Bill Styple is a well-known reenactor with the 15th New Jersey. Neat guy; I've met him at a few events. - Jonah

Chronicler of the Southern Soldier

By Stephen Goode

(Insight, Feb. 4-17, 2003)



Confederate correspondent Peter Wellington Alexander provided a vivid glimpse of war's horrors and brutalities with his dispatches from the front lines of the Civil War.


     It was a major discovery, and Bill Styple knew it the moment he found it. Styple, a Civil War historian, had gone up to Columbia University from his home in Kearny, N.J., to look at newspapers from the era of the War Between the States. While there he chanced upon a reference that led him to boxes in the university's Rare Book and Manuscript Library that were full of scrapbooks, newspaper clippings and much else from the estate of Peter Wellington Alexander.


     Styple, who has written widely on the Civil War, instantly recognized the name. Alexander had been the foremost Confederate war correspondent, a man whose dispatches from the front had been enormously popular in the South and widely trusted as accurate. They appeared regularly in the Savannah Republican in Alexander's home state of Georgia, but also were published in the Richmond Dispatch of Virginia, the Atlanta Southern Confederacy and other journals, such as The Times of London.


     Historians had come across some of Alexander's dispatches before, often glued in scrapbooks. The University of Georgia has a microfilm collection that includes many of his articles. But what was amazing about the treasure trove Styple found at Columbia was that among the more than 7,500 items stuffed in those boxes was a complete collection of this important journalist's dispatches, offering an extraordinary look at the Civil War from the point of view of a man who involved himself deeply in the day-to-day life of the average infantrymen who served in the armies he followed.


     Alexander was present at both battles of Manassas, at Antietam, Gettysburg, the Wilderness and many other of the major exchanges between the North and South. That he lasted the whole four years, taking a break only here and there when the war became too much for him, Styple finds one of the most amazing things about this intrepid man.


     "War correspondents generally lasted a year or so," Styple tells INSIGHT. "To have someone stay four years, more or less continuously, was unusual." Styple likes to refer to Alexander as "the South's Ernie Pyle," a reference to the legendary World War II correspondent admired for his focus on the average GI. Even so, Alexander became something of a celebrity during the War Between the States and was dubbed by the Charleston [S.C.] Courier "the Prince of Correspondents." A descendant of the Confederate journalist left Alexander's personal archive to Columbia in the early 1970s.


     Styple has chosen 200 or so of Alexander's wartime dispatches from the hundreds in the collection and put them into a book, Writing & Fighting the Confederate War, published by Belle Grove Publishing Co. of Kearny, N.J.


     How good Alexander was is apparent from his earliest reports. The first, dated June 9, 1861, comes from Richmond during the early weeks of the war, capturing the high patriotism and enthusiasm of the time. "The Old Dominion is one vast camp," he declares somewhat fulsomely, filled with "the very flower of the chivalry of the South." When Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, reviews the troops, he "sits on his horse most cheerfully, and has the air of a thorough-bred chieftain. His appearance excited great enthusiasm and applause."


     The rebel soldiers "come up from the wilds of Arkansas and Texas, from gallant Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama and, foremost of all, from intrepid Georgia and South Carolina." But from wherever they come, Alexander averred, "one spirit animates" them, and that spirit is the desire "to wash out the footprints of the invader with his own blood." For these men, "There can be no such thing as peace so long as a single Abolitionist remains upon the soil" of any Southern state.


     The hopeful, optimistic attitude is that of Alexander, but also of the average Southern soldier whose viewpoint Alexander was at pains to represent and whose cause he never abandoned. Two weeks later, he predicted that the war would be over by Christmas, largely because the Yankees--and this was a notion shared by almost everyone in the Confederacy--had no stomach for protracted war because it interfered with the making of money, a Yankee preoccupation. The "commercial, shipping, manufacturing and monied classes are ripe for peace," Alexander wrote.


