"The Mean Face of War"
July 20, 1899
The Independent

Dublin Core


"The Mean Face of War"
July 20, 1899
The Independent


“The Mean Face of War."

OF all the gods on Olympus Mars[1] is always the most popular figure. Especially is he heroic in the eyes of a nation which is just about to set the crown of Imperialism on its brows, to gird a sword on its thighs and drive another nation into civilization and Christianity—at the point of the bayonet.

By all means let us look this god of war closely in the face and see what he really is like. His features at a distance are noble and heroic, but seen at nearer range there are ugly smirches and meanings in them. Our campaign last summer,[2] for instance, loomed before us in June a glorious outburst of high chivalric purpose and individual courage. But when we looked back at it in September war had come to mean poluted camps, incompetent officers appointed by corrupt politicians, decayed meat and thousands of victims of disease and neglect. 

I lived through the Civil War on the border States, and two or three facts which I remember may help young Americans to see this great god Mars, whom we are about to make our tutelary deity, just as he is. They are not the kind of facts which the historians of a campaign usually set down.

A sleepy old Southern town of which I knew was made by the Government, at an early date, the headquarters of a military department. Martial law was proclaimed; the two good-humored, leisurely constables were remanded into private life; sentinels patrolled the streets all day long; the body guard of the general in command galloped madly up and down; bugles sounded and flags waved from every house.

But the flag did not always indicate the real feeling of the owners of the house. Almost every family was divided against itself, the elders usually sliding with the Government, the young people with the South. The young men, one by one, made their way across the lines and entered the Confederate army.

Before the war the drowsy old town had boasted a hall, the upper floor of a tobacco warehouse, which was used as a theater or concert room. The whole building was now converted by the Provost-Marshal into a military prison. He also, with difficulty, raised a Loyal Guard, in whose care it was placed. As all the fighting men of the town were already in one army or the other, this Royal Guard necessarily was made up of material which no doubt furnished a good deal of amusement to the corps of regulars stationed in the place. No man in it was under sixty; they were quiet, honest mechanics and tradesmen; church-going fathers and grandfathers who had trodden the same secluded path since their birth, never once probably tempted to break a law of the land. Their ideas of military discipline were vague. For two or three weeks they guarded the empty warehouse by sitting in a row of chairs titled back against the front wall, smoking their pipes and telling over their old stories, occasionally joining in a hymn sung with much fervor. 

But at last one day after a skirmish in the hills some prisoners were brought in and led through the streets to the warehouse. Some of them were wounded. The sight of these limping, bloody men produced a strange effect upon the townspeople, who hitherto, had really regarded the war as a passing disaster, the work of politicians, which might come to an end any day.

“To-morrow, perhaps,” they would say, “we may waken and find the whole miserable business at an end, and comfort and peace come again.”

But at the sight of these prisoners passing down the street a sudden passion of rage and malignancy seemed to poison the air.

Some of the men were wounded, one, it was said, mortally; he was carried on a litter, and his hand, torn and red with dried blood, hung down limp, and swung to and fro. Other men, we were told, lay dead on the hill yonder, where we used to go to gather pink laurel and paw-paws[3] in the spring. 

This was—war. 

Women cried out madly—gentle, delicate women—and ran from their houses shrieking into the street; men crowded together following the wounded with sharp, wordless yells of pity or of hate. That one sight of blood tore off the life-long mask of education or manners from each of us, and the natural brute showed itself.

When the prisoners were taken into the warehouse these kindly neighbors looked at each other with sudden suspicion and dislike. They hurried to their houses in silence. Who knew which man was his enemy? He might be next door—in the same house with him. The old friendships and affections of a life-time ended that morning, and gave place to an unreasoning distrust. Brother quarreled with brother, husband with wife, father with son. Very often neither man nor woman understood the cause of the war. Men caught it from each other, as they take the poison of a disease. The old men of the Guard became suddenly possessed with a fury of zeal. They looked upon the prisoners as their personal enemies. The orderly, devout grandfathers raged like wild beasts outside of the prison, and fired at the prisoners whenever they approached the windows. So bent were they upon their slaughter that it was found necessary at last to remove the old men from the post.

