Four Years in the Stonewall Brigade
Virginian John O. Casler was the quintessential anti-Confederate hero. His service in the famous Stonewall Brigade was distinguished by his uncanny ability to evade the restrictions of military life. Unlike many Confederate soldiers who remembered the war as a romantic adventure, Casler’s story, retold in Four Years in the Stonewall Brigade, creates an alternative view of Johnny Reb, one that often highlights his mischievous, independent nature at the expense of the Southern cause. Casler spent a little more than two years in the army, and during that time he routinely left the ranks without permission. When he stayed in camp, he was actually more of a nuisance to his officers, as he committed a host of petty criminal acts and violations that resulted in numerous arrests. Rather than cover up his misdeeds and misadventures, Casler celebrates his delinquent behavior. But his book should not be remembered as the tale of a rogue who abandoned his comrades during their time of need. The honesty and frankness of Casler makes Four Years in the Stonewall Brigade historically valuable, for he captures the difficult transition that Southern civilians endured in becoming professional soldiers.
No other Confederate has written more critically about the power struggle between officers and the rank and file than Casler. Officers could not rule with impunity or they risked losing the allegiance of their men. Casler was especially protective of his rights, and he was quick to denounce any man who violated his sense of honor. His narrative is sprinkled with examples of ordinary privates challenging authority in subtle and not subtle ways, but always forcing those in power to make concessions to the lower ranks. Casler, for instance, found the regiment’s adjutant, L. Jacquelin Smith, particularly offensive, for he was a “fop in kid gloves, and wanted to be very strict, especially on dress parade.” Casler and his comrades ridiculed the man because he “put on more airs than a Brigadier General.” No one was surprised when Smith showed the “’white feather’” and disappeared during the unit’s first battle. In this incident and others, Casler’s commentary shows how an individual’s style and mannerisms shaped power relations within the ranks.
Casler, like so many other Confederate soldiers, would not tolerate haughty behavior from his superiors because it diminished his status as an independent man. During one of his unexcused vacations from the army, a conscript officer tried to arrest him for not having a pass. Casler flew into a rage, yelling at the man that he should be in ranks of the army, shouldering a musket against the Yankees, rather than hunting down men who were already in the service. The conscript officer threatened to shoot Casler with his pistol, but Casler refused to budge until he was offered the officer’s horse to ride to camp, where he and some other soldiers on “French furlough” plotted their successful escape.
Casler’s repeated trips home should not be interpreted as a rejection of the Confederacy. He never saw any inconsistency in visiting loved ones and doing his duty to the nation. Military and political officials, however, violently disagreed with Casler’s perspective, and he was fortunate that he did not share the fate of many privates who were executed for leaving the army without permission. The execution of deserters horrified Casler and did nothing to reaffirm his allegiance to the Confederacy. After witnessing the execution of some men in the Army of Northern Virginia, he bitterly concluded, “But we knew it would never stop desertion in the army, for I believe the more they shot the more deserted, and when they did desert they would go to the enemy, where they would not be found.”
Four Years in the Stonewall Brigade is a powerful reminder that Confederate soldiers were not joyous bands of brothers united in spirit and in action against the Northern invader. It would be a mistake to interpret Casler’s observations as evidence of class warfare in the Southern ranks, but his realism—so refreshingly brutal and so sensitive to the actions of individual soldiers—recovers the tensions that plagued Confederate armies even as Southern soldiers were risking everything to fight and die for an independent nation.
Originally published in the April 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.