Carlton McCarthy Remembers the Army of Northern Virginia

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I finished my paper for the upcoming SCWH conference in Philly and am back to work on finishing up my project on the demobilization of the Army of Northern Virginia.  Today I read the last two chapters of Carlton McCarthy's Detailed Minutiae of Soldier Life in the Army of Northern Virginia, 1861-1865.  McCarthy was born in 1847 in Richmond and served in the Richmond Howitzers during the final year of the war.  The book was published in 1882 and bares all the markings of a memoir.  It is, however, a very useful source for my project since so few soldiers left accounts of their journeys home after the surrender at Appomattox.

McCarthy provides incredibly rich descriptions of the war in 1864, but it is his account of the immediate postwar period which provides a useful perspective to the transition from peace to war and the tensions and difficulties attached to the end of slavery and the shuffling of positions in the evolving social structure.  Just outside of Richmond, McCarthy and a friend decided to work on a farm for a little money before the final leg of their journey.  There is a wonderful moment in his account where he describes a group of former slaves who took the initiative to observe the two men at work:

The negro men and women in the neighborhood, now in the full enjoyment of newly-conferred liberty, and consequently having no thought of doing any work, congregated about the garden, leaned on the fence, gazed sleepily at the toiling soldiers chuckled now and then, and occasionally explained their presence by remarking to each other, "Come here to see dem dar white folks wuckin."

There are also a few places where McCarthy pushes the limits of his reader's credulity, specifically when he claims to have seen Robert E. Lee three times along the road to Richmond.  On one occasion Lee supposedly rode by alone while McCarthy and his friend prepared breakfast on the side of the road. My guess is that a good number of soldiers remembered coming into contact with General Lee just as many white Southerners claimed to have had their homes burned by Sherman's hordes – and this includes those living outside of Georgia. McCarthy describes his transition from working on the farm to employment in Richmond in a way that anticipates many of the issues that I hope to touch on with this project as well as my overall interest in memory:

During the stay at the farm the survivors felt that they were not yet returned to civil life, but "foraging" on the neutral ground between war and peace, — neither soldiers nor citizens.  But now, in regular employment, in a city, — their own city! — with so much per week and the responsibility of "finding themselves," and especially after they were informed that they must take the oath before doing anything else, they began to think that probably the war was nearing its end.  But a real good hearty war like that dies hard.  No country likes to part with a good earnest war.  It likes to talk about the war, write its history, fight its battles over and over again, and build monument after monument to commemorate its glories.

McCarthy's memoir is no doubt a reflection of his unwillingness or inability to "part with a good earnest war."

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2 comments… add one

  • John Maass Jun 3, 2008

    Kevin: you may know this but Ed Moore’s THE STORY OF A CANNONEER UNDER STONEWALL JACKSON also has a brief account of his journey home after the surrender at Appomattox. He was in the Rockbridge Artillery. JM

  • Kevin Levin Jun 3, 2008

    I’ve already got that one, but thanks for the reference.

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