The Value Of Self-reliance
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
How different from this cringing cry for help is the spirit of self-reliance ! That spirit that does not wait for " dead men's shoes." That quality of character that is aggressive in attitude, prompt in action, and energetic in the accomplishment of whatever is to be done. The self-reliant man enters the conflict wherever he sees a standard waving and deals stalwart blows for the cause in which he is enlisted. If he does not find one way practicable to the center of the enemies' forces, he quickly tries another. He enters all avenues of approach, now thundering at this portal, and now urging an entrance at that. Now dashing at full speed .along one line of entrenchments, now striking terror into the hearts of the defenders of another, until he finds the really weak point in the fortress, and then marshals his noble energies for one daring, irresistible assault upon the breach. The strong-hold falls and the self-reliant man has planted the banner of victory, while the waiting weakling has been going around the walls with a field glass in hand trying to discover an unguarded portal that might invite him to enter and possess. The self-reliant man does not waste his precious moments in merely flying about the enemies' walls ; but gains something at every stroke. Re-pulsed at one point, he strikes at another, before the reserves have been changed to meet the unexpected outset. Out of the ruins of every failing endeavor he quickly builds a stepping-stone to a more powerful effort in the next moment. Always alert,. keen and impetuous he "presses to the mark of his high calling," trusting only in these splendid powers of action, which he himself has schooled to action, and whose force and endurance he fully knows. The self-reliant man never lies idly on the rocks, like the lobster waiting for the flowing tide; but uses such power as he has to get back into the waves. He scrambles over sand and rock, ungracefully it may be, but none the less surely, on, on to the dancing waves where he shall find his native element and move with more grace and speed. How soon the hearts of some men fail if they think they are being ridiculed for the sorry figure they are making. What of the figure, if the man be really advancing ? He will soon reach the shining sea where his ungainly members will find a more favorable element for their activities. A man should never stop and grieve for scorn and ridicule. Let him rebuke it by the impetuosity of his effort and the splendor of his success. Those who ridicule today will cry bravo tomorrow. Those who scorn you now, will, in a few years, envy you, young man, if you are true to the voice within that calls you on to duty and glory. There are no greater forces in human life than self-control, self-respect and self-reliance.
The value of self-reliance was admirably illustrated on countless occasions in the late civil war. The two great armies that marched to battle were made up of self-reliant, intelligent citizens. To use Winthrop's apt expression, it was a moving array of "Thinking bayonets." The officers and men of these belligerent tines were not soldiers merely, but thinking men, who could appreciate the perils and advantages of the difficult crises of battle, and shape their conduct without the direct orders of their superior officers. This was especially true of the Northern army, made up, as it was, of farmers, tradesmen and laborers of every avocation pursued in the Northern States. The practical stuff of which our lines were composed is well set forth by an anecdote of the Rev. Henry Cox. He was holding a camp-meeting in Illinois, so the story goes, when the news of the Bull Run disaster reached him. Stopping in the midst of his sermon to inquire the news, which was causing some commotion on the outskirts of the crowd, he said with great earnestness, Brethren, we had better adjourn this camp-meeting and go home and drill." In the mind of this good - man there was no greater cause than the defense of the principles of the Constitution, and the self-reliance of Northern labor and Northern intellect could easily turn a camp-meeting into a regiment for active service.
When Butler's force was marching from Annapolis to Washington, repairing the railroad as they went, a locomotive was found overturned in a ditch. The commanding officer wished to know whether it could be placed on the track again and repaired. One of the group of soldiers had been intently examining it for some time and said in reply to the inquiry, " I built her and I guess I can fix her." And "fix her" he did in a few hours so that she pulled a train of men and supplies into Washington. No train intended for the transportation of the National troops would ever have stood still for want of men to " fix" the engine or run the trains. The spirit of self-reliance was abroad in the Northern army.
The same thing was illustrated in the raid into Eastern Mississippi under Sherman in 1864. A division of cavalry were pressing close upon the flying Confederates on the Vicksburg and Montgomery road. In their haste they had left behind six locomotives, dismembered by taking out some essential part of the machinery. The commanding officer called for men to put the locomotives into shape for use. A dozen men came out of the lines at once, threw off their coats and went to work with such materials as were on the spot to repair the useless engines. I n three hours five locomotives were ready to run and everything in readiness to move upon the Confederate forces by rail. Such armies were never before marshalled upon the field of battle.