     These predictions, hatched in the early, febrile days of wartime, proved to be mistaken. But it would be wrong to assume that Alexander's dispatches continued to be blinded by his patriotism or by that of the soldiers among whom he lived. Indeed, he was exceptionally clear eyed, a fact that raised him above most correspondents in any war. As Styple puts it, "Alexander wasn't overly given to propaganda and would write about the incompetence and drunkenness he found in the army and about the corruption of government officials, and cover none of it over."


     Very early, for example, he took issue with the all-too-common "growing evil" of dueling among Southern soldiers. Why should Confederates be killing and maiming one another when they ought to be fighting Yankees? Alexander also was critical of the treatment given wounded and sick soldiers, often abysmal in that monstrous war: "The administration of the medical department is not only stupid, but brutal," he wrote at one point. Another time he observed: "While engaged at the amputation table, many [surgeons] feel it to be their solemn duty, every time they administer brandy to their patient, to take a drink themselves."


     Perhaps his most extraordinary act of criticism was to attack no less a figure than Robert E. Lee following the Battle of Gettysburg. Alexander argued, convincingly, that "had Gen. Lee concentrated his forces 24 hours sooner, he might have dispersed, captured or destroyed the three Federal corps engaged on the first day [of the battle], and have fallen upon the remaining forces then coming up and not yet in position, and driven them pell-mell back upon Baltimore or Washington." He thought Lee's caution, as well as the caution manifested by other Confederate officers, failed to make use of the Southern soldier's desire to fight hard and do whatever it took to win.


     Strong stuff, particularly when directed against a leader the South widely regarded as above reproach. But Alexander never regarded such criticism as unpatriotic. On the contrary, he saw his journalist's job as articulating as directly and honestly as possible bad news as well as good. As early as the Battle of First Manassas in 1861 he promised his readers that he would report what he saw "as faithfully as possible in all its lights and shades." It is a promise he kept to the end. When the North did well, he said so. About the Yankee performance in the Battle of Second Manassas in 1862 he wrote, "His firing was superb, and I must admit, superior to our own."


     Even in 1864, when the war was going very badly for the South, Alexander never flinched from telling the truth as he saw it. In "times of manifest peril, when the only hope of relief rests upon the people, nothing should be hidden from them," he wrote, because "a full knowledge of which is necessary to prepare them for the work expected at their hands."


     What should the people of the South be told that they perhaps did not yet know? "They should be informed that they have an incompetent Cabinet at the head of affairs, to the end that they may prevail upon the President [Jefferson Davis] to change it." The people should know, too, that they have "a weak, plodding Congress," because the people "alone have the power [to] send wiser and better men to the national legislature."


     It was Alexander's belief, Styple says, "that there was a lesson to be learned" from every wartime experience and that his responsibility was to convey that lesson. It was an attitude that helped make Alexander "the most influential civilian" in the South outside of high government officials there, Styple argues, because his comments were valued and trusted, and they sometimes led to results.


     Styple finds that surprising. Alexander, after all, had no military training and knew nothing of wartime tactics and strategy. Born in Elbert County, Ga., in 1825, he was graduated from the University of Georgia in 1844 and had become a lawyer, practicing in Savannah. His writing skills already recognized during his college years, he supplemented his income by writing pieces for the Savannah Republican, the paper whose wartime correspondent he became.


     What's more, Alexander hadn't wanted the war. He was a Georgia Whig who opposed secession and urged his home state to remain within the federal union. Once Georgia voted for secession, however, he remained loyal to the South. What he lacked in military experience he made up for in common sense--and in the demands he made on himself to tell things always as he saw them and in the most direct language.


     He could with equal skill, for example, describe both the excitement that war stirred in those who fought the battles and the horrors they regularly experienced. After the Battle of Shiloh, a Confederate victory, Alexander filed a story dated April 7, 1862, that contained this description:


     "The battle now raged with indescribable fury. I never heard or imagined anything like the roar of the artillery and the incessant rattle of the small arms. The deep thunder bass of the one, and the sharp, shrill tenor of the other, intermingled with the shrieks of bursting shells and the whizzing of cleaving, rifled cannon balls was grand beyond description. It was an awful hymn of battle rolling upward to the skies and literally shaking the earth beneath. It was a solemn anthem, the notes of which were traced in blood, and uttered from brazen throats, that might have satisfied Mars himself."


