to die, and threatened that if Peck hanged any Rebel prisoners in retribution, “I have merely to say that I have in my hands and subject to my orders, captured in the recent operations in this department, some 450 officers and men of the United States army, and for every man you hang, I will hang ten of the United States army.” Within two months, nearly all the other prisoners perished in Rebel prison camps.
Some historians argue that Pickett was merely acting to staunch the flow of desertion, which by this time was a major problem in the Confederate Army. Others have pointed to his embarrassing failure at New Bern as the motivation for his actions. The executions—stunning even in the midst of the slaughter and mayhem of war—inspired the War Department to hold inquiries after the end of hostilities. Pickett, who had escaped with his family to Montreal, was found solely responsible for the atrocities. Denied parole and facing prosecution, he wrote to his old friend and West Point classmate, General Ulysses S. Grant, stating ironically that “certain evil disposed persons are attempting to re-open the troubles of the past,” and asking him to intercede with President Andrew Johnson on his behalf. Grant wrote the president requesting clemency, adding, “Gn. Pickett I know personally to be an honorable man” (emphasis added). A parole was granted George Pickett the same day.
The deeds that reflected the greatest honor were those that exceeded the everyday demands on a soldier’s life and commitment. Fifteen years after the war ended, former Confederate General J.B. Kershaw wrote a letter to the Charleston News and Courier recalling details of a remarkable event. At Fredericksburg in December 1862, after wave upon wave of charging Union troops were cut down by the fire of entrenched Rebels, thousands of wounded Yankees lay stretched and moaning on the frozen ground. No truce was agreed upon for the aid of the wounded or the retrieval of the dead, and the field, blanketed with Federals, was a pitiful sight. Unable to move, men cried out constantly from pain and thirst.
In the sunken road behind the Rebel wall at Marye’s Heights, Richard Kirkland, a 19-year-old sergeant of the 2nd South Carolina Infantry, requested leave of Kershaw to take water to the fallen foe. According to Kershaw’s account, he admonished the youth, “Kirkland, don’t you know you would get a bullet through your head the moment you stepped over the wall?” Kirkland responded, “Yes, sir, I know that. But if you let me, I’m willing to try.” He filled as many canteens as he could carry, and—forbidden to carry a white flag—stepped over the wall, in plain sight of the Union ranks.
Kirkland went from soldier to soldier, administering water, and if asked, a prayer. He refilled the canteens a number of times, and each time he returned to the field, he was met with respectful silence. After an hour and a half, he returned to his own ranks for the last time. No one cheered; no one had to.
There were countless other examples on both sides of soldiers who extended kindness to a vulnerable enemy. As his men were preparing to fire on a Confederate picket line, one Union officer ordered them to stand down, on the premise that it was “nothing but murder to kill a poor picket while on duty.” On another occasion, a Yankee general stood looking through his telescope at the enemy position, whereupon a rock sailed into the soldiers’ rifle pit. Around the rock was tied a note that read, “Tell the fellow with the spy glass to clear out or we shall have to shoot him.”
Contrary to the thinking of many at the time, honor was not the sole provenance of the white race. Following the Emancipation Proclamation, nearly 180,000 blacks enlisted for service in the Union Army. Reviled by their white fellow soldiers, threatened with execution if captured by the enemy, singled out for slaughter at Fort Pillow, Poison Spring and Petersburg, they fought gallantly to establish their rightful place in a restructured America.
By the time the war ended, 16 were awarded the Medal of Honor for “conspicuous gallantry”—and a third of their number had perished—3,000 in action, and some 65,000 from wounds and disease. Abraham Lincoln, in recognizing their contribution, wrote, “[T]here will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation.”
Ultimately, honor on the field was a soldier’s most personal possession. Every soldier, from the lowliest private to the most senior commander, had to decide how to comport himself, how to fight and, for hundreds of thousands of men and boys, how to face death. Honor was never far from a soldier’s mind; should he lose sight of it, there were always officers present to hammer it home. In the end, the honorable choice was not always an easy one.
“I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than the dissolution of the Union,” a colonel in the U.S. Army wrote his son just two months before the opening of hostilities. “It would be an accumulation of all the evils we complain of, and I am willing to sacrifice everything but honor for its preservation.”
The sacrifice was apparently too great for this officer. The author of these pensive words was Robert E. Lee. n
Scrimshander and historian Ron Soodalter is the author of Hanging Captain Gordon: The Life and Trial of an American Slave Trader.