But this spirit of self-reliance manifested itself on the field in actual conflict as well as in bridge-building and locomotive-repairing. There was hardly a battle in the whole war where officers and men did not exhibit their understanding of every movement and behave as independent, thinking factors of the good or ill results of the conflict. The Union lines were not only able to take care of themselves, but constituted an efficient assistance to commanders in carrying out their plans, even modifying these plans or setting them entirely aside, as circumstances seemed to dictate. A recent writer has described a number of instances in which subordinate officers and private soldiers acted, not only without orders, but laid plans and carried them out without any consultation or hint from those in command. Probably scores of such instances could be given.
"The most savagely contested part of the struggle at Antietam was in and around the sunken lane of Roulet's farm, where Jack-son's corps for hours held the ground, from which Hooker and Mansfield had been successively repulsed early in the morning. In their yellowish, butternut suits, the Confederates were scarcely distinguishable from the road-bed or the ditch where they lay, or from the ripe stalks of the cornfield behind, through which their reinforcing brigades were constantly descending. Not more than fifty yards off, lying or kneeling in the green pasture field, without any shelter, the Union men—Kimball's, Caldwell's and the Irish brigades—poured so deadly a fire into that lane that after the battle six hundred Confederate dead were found there. Repeated efforts were made by the Union troops to charge. Perhaps the first was in conformity to a general's orders ; the others certainly were not. The Confederate fire was so terrible that every one, however, realized the need either of driving the Confederates from the lane and the rising ground behind, or else of retiring, to avoid annihilation. Such expressions as, ' We must charge,' 'Let's try the bayonet, boys,' were constantly repeated along the line, and bayonets would be fixed without any order whatever, so far as known, from general or field officers. But, on making the effort to charge and finding the enemy's fire irresistible, the Union line, with heads bent, as if against a rainstorm, would ` back up ' to its former position, and, kneeling or lying down again, resume its fire. Finally a clamor of desperation broke out. There were no troops in sight behind, no promise of reserve or support, and the situation was galling The whole heavens were splitting with the detonations of battle, and the rest of the army was probably fighting for its own life. The men on their knees fixed bayonets again, for the tenth time perhaps, and with a murderous howl of rage the three brigades rushed forward and in a minute were in the lane and' their banners were ascending through the corn-field toward the peach orchard where Jackson himself is said to have been during all those hours. This charge which broke Jackson's right for a time, and required all his genius to prevent proving a supreme disaster to his army, would not have been made, when it was made, if the initiative had depended on a commander's orders.
" During the battle of North Anna, May 24, 1864, a veteran Union brigade was engaged in an open wood. To its right was a regiment that seemed inclined to give way on slight pressure. There was a succession of ineffective charges by Federals and Confederates, but invariably when the Confederates charged, our Union brigade's right fell back and its left stood fast, like a gate swinging back on its hinge. It left the Confederates free to pass that shaky regiment if they liked, but at the risk of being taken in flank if they tried it. It was a brilliant and successful, if simple, counter movement. At first, as the enemy came charging on with loud yells the men all along the brigade, having been keeping suspicious and anxious eyes to the right flank, began to murmur, ` Why don't we refuse (i. e., retire) the right?' and by a general impulse, without any order whatever from the commanding officer, the whole line, awkwardly and a little brokenly the first time, made a backward right wheel and checked the enemy. Whenever the enemy approached again the word would fly along the ranks, ` Refuse the right 1' and the manoeuvre would be repeated with neatness and- dispatch, the sole responsibility of the officers consisting in giving harmony to the movement by such cautions as ` Steady!' if any of the men, engrossed with loading and firing as they fell back, would appear to be stepping too rapidly for the rest of the line.—T. F. GALWAY in New York Tribune.
Thus self-reliance is seen to be a most useful quality of character. Indeed, without it there can be no real and permanent success. It is one of the chief sources of power in whatever we undertake. It alone makes all the difference between the cringing, whipped spaniel and the proud-standing English mastiff "that gets out of the way for nothing that goes on legs." To be self-reliant and confident in the face of over-burdening enterprise is to be half successful at the start.