     But Alexander also visited the fields after the battles were fought. The first time was following the Battle of First Manassas, when he helped with a search for bodies. "It was a melancholy search, and extended far into the night. The moon was shining and afforded sufficient light for our purpose. But who can describe the awful sights its pale beams disclosed to us during that night's rambles among the hills?"


     Alexander described what he saw: "The mangled forms, the ghastly wounds and gleaming faces of the dead; the beseeching cries of the wounded; the torments and contortions of the dying...." The first body he encountered elicited one of the earliest unforgettable anecdotes in his dispatches. The dead man "was a youth of 20 summers who had been killed by a minnie ball," Alexander wrote, "which entered the temple just in front of the ear and passed out on the other side. It was a monster ball, and made a hole through which we could almost see."


     Alexander used that anecdote to underline the cost of war. He also related short, poignant stories as a way to describe the unyielding spirit of the South. These help us understand why the Confederacy fought as hard as it did against great odds and why the war lasted so long. The discovery of the badly wounded John S. Hudson, a young man of about 22 from Alexander's home county in Georgia, at the Battle of Antietam resulted in one of these sad, revealing stories. Consider:


     Hudson's "thigh had been torn by a shell, and hung only by a thin piece of skin," Alexander wrote. In great pain, he was "calm and resigned." Then, "as the dread hour of dissolution approached, he gathered up all his remaining strength, and turning to his brother, who hung over him in dumb agony, said, 'Tell mother I die rejoicing, and die a soldier's death.' " There was not a dry eye among the dozen fellow soldiers who stood nearby, Alexander reported.


     On Nov. 27, from Dalton, Ga., he related another of these stories. The South had just lost the Battle of Missionary Ridge--a great defeat, Alexander wrote, because it signaled "the loss of the moral strength and confidence of the army and the country." Alexander was depressed but then came across an indomitable woman who, though poor and desperate herself, gave him hope:


     "It was a horrid night. But a poor woman, the mother of 10 children, her husband and oldest son in the army, gave me shelter at one o'clock, a fire to dry myself by and a bed to rest upon, not forgetting a bundle of fodder for my horse. A dozen others, attracted by the cheering light seen through her window, applied for admittance, and room was found for all in that humble cabin." The experience caused him to exalt: "God bless that good woman and shield her husband and son from the dangers of the battlefield."


     Witnessing such exemplary courage and generosity lifted Alexander's spirits and underlined for him what he regarded as the greatness of the South's cause. By the end of 1861, however, he recognized, "What a vast amount of labor and money it requires to move, to subsist and clothe it! What immense stores of provisions and forage." He estimated that "it would not be wide of the mark to say that the Army of the Potomac consumes daily in cold weather the wood on six or seven acres of land."


     And he saw and said how hard war was for the average soldier: "It is customary to march for an hour, and then rest 10 minutes, but it is impossible to find shade sufficient on the road for an entire corps or division; and hence the horses, and sometimes the men, have to stand and swelter in the hot sun during these brief intervals of rest."


     Staying in one place could be as debilitating as marching. At Petersburg, Va., on July 7, 1864, Alexander wrote: "Everything partakes of the color of dust--the woods, the fields, the corn, the grass, the men, the horses and the wagons. We breathe it; we sleep it; we eat and move in it. It is thicker than the darkness that overspread Egypt in the days of the Pharaoh."


     He deplored the waste he saw all around him and had specific recommendations, writing: "The hides taken from the cattle slaughtered for the use of the army will shoe the army, the tallow will light the army; while the oil from the feet is sufficient to keep all the harness wagons and artillery in good order." But the cattle continued to be butchered for food, while their hides and other parts were allowed to rot unused.


     It was when Alexander appealed to people throughout the Confederacy that he met with his greatest successes. In the fall of 1862, after Antietam, for example, he wrote in his dispatches, "The men must have clothing and shoes this winter. They must have something to cover themselves while sleeping, and to protect themselves from driving sleet and from storms when on duty." Southerners responded in great numbers with food, clothing, blankets and shoes.


