War has its benefits as well as its calamities. While it bears desolation to many a fireside and brings ruin to trade, it raises the standard of national character, purifies the moral atmosphere, and dispels the gathering corruption, meanness, and want of principle which long peace and prosperity are apt to engender. There are virtues peculiar to war, and which in its absence are apt to fade away. Chief among these must we rate courage, not merely that animal strength which some persons mistake for courage, but the readiness to face any danger and to cope with any trouble or difficulty. We are aware that the want of this is not naturally a defect in the American character. Our people, bred up under circumstances where every man's position depends in a large degree upon his own exertions, are more likely to possess courage, or, what often passes for it, readiness for action, than to be guided by cowardice. But qualities which are not called into use lie dormant, and are overlaid by propensities resulting from the pursuits of trade and politics. So it is with courage. In its true sense it seems now to be little understood or appreciated.
Even where ordinary courage is kept bright, the great trials calculated to work it up to a high standard rarely offer. How few men there are capable of facing unappalled the terrific roar of a park of artillery, to see without shrinking the wounded, the dying, and the dead accumulating around them, to tread upon mangled bodies at every step, to hear the messengers of destruction whistling through the air, and see long lanes of men mowed down by fierce discharges from murderous batteries. Those who cannot do this would probably grow sick at the sight of a body torn to pieces in the machinery of a mill, or faint at the shriek of a sufferer under the hands of a surgeon. Peace has every moment of one's existence a thousand chances where frail humanity may be rescued from the jaws of death by any person of courage.
We have never doubted the existence of this manly attribute in the northern people. It has been denied us by southern fanatics, who have persisted in affecting a contempt for us on that account. They have yet to learn the real value of the northern man. His calm, cool, steady perseverance must be made to appear in its true light as genuine courage and not poltroonery, and that shall be done, not by means of duels and street frays, and barroom squabbles, but by soldiers marching upon the field of battle with the intrepid tread of those who fear not death. When this war terminates the northern man will be recognized for what he is—the true founder of our national glory and greatness.
Honor is the next quality which will become more diffused and more elevated. In the general struggle to better our worldly positions, men have set riches and official position up in exalted places, and sacrificed to obtain them their virtue, their character, their integrity. In becoming a nation of politicians the race has been demoralized, and the honor of a politician has degenerated into a byword. Military life will correct this. No soldier can, without losing caste, be guilty of a dishonorable action or of prevarication or deception, except where the latter is required by the rules of the military art. But even toward an enemy honor and truthfulness are strictly enforced. Men will cease to impeach each other's motives or conduct lightly when they know that honor has become an indispensable quality. Assertions will be made with more care and conduct generally be under better guard.
The thing called chivalry is a reality in war, though as abused in peace by southern braggarts it has become a laughing stock. It implies generosity, magnanimity, humanity, a scrupulous regard for the rights of the domestic hearth, and particularly a respect for women and noncombatants. Outrages, plunder, insult, brutality, form no part of the business of a true soldier. A wanton sacrifice of life or property marks only the man who disgraces the profession. Cupidity is frowned down as an unworthy attribute. In fact, chivalry teaches the soldier that his business is to fight only when stern duty demands it, to spare the defenceless, to shield the unprotected, and to be magnanimous to a fallen foe. How little of these do we see in daily life! How often do men commit deeds in peace which in time of war would be branded as barbarous and inhuman!
Prudence is a thing most lacking in the American character. We rush headlong into enterprises and engagements where a little examination and calculation might show success to be impossible, and hence we see failure and disaster little heeded because of their commonness. That we stand very greatly in need of that carefulness demanded by the terrible consequences of a false step in war must be apparent to all. Prudence is a genuine and very valuable military virtue, though not generally thought so. The seemingly rash leaders who are most readily remembered by popular fancy, are upon examination found to be men who prepared thoroughly before undertaking an enterprise. Their rashness was only upon the surface. A really rash commander is distrusted by those entrusted with the responsibility for a campaign. Prudence is by no means incompatible with daring, though it is with rashness. Where a great peril is to be incurred to achieve a brilliant result, even a prudent commander would risk it.
In peace cupidity affects the national character terribly. Money is the idol worshipped by thousands, and the means of enjoyment it furnishes leads to such sacrifices of principle and integrity to obtain gold as diffuse corruption generally. War remedies this to some extent. Gold ceases to have any temptation for the true soldier. If he abuses his position to obtain it he is disgraced. If he accepts a bribe he perils his life and taints his name forever. Men look upon the soldier as a hero who goes forth to risk his life in defence of his country, and when he abandons that character to accumulate pelf he is regarded with loathing and scorn. Let any one call to mind the defalcations, breaches of trust, wholesale plundering of fiscal institutions and the government treasury, the fraud, peculation and extortion prevalent in official positions, the shocking degeneracy of politics, and he will be satisfied that we need the wholesome influence of a war to clear the moral atmophere. Men want something else to render homage to besides wealth. They require the exalted illustrations of chivalry, honor, integrity, courage and devoted patriotism furnished by a great war to rescue them from grovelling propensities, and from the abasement into which they have fallen.
We are also getting too much addicted to luxury and ease. We shrink from hardships. We have no stomach for severe regimen and necessary discipline. Pleasant coaches, dainty fare, fine habiliments, comfortable habitations and easy means of travelling, and doing whatever is needful, have softened the energy of the American, and are reducing him to something like effeminacy. Without being a bully at fisticuffs, or a crack shot at duelling, a man ought yet to be in the habit of enduring hardships, of bearing coarse fare and rough clothes, of exercising his limbs in something else than the labor of a gymnasium. Camp life comes now as a wholesome corrector. How severely it falls upon many may be inferred from the manner in which they refuse to eat salt pork and hard army bread. Hunger will induce them to find stomach for these in time, and when the rules of military discipline are enforced, as they must soon be, these new soldiers will learn how to cook their own food and eat it with a keen appetite, to enjoy the sleep which is taken on the hard ground, to rise with the dawn, to have regular habits, and to put up with things cheerfully as they find them.
The training of the soldier will be useful to the whole population. They will get accustomed to it and unlearn some of the things which foreigners so much ridicule in us. Taught to stand erect and maintain a manly bearing, the round shouldered civilian will speedily follow suit, because the soldier is honored, and he will wish to be thought military in his air. The awkward, shambling, irregular gait so very common will be remedied, and the soldiers who return to peaceful occupations after the war will become living examples of erect, manly bearing.
The extraordinary ignorance of the use of firearms and of sword exercises now developed at the north, resulting, of course, from the universal pursuit of gain, will be apt to give way to a new ardor for field sports and military training. In fact, the influence of the war must be highly beneficial to the north in improving the tone of public morals, in giving elevation to personal character, without reference to money or position, and in bettering the physical appearance of the masses.