The memoirs of Heros von Borcke are a rollicking adventure as well as history at its best. This Prussian officer ran the blockade into South Carolina. He arrived at Richmond with few prospects as his letters of introduction were burned when his ship was boarded at sea by Union sailors. Nevertheless, he got an audience with Secretary of War George Randolph and was given a letter of introduction to Gen. JEB Stuart. Stuart has been called the last cavalier, and von Borcke’s sense of chivalry and appreciation of civilized warfare led them to become great friends.
The Seven Days battles in front of Richmond initiated von Borcke into the Confederate army. He rides with Stuart in most of the campaigns of the Army of Northern Virginia. His military experience, his attention to detail, his dedication to duty and his love of the cavalry make him a very valuable aid to Stuart. Most of these memoirs take place early in the war, the Second Manassas Campaign, the Sharpsburg Campaign, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. These were the high tide of the Confederacy. It was early in the Gettysburg Campaign when von Borcke was severely wounded. He recuperated and was sent on a diplomatic mission to Europe where he remained when the war ended. He served Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War and returned once to Virginia to see old comrades in 1884. Returning to Europe, he flew the Confederate flag from the battlements of his family estate.
Von Borcke’s descriptions of famous Confederates, such as JEB Stuart, Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis are reason enough to read the book. The details of camp life, the staff’s occasional parties and dances with the local civilians, the hunting parties, and the grand events of the campaigns are told in an engaging style that almost reads like a novel. Playing jokes on each other was a common source of pleasure. Seeing generals and dignitaries from a different viewpoint makes the reader feel he is in on a particular piece of history. One cannot read this book without sensing that he is seeing the last flowering of chivalry before the stark reality of industrialized warfare progresses across the pages of history.
One story will suffice as an example of what is in store for the reader:
The good cheer had the happiest effect on Stuart, who enlivened our repast with abundant anecdote and the recital of many a joke at the expense of his companions-in-arms. It was his special delight to tease me on account of the little mistakes I still frequently committed in speaking the English language, which he always cleverly turned so as to excite the merriment of his auditors. During one of our many conversations concerning Old Stonewall, his personal traits and military character, while intending to say, “It warms my heart when he talks to me,” I had employed the expression, “It makes my heart burn, “ &c. Stuart now took occasion to repeat my remark, and presented me most absurdly as having declared that “it gave me the heartburn to hear Jackson talk,” which of course provoked the roaring laughter of our little company. Jackson himself alone did not participate in the boisterous mirth. Looking me straight in the face with his large expressive eyes, and pressing my hand warmly across the table as just the faintest smile broke over his features, he said, “Never care, Major, for Stuart’s jokes; we understand each other, and I am proud of the friendship of so good a soldier and so daring a cavalier as you are.” I was conscious of a blush reddening my cheeks under my beard at this, but I felt also a glow of pride, and I would not at that moment have exchanged the simple, earnest tribute of the great warrior for all the orders and crosses of honour of Europe. “Hurrah for Old Von! And now let us be off,” said Stuart, and slapping me on the back to conceal his own slight embarrassment, he rose from the table, followed by his companions. In a few minutes we rode off at a gallop to fresh scenes of excitement and activity.
Few books on the war have given me so much insight into events which have been written about in countless books. Fewer are the books that I believe anyone interested in this period would enjoy. Fewer still are the books I would take the time to read again. This is one of those books.