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The Horrors of War

c1839-1840 — lecture halls across the East Coast of the US


The fact of a lady addressing a large audience, in a highly respectable and enlightened community, is, it must be admitted, a novel and uncommon scene; and, to those who know me, it is scarcely necessary to say, that I am quite inexperienced in the art of public speaking. To some it may appear strange that a lady should come forward in public, and address a mixed audience, and give her sentiments on a subject in which it cannot be supposed she has had any experience Some, if not many, of my own sex may fancy that I am rather transgressing the boundaries of strict female reservedness, and that it is wrong for a lady to speak in a public assembly. Were I alone and unprotected, it would scarcely comport with that delicacy which a female ought always to cultivate and maintain; but when I do it in the presence of my liege lord, to whom I am accountable for all my actions-and when it is on War, a subject in which he has all his life been interested and concerned, (and what wife can be blamed in taking a deep interest in the affairs of her husband?) I should think that, were a jury selected from this highly respectable audience, and composed of some of even the most fastidious of my own sex, to try me for the act in which I am now engaged, I am confident the verdict would come in acquitted.

I am not ignorant of the truth, that woman’s province is the domestic circle; or, in the words of the immortal Milton, “She is to study household good, and good works in her husband to promote.” Hers are the calm pursuits and gentle enjoyments of life: man’s, that of enterprise and action. Man is to fill a wide and busy theatre, on a contentious world, while woman is destined by her Maker to move in a more peaceful sphere.

The strifes and contentions. of men, in what ever manner they break out, and from whatever source they may spring, are always subjects of regret and causes of grief and sorrow. Men are sprung from one common parent: they derived their existence from the same Father: and being so nearly related, the bonds of friendship and the ties of union and agreement should be strengthened and firmly cemented in every possible way: good­will should be, in fact, a universal principle. Under these circumstances it must be painful to every person of common humanity and feelings to reflect on the depravity of man, as displayed in the quarrels and contests which have been so common in every age, and in every part of the world. Who can paint the horrors of war? What pen can describe the wretchedness and sufferings experienced by thousands who, to satisfy the ambition and revenge of a few, were its victims ? Permit me to lay before you only a few floating recollections on the Horrors of War, from the page of history, and you will see what an unhappy sight a field of battle must be.

Think of fifty or one hundred thousand human beings on each side prepared for slaughter, and patiently, or ardently, awaiting the signal which hurries them on to carnage, not only without remorse, but even, when the excitation of the bloody business has begun, with ardor and enthusiasm, although the cause of the contest has been, in not a few instances, unknown to their leaders. It is recorded that one million of Jews were slain at the destruction of Jerusalem. The Jews of Antioch, we know, destroyed one hundred thousand of their countrymen, and Probus caused seven hundred thousand Gauls to be slain. In the sixth century thirty thousand inhabitants of Constantinople were put to death. Ten centuries after, seventy­five thousand Huguenots, and sixty­five thousand Christians, in Croatia, were massacred. In Batavia twelve thousand Chinese were destroyed by the natives. The Arabs slew forty thousand people at (Constantinople in the middle of the last century. The French Revolution, it is calculated by a learned writer, cost the lives of three millions of people; and many other such bloody transactions might be taken from the records of history. It is somewhere said that, during the last seven hundred years, there have been two hundred and sixty­six years of war between England and France, in which twenty­six millions of souls have been slain! Were it necessary, I could greatly extend the catalogue of thousands who, in ancient times, were carried off by that terrible scourge-war. Yes, this very generation has witnessed the destruction of millions of our race It has seen half a million of combatants marshaled in battle array around the walls of a Leipsic; it has seen a Borodino strewn with eighty thousand bodies of the slain; and a Muscovy overspread with the wreck of the mightiest host of modern days.

In the invasion of the Burman Empire by the British army, one­half perished by sickness. The invasion of Russia by Napoleon furnishes another and more striking illustration.

Ten thousand horses, says Count Segur, perished on the march, and more especially in the encampments which followed. A large quantity of equipage remained abandoned on the sands, and great numbers of men subsequently gave way. Their carcasses were lying encumbering the road. The army had advanced but a hundred leagues from the Niemen, and already it was completely prostrated. The officers who traveled post from France to join it, arrived dismayed. They could not conceive how a victorious army, without fighting, should leave behind it more wrecks than a defeated one. From these sufferings, physical and moral, from these privations, from these continual scenes of horror, sprang two dreadful epidemics, one of which was the typhus fever. Out of twenty­two thousand Bavarians, who had crossed the Oder, eleven thousand only reached the Duna, and yet they had never been in action. This military march cost the French one­fourth, and the allies one­half, their armies. If this is victorious invasion, what must be disastrous retreat? We will see, says Labaune, marching from Smolensko, a spectacle the most horrible that could be seen. We saw soldiers stretched by dozens around the green branches which they had vainly attempted to kindle, and so numerous were their bodies, that they would have obstructed the road, had not the soldiers been often employed in throwing them into the ditches and ruts. Speaking of the passage of the Beresina, the same writer says, Now began a frightful contention between the foot soldiers and the horsemen. Many perished by the hands of their comrades; but a greater number was suffocated at the head of the bridge, and the dead bodies of men and horses so choked every avenue, that it was necessary to climb over mountains of carcasses to arrive at the river. At length the Russians advanced in a mass. At the sight of the enemy, the artillery, the baggage wagons, the cavalry, and the foot soldiers, all pressed on, contending which should pass first. The strongest threw into the river those who were weaker, and hindered their passage, or unfeelingly trampled under foot all the sick they found in their way. Many hundreds were crushed to death by the wheels of the cannon.

