Gen. Lee shares thoughts on Irishmen in the Civil War
Editor’s Note: The Rev. George W. Pepper, a former pastor of the Methodist-Episcopal Church in Bellevue in the 1870s to early 1880s had an opportunity in his career to interview Robert E. Lee. Part of that interview follows.
(Continued from last week)
Our next topic of conversation was the foreign element in the armies. Speaking of the Irish, he declared with much feeling that the South could not reconcile with their notions of consistency and honor how Northern Irishmen, who were so desperately and violently opposed to the thralldom of Britain — the wrongs of Ireland being mosquito bites beside the enormous injuries which had been inflicted by the North upon the South — how liberty loving Irishmen could fight against Southerners contending for independence and equality of rights.
I suggested that the soldiers of Irish origin in our armies were really bewildered to know how Irishmen who for centuries had gallantly contended for freedom of the Celts, could be so inconsistent and recreant to every sense of right as to be engaged in a war for a government whose cornerstone was slavery. Besides that, though Irishmen were revolutionists at home, they were conservatives in the United States, and there was a great difference between a war in the interest of a downtrodden race and that in favor of the propagation of slavery.
Adverting to the character of the Irish soldiers, the general was very enthusiastic, saying that they played a prominent part in the wars of the world for the last three centuries, now on one side, now on the other.
“The Irish soldier fights not so much for lucre as from a reckless love of adventure, and, moreover, with a chivalrous devotion to the cause he espouses for the time being. Cleburne, on our side, inherited the intrepidity of his race. On a field of battle he shone like a meteor on a clouded sky! As a dashing military man he was all virtue; a single vice does not stain him as a warrior. His generosity and benevolence had no limits. The care which he took of the fortunes of his officers and soldiers, from the greatest to the least, was incessant. His integrity was proverbial, and his modesty was an equally conspicuous trait in his character.”
“Meagher on your side, though not Cleburne’s equal in military genius, rivaled him in bravery and in the affections of his soldiers. The gallant stand which his bold brigade made on the heights of Fredericksburg is well known. Never were men so brave. They ennobled their race by their splendid gallantry on that occasion. Thought totally routed, they reaped harvests of glory! Their brilliant though hopeless assaults upon our lines excited the hearty applause of my officers and soldiers, and General Hill exclaimed, ‘There are those damned green flags again!’”
Referring to the great loss sustained by the Confederacy in the death of Stonewall Jackson, General Lee remarked: “In surprises, marches, and in the art of creating the resources of war, Jackson has surpassed the level of his age, and risen to a comparison with Hannibal and Napoleon, the two greatest commanders of ancient and modern times. In every relation of private and public life his character was perfect. The South has produced some abler soldiers, and a few in point of military talent were his equals; but it can not and never could boast of one more beloved; not by personal friends alone, but by every soldier and officer that served under him. His dispatches, even when announcing the grandest successes, were brief statements of fact, unvarnished. Many such statements as this would occur: ‘We are about to open the campaign. I have prayed earnestly to God that he will enable me to pass through it in his fear, knowing no greater earthly blessing than to have a conscience at ease in the discharge of duty.’”
I left the presence of this distinguished gentleman with the consciousness that pride, hatred, revenge, had no place in his noble nature, and that, having lowered his colors and sheathed his sword, he was fully entitled to the consideration and respect of the gallant soldier to whom he surrendered.
It is needless for me to say that, in my opinion, had he lived, he would fully have upheld in the most distinguished manner the Union of the states, the reconciliation of all classes, and the prosperity and happiness of the whole country.
Foremost amongst the Confederates, and first in peace, Gen. Robert E. Lee was not only a chivalrous gentleman, but he was eminently a Christian. In all his acts he was gifted with so rare a kindliness of demeanor that he never made a quarrel with anyone. His brief though brilliant experience as instructor of the young men of the South after the war closed, gave the strongest evidence of his loyalty and goodness of heart, and clearly presaged the glory which would have crowned his career had his life been spared.
Bellevue Historian Bill Oddo writes a weekly column for The Bellevue Gazette.