As time passed the bitterness deepened, the gentlest woman and most generous men in both factions often becoming the most unreasonable and malignant toward all who differed from them. Old lines of right and wrong were blurred in the sanest and most devout. There was no right and wrong to most people. Take a trifling example: Late in the summer one Sunday night, while the churches were still open, the bugles were suddenly sounded and cannon fired. The alarm spread that General Lee’s army was advancing upon the town to burn it. There were no Federal troops in it at the time. So the staid citizens of the town mustered, and shouldering their muskets boarded a train to go forth, as they thought, to meet the Confederate army. I can see their stooped shoulders and gray heads now as they marched past peering into the darkness through their spectacles. Oh, such sorry warriors! But it was as fine a blaze of courage as any that illumined the war.

The courage blazed in vain. When the train reached the hills it was found that there was not a Confederate soldier within fifty miles. What happened then was told to me by the officer commanding the expedition.

The men alighted, formed in column, and boldly advanced into the sleeping village near which the train had halted. When no one appeared they held a brief council, and then, to the dismay of their leader, made a rush upon the village, firing their muskets, breaking into the houses and seizing upon whatever came first to hand—churns, rocking chairs, feather beds, sewing machines, etc. One man appeared with a huge copper kettle on his back. In vain their captain commanded them to give up their spoils, telling them that the people were harmless and poor, and most of them loyal to the Union.

They were crazed with excitement and rage, shouting: “Loot them! Loot them! Booty of war!”

He compelled some of them to leave their plunder behind them, but when the train arrived at home many of them marched away in triumph with their stolen goods, among them the conqueror of the copper kettle. Yet these men were class leaders, deacons and pious members of the Christian church.

I remember a company of young men, the sons of Scotch and Scotch-Irish families, honorable, devout, gentle folk, who enlisted in the Northern army to serve their country, and, as they thought (and it may be justly), their God. They went through the war gallantly. Whatever was best and highest in its discipline they took and assimilated; it became part of their character and life. Yet almost every one of those men brought home spoons, watches and jewelry which he had taken out of some Southern home.

It was the breath of war which had made them and the old men of the time heroes, murderers and thieves.

I remember another company recruited from the same class for the Confederate army. They fought bravely, remaining in the service during the full five years. Of those still alive at Lee’s surrender every man sooner or later filled a drunkard’s grave.

Since the close of that war I have read and listened to countless pæans in the South and in the North to the dauntless courage of the heroes who gave their lives for the cause which they held just.

All this is true. But I never yet have heard a word of the other side of the history of that great campaign, which is equally true, of the debilitating effect upon most men in mind and morals of years in camp, and the habits acquired of idleness, of drunkenness and of immorality.

The American is not used to idleness, nor to military discipline. Put a gun in his hand, and given him nothing to do but to wait for somebody to kill, and the monkey or beast in him will soon show itself.

After thirty years of peace, a sudden effort is now being made by interested politicians to induce the American people to make war its regular business. 

The army is to be largely increased. Many young men of all classes expect to find an opening in it to earn their livelihood—to make a career for life. The talk of glory and heroism and the service of the country is very tempting to these gallant immature boys.

What is really intended, of course, is the establishment of a uniformed guard to police the Philippine Islands in the interests of certain trusts. 

But our brave young fellow sees only the waving of the flag.

Before he goes into camp for the rest of his days, let him look more closely into the life of it, to see what in time it will do to him—to his mind, his manners and the soul inside of them.

Mars, as I said, is just now the most popular figure among the gods. But there are ugly, mean features in his noble face when we come close to him.




1. Roman god of war.

2. The Spanish-American War, 1898.

3. Likely the Pennsylvania Golden Pawpaw, a tree which yields sweet fruit.


Abigail Fagan
University of Connecticut



Abigail Fagan University of Connecticut, “"The Mean Face of War"July 20, 1899The Independent,” Rebecca Harding Davis: Complete Works, accessed February 20, 2019, http://rebeccahardingdaviscompleteworks.com/items/show/44.