Thousands and thousands of victims, deprived of all hope, threw themselves into the Beresina, and lost in its waves. I could point to sacked towns and cities, and show you the aged and infirm, the delicate female and the tender infant, weltering in their blood. I could exhibit large territories laid waste, and their inhabitants perishing by famine and pestilence. Here we should behold the sick and the wounded, expiring for want of the proper care, and there others through privation and fatigue. In short, the task were almost endless, to designate the various means by which the unhappy victims of war are sent to an untimely grave. When nations are engaged in hostilities, we hear of the amount of their respective forceswe are informed of their numbers slain in battle; and without once thinking of any other loss, we are surprised to find that but a handful remain at the termination of a campaign. In what has been said, however, the mystery is partly revealed; and we find that war, in very deed, has means of destruction more formidable than the cannon or the sword, and we are no longer incredulous respecting the vast numbers slain. We can understand how it was that five millions perished in the ravages of Africa, on the Mediterranean; how that, out of seven hundred thousand Croises that, in the famed Crusades, sat down before the walls of Nice, forty thousand only encamped around Jerusalem how that the possession of Nice, Edessa and Antioch, cost the lives of eight millions one hundred thousand people; how the Crusades drained Europe of twenty millions of its inhabitants: how that, during the first fourteen years of the Mogul Empire, millions and millions of human beings were destroyed by Gengis Khan: how that Alexander, Caesar and Napoleon, occasioned each the destruction of millions: and how that the whole number of inhabitants destroyed by war in all ages of the world amounts, according to the estimates of a most exact calculator, to the enormous sum of seventy billions! Where, where is the imagination able to conceive of such a sum!and for the mind to grasp a million or two is a difficulty but seventy billions of human beings cut off by war, how dreadful the thought! Who can calculate the horrors of war ?and here we might pause and ponder, and ask, Why this waste of human life? All these millions, these thousands of millions of rational beings, accountable at heaven’s awful tribunal, have been precipitated prematurely into eternity. What an amount is seventy billions !a sum greater, by far, than the present population of the whole earth. And yet how apt are we to feel unmovedwe who can weep, perhaps, over a well told tale of imaginary evil, written by some hungry, starving novel writer! Alas, have we plaudits for these awful realities! The sight of a murdered corpse petrifies us with horror and amazement. We feel, in viewing it, as if the order of nature had been violated, and the eternal principles of right outraged; but we can read of a battle where thousands-nay, hundreds of thousands, strew the earth for miles around where the dying and the dead are huddled together in mountain piles, and where the most heart­rending scenes of romance are more than a thousand times realized.

The next evil that presents itself for a moment’s consideration, is the multiform and frightful sufferingthe loathsome and horrible wretchedness realized in warsuffering and wretchedness, compared with which the common ills of life, and even the fabled ones of romance, dwindle into insignificance. Now of this suffering and wretchedness, which go so far towards constituting what is appalling and horrible in war, we are almost entirely ignorant. We hear, indeed, of the number wounded, but we think but little of their agonies, and deem their wounds of no consequence, so they do not prove mortal, and cause an ultimate diminution of forces. It does not occur to us, that the wounded sometimes lie on the field for many days, with their wounds undressed, among slaughtered heaps of their fellows, famishing with hunger, burning with thirst, chilled with the damps of night, drenched with descending showers, scorched with the summer sun, stiffened with the winter’s frost, suffocated with surrounding putrifaction, trodden under foot of men and horses, crushed by the wheels of cannon, torn by ravenous beasts and birds of prey. We hear of the sack of a citybut if the inhabitants are not absolutely massacred, we feel no further concern on their account. We hear of a retreatand then we even find cause for gratulation, that the army is able to make one without falling into the hands of an enemy. But whether any perish by fatigue or privation while making it, or whether the sick or the wounded have been abandoned to the mercy of the enemy, without medicine, without nourishment, without care, is not entitled to a moment’s consideration. Oh! the horrors of war are too great, too numerous. too painful, too heartrending, for us to recount, and we will gladly leave this part of our subject, and take a little relief by glancing at another; but before doing so, permit me to relate an anecdote:  

It is said that a lady, in conversation with the Duke of Wellington, on the subject of war, during the occupation of Paris by the Allies, asked the Duke, if the gaining of a great victory was not the most glorious thing in the world? The Duke’s answer was noble: “It is,” said he, “Madame the greatest of all human calamities, except a defeat.” It was a memorable saying, well worthy of this or any other age, and showed the Duke’s heart was in the right place.

