Review of Jessie Benton Fremont's The Story of a Guard
Review of Jessie Benton Frémont's
The Story of the Guard, a Chronicle of the War
The subject, the authorship, and the style of this book combine to secure for it the immediate attention of American readers. In our own case, this attention has deepened into hearty interest and sympathy; and we are so confident that such will be the result in every mind, that we the more cheerfully resign ourselves to the necessity which renders a full and fair review of this little book an impossible thing for us. Let us briefly call to notice some of its peculiar excellences, and indicate the line of thought which we think its sympathetic critic will follow.
Certainly no worthier subject could be chosen than the deeds of that brave young Guard, which was at first the target for so many slanders, and at last the centre of heartiest love and pride to all the North. Its short and brilliant carver lacks nothing which chivalry and romance could lend, to render it the brightest passage in the history of the war. It is but a few days since Frémont's Virginia Body-Guard--now that of General Sigel--made a bold dash into Fredericksburg, rivalling the glory of their predecessors; but, though every use of Frémont's campaign should boast a Body-Guard, and every Guard immortalize a new Springfield, the crown of crowns will always rest on the gallant little major and his dauntless few whose high enthusiasm broke the spell of universal disaster, sounding the bugle-notes of victory through the dreary silence of national despair.
General Frémont's practice in the West was invariably to educate his raw troops in the presence of an enemy. Whether this was of choice or of necessity we do not pretend to say; but the fact remains, that the tide of war was turned back upon our enemies by an army composed of men who had but just taken up their weapons. We once had the pleasure of hearing General Frémont explain the system which he pursued with this army; and we remember being struck with the fact that he laid great stress on constant skirmishing, as the means of acquiring a habit of victory. We cannot enlarge here upon this interesting topic. We design only to adduce the circumstance, that the charge at Springfield concluded a series of five fights within a single week, every one of which resulted in triumph to our arms with the exception of that at Fredericktown. They were slight affairs; but,as Frémont so well says, "Little victories form a habit of victory."
The charge of the Guard we shall not eulogize. It is beyond the praise of words. It is wonderful that Major Zagonyi should have been able in so few days to bring into such splendid discipline a body of new recruits. The Prairie Scounts (who seem to have been a band of brave men under a dashing young leader) had not the perfect training which carried the Guard through a murderous fire, to form and charge in the very camp of the enemy. They plunged into the woods, and commenced a straggling bush-fight, as they were skilled to do. Worthy of praise in themselves, (and they have earned it often and received it freely,) the Scouts on this occasion serve to heighten the effect of that grand combination of impulse and obedience which makes the perfect soldier.
We cannot but add a word or two (leaving many points of interest untouched) upon the manner in which Mrs. Frémont has treated her subject. It is novel, but not ineffective. Zagonyi tells much of the story in his own words; and we are sure that it loses nothing of vividness from his terse and vigorous, though not always strictly grammatical language. "Zagonyi's English," says some one who has heard it, "is like wood-carving."
The letters of the General himself form one of the most interesting features of the book. We would only remark, in this connection, the wide difference between the General's style and that of his wife. Mrs. Frémont is a true woman, and has written a true woman's book. The General is a true man, and his wrods are manly words. Her style is full, free, vivid, with plenty of dashes and postscripts,--the vehicle of much genius and many noble thoughts; but in itself no style, or a careless and imperfect one. The Pathfinder writes as good English prose as any man living. We cannot be mistaken. The hand that penned the "Story of the Guard" could not hold the pen of the Proclamation or the Farewell Address, or the narrative of the Rocky-Mountain Expedition. Nevertheless, it has done well. Let its work lie on our tables and dwell in our hearts with the "Idyls of the King,"--the Æolian memories of a chivalry departed blending with the voices of the nobler knighthood of our time.
1. The review appeared in the January 1863 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. RHD identified as reviewer in a letter to Annie Adams Fields, October 1862. ↩
2. Gen. John C. Frémont (1813-1890), a radical New York abolitionist and military officer; husband of the author of the book under review. ↩
3. Gen. Franz Sigel (1824-1902), German-American military officer. ↩
4. RHD became friends with Gen. Frémont when he was stationed in Wheeling. ↩
5. Charles Zagonyi (1826-?), a Hungarian officer who served as an aide to General Frémont. ↩
6. Frémont was dubbed "The Pathfinder" by the press during his expeditions in the American West of the 1840s. ↩
7. Writings by Gen. Frémont. ↩
8. "Idylls of the King," a cycle of twelve narrative poems of which the first was published in 1859, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892). ↩