     Alexander made no secret of his contempt for the privileged. He was the scourge of those who found ways to avoid the hard life endured by infantrymen in the field. "There is hardly a general officer in the service who is not surrounded by a multitude of volunteer aides...who follow in the train of their chiefs like the tail of a comet, and who, though ornamental, are seldom useful," he wrote in May 1862. Then came Alexander's ultimate condemnation: "They are young men who have wealthy parents, and who have not the patriotism to enter the ranks and perform the duties of a true man or soldier." These "characters," he noted with undisguised glee, "are generally known by the vulgar but expressive name of 'squirts.' "


     Alexander expressed the infantryman's view of cavalry officers. "Lazy cavalrymen and dainty staff officers" was one of his milder descriptions. He regarded even J.E.B. Stuart as more show than substance. In June 1863 Alexander recorded a priceless story about Stuart, whose vanity often got the best of him. Lee's army was about to march north to meet the enemy at Gettysburg, which would take place three weeks later. Meanwhile, at Culpeper Court House in Virginia, Stuart enjoyed the adulation of his many admirers--and then suffered Lee's disapproval.


Here's Alexander:

     "Some of the ladies yesterday adorned [Stuart] and his horse with flowers, and in this condition he presented himself before General Lee, who it is reported, having surveyed him from head to foot, quietly remarked: 'Do you know General, that [the losing Northern commander Ambrose] Burnside left Washington in like trim for the first battle of Manassas? I hope your fate may not be like his.' "


     It was a major put-down, but, "Unfortunately," Alexander noted, "Stuart was much too occupied with his flowers to take the hint." It also was a story that revealed the cavalry officer's weak character and the sterner stuff of which Lee was made. Alexander was astute when it came to personality. He recognized Lee's greatness: "Grave and dignified, he is yet modest and painfully distrustful of his own abilities," he wrote in one dispatch. He concluded, "Lee, though not possessing the first order of intellect, is endowed with rare judgment and equanimity."


     No one has improved on that assessment. Alexander also was clearheaded on the legendary Stonewall Jackson: "There is some diversity of opinion among military men in regard to Gen. Jackson's qualities as a strategist and commander of an army, but none as to his ability as a fighter. He is the idol of the people. [A] member of the Presbyterian Church, and a sincere and humble Christian, he considers himself an instrument in the hands of God and never arrogates any credit to himself when victory perches on his banners."


     Near the end of the war, Alexander quoted with approval word that had been received from Confederate officers jailed in Northern military prisons. "They say with one voice, 'fight on, never give up, better all die freemen than as slaves.' " There is irony here, for that's the very theme that he seemed unable to comprehend when it came to blacks living in bondage. Even in the last months of the conflict, when many in the South began advocating freedom for slaves so they could fight for the Confederacy, Alexander didn't think they would fight harder because they were free. Here was a war correspondent who had opposed secession, but he was as victimized by blindness toward the institution of slavery as any of the Confederate soldiers about whom he reported.


     He never understood what the abolitionist movement was about, or why the North saw it as a moral cause.


     Alexander filed his last dispatch from Macon, Ga., on May 17, 1865, a month after the war's end and Abraham Lincoln's assassination. There "never was a clearer case of self-destruction than that which is now presented by the exploded Southern Confederacy," he wrote in his final assessment. "Success and independence were certainly within its reach, and its failure to grasp them is due almost entirely to the divisions and dissensions of the people and their lack of patience, fortitude and self-denial," the failures he had catalogued in his wartime dispatches.


     In the years after the war, Alexander collected his dispatches and a great deal of other information--the scrapbooks, clippings and other data in the boxes stored at Columbia. Among those clippings were letters from soldiers printed in Civil War newspapers. Styple plans to publish a collection of 278 of these letters, entitled Writing and Fighting from the Army of Northern Virginia, in July.


     Alexander died in 1886 and was throughout the South eulogized as a hero of the Lost Cause. "His life was a historic one," summed up one obituary. He probably had planned to write a history of the conflict, much of which he had witnessed firsthand. The book was never written. But at least now we have the dispatches.

Click here for the Belle Grove Publishing website.