Peace should be the chief aim of a commercial, and indeed of every people. Nothing but self­defence can justify war: and the National Defence, of which you have just heard so much this evening, provides only against attack; it proposes not to be an aggressor; and whilst it prepares for war, its object by this preparation is, if possible, rather to prevent it, and all its accompanying horrors. Should a foreign foe see proper to attack our coasts, does not common prudence dictate to be prepared to act on the defensive? and is it when the enemy is at our doors that we should awake to preparation? Hannibal’s great maxim was, “that people were nowhere vulnerable except at home.”

Let us leave the dark picture, and glance for a moment at the advantages of peace to a country, and we will see how it flourishes in all its interests. It is then that the Governor of a country can behold with pleasure the happiness of his people. It is during peace that the statesman, with rapture, beholds the success of his long studied plans and enterprises. It is then the man of independence lives comfortably and securely on the fortune he has honestly acquired. It is in peace that the mechanic with delight looks at the increase of wealth flowing into a country, and the farmer reaps with joy the benefits arising from his toil and industry. Even the very warrior himself, and the honest countryman, have both experienced the advantages of peace. And why should men love war, rather than peace? Is it because they are ambitious, revengeful and ignorant? Ah! many striking instances might be given of the frailty of human nature, and of the exercise of those malevolent passions which have given rise to the most cruel and bloody wars. To recount them would be a painful task; and, without trespassing any longer on your time and patience, let me only hope that, should war ever come into our beloved country, we shall be prepared to act on the defensive, and then America experts every man to do his duty; and if we only bear in mind the valor and moral worth of a Washington, and try to imitate his virtues, we can never degenerate as a people. Praised be the God of Sabaoth, for having nerved our soldiers, during the revolutionary war, with invincible Strength! and praised be His name for having appointed us a system of government which secures political freedom and personal safety, and that we enjoy a system of religion which is as glorious in its tendency as it is divine in its origin. These are the invaluable privileges, whose united rays form the Sun of America’s glory, around which all her other minor distinctions revolve as planets, borrowing the shadows of their radiance, and reflecting the beams of their effulgence. Who can look upon our free Constitution, and its effects, in a political point of view, but as the glory and the defence of our land! Americans, then, I conjure you, by your patriotism, by your regard to that unrivaled land which gave you birth, and by the remembrance of what our forefathers have done, to support our glorious institutions-to stand up for the defence of our countryto preserve the beauty of our excellent Constitution, and maintain the spirit of Christianity amongst us. We are, it cannot be denied, becoming a great commercial people, but let us not be satisfied with that species of greatness alone; rather let us increase farther and farther in moral greatness, the grand distinction of any people. It is our moral greatness which makes our laws so superior and excellent. Those are, indeed, a glory to an American, for they are made for the general good, and are dictated by wisdom and experience. Let us hope that our moral greatness, and high sense of justice will never leave us. America is now placed on the pinnacle of glory; she has arrived at the summit of happiness. She was once like a star which twinkled on the dark concave of heaven, and scarcely could be seenbut now a Sun, which shines with effulgence and splendor in the etherial sky, and which dazzles the eyes of admiring beholders. Her military and naval greatness may leave her. Rome and Athens, we know, acquired glory which, at one time, outshone that of all the world. They had conquered many nations, but their power and their moral greatness at last declined; and the dawn of luxury hastened on the dissolution of these republics. Thus it may be one day with us: our commerce, even, may go to another nation; our glory, happiness and prosperity may vanish “as the morning cloud or early dew;” but never, never, may our moral greatness leave us. It is the noblest, the brightest gem that glitters in her diadem, and may this always remain firm and immovable as the mountain rocks. O, America! thou land of my nativity, where shall I find a land so dear to my heart, and so delightful as thou art! Were I in heaven and viewing this our lower world wheeling brightly under my feet, thou to me wouldst shine brighter than all the rest of the earth, and thou still wilt continue to do so, whilst God is a wall of fire about thee, and Religion is in the midst of thee! May no scenes of blood ever distress and pollute our happy country. May war and discord never utter their clamors amongst us; and may the roar of the cannonade and the clash of arms never be heard; but may universal peace and happiness sway their sceptre over a smiling world.



Source: Jacksonian Miscellanies, #26: August 26, 1997 —