How did I meet Brigadier-General Gilbert Moxley Sorrel, you might ask?  It wasn’t easy.  As a lover of the South, I am constantly coming across new people, places, and events, but all in a most haphazard manner.  I often wish I had a guide who could start me at the logical beginning and show me how best to proceed in order to have the full Southern Tradition at my command, but in the end, I think I prefer the wild, spontaneous chase that leads me down random rabbit holes of discovery.  No pleasure is lost, even if I occasionally feel silly joyously holding up what seems to be the treasured Holy Grail, only to find out it is something everybody already knows.  So it was with Mr. Sorrel.  He is well-known to Southern scholars as one of the best staff officers in the Confederate service, some of the proof of which is found in his book, Recollections of a Confederate Staff Officer, but the book is not how I initially came to know him.

I took the opportunity to visit Savannah after attending the Abbeville Institute Conference in Pine Mountain, Georgia this spring.  We did not have time to settle on exact places to visit, so we contented ourselves with the mysterious pleasure of discovering that city by leisurely exploration.  What a rare beauty she is!  The homes, proud but gracious, with their grand staircases, wrought iron gates, curved parlor windows, broad porches, and huge gaslight fixtures, proclaim the unabashed hospitality of the South.  I would like to have toured every one of them, many made famous by illustrious historical figures who lived in or visited them, but the one I stumbled over by accident turned out to be the most memorable.

We had been walking the city and relaxing in the lush garden squares by turn when I came across a placard in front of an historical home that read in part:

“Here resided as a youth G. Moxley Sorrel (1838-1901) who achieved fame as one of “Lee’s Lieutenants.”  Shortly after war broke out in 1861 Sorrel, a young bank clerk in Savannah, proceeded to Virginia where he obtained a place on Gen. Longstreet’s staff.  He served with conspicuous valor and zeal through the major battles and campaigns in that theater from the Frist Manassas to Petersburg and was thrice wounded.  Sorrel became brig. general at the age of 26.  Competent critics have called him “the best staff officer in the Confederate service.”  Gen. Sorrel’s “Recollections of a Confederate Staff Officer” is an absorbing account of his war experiences.”

Knowing nothing about the Sorrel family and anxious to learn more Confederate history, we enthusiastically went inside the garden gate to pay for a tour.  I naively expected the tour to center on the Sorrels, but I soon realized I was to be disappointed when the guide began the tour in an apologetic tone, condemning the family’s involvement with, you guessed it: slavery!  She proudly announced that the home was being renovated to tell the story of slavery.  I resigned myself to be patient, hoping that at some point I might learn a little about the Sorrels, but room after room, I endured drivel about paint, joists, and plaster as the guide tried to elicit fascination for renovation techniques from her captive audience, all while refusing to tell a straightforward narrative of the home’s occupants.

I found out later that this house is advertised as one of the most haunted houses in America and that they give tours at night which sensationalize unfounded stories about the original residents.  There is definitely money to be made on the sordid appetites of the ignorant public, and our daytime guide, self-designated protector of the dead, pretended to be doing the deceased a favor by refusing to talk about their real, documented lives and accomplishments.  In reality, she hypocritically chose to hint at the salacious stories without dispassionately relating the recorded truth, a portion of which I will share here, but which I had to acquire through later study.

Francis Sorrel Sr. was a wealthy Savannah merchant.  His oldest son Francis Jr. was a talented surgeon who found himself in California at the outbreak of the War Between the States.  After unsuccessfully campaigning for secession there, Francis Jr. returned stealthily to the South and provided medical expertise to the Confederacy in Richmond.  A glowing biography of Dr. Sorrel by a personal acquaintance was published in the Georgia Quarterly Review.

Moxley was born in Savannah, Georgia in 1838 and was a member of the Georgia Hussars at the outbreak of the War.  Not content to wait for action, he went to Virginia seeking a position in the Confederate Army, and was soon assigned the post of adjutant-general to Longstreet.  He served faithfully throughout the War as a staff officer and in the field, was wounded several times, but survived to later marry and write his recollections which were published in 1905.

An excerpt from a leave of absence taken by Dr. Francis and Moxley together paints the true picture of the Sorrel family:

“It was a great delight to see home again; to be welcomed and made much of, after the stern scenes of more than two years.  Our friends were not backward or ungenerous.  Hospitalities were showered upon us, but better than all was the loving home circle of aging father and happy young sisters.  The latter, gladdened to have their brothers once more with them, sang, played, and danced to heart’s delight.”

Our tour of the Sorrel home did not convey this simple story, just the feeling that the Sorrels were horrid people.  Only when I called the guide out on her speculation and asked where the letters and journals were, stating that only what was actually recorded could be used as evidence, did she sheepishly go to a corner cupboard, withdraw General Sorrel’s book, and lay it on the table.  She did not say who he was, just told me I could read the book.  I was mighty irritated at this point, so I lingered behind as the tour group proceeded to the last room in the tour.  Again, I could hear her droning on about windows and moldings as I crossed the hall.

Approaching the room’s threshold, I was arrested by a grand sight.  On the far wall was a large mirror hung over the fireplace, and reflected in this mirror was the man I came to meet: General Gilbert Moxley Sorrel, immaculately attired in his Confederate gray uniform!  Relax, dear reader, I am not telling you a ghost story.  His portrait was situated over an ancient piano on the facing wall so that I could see his face looking at me as I walked into the room, and it did feel like I was meeting a new friend.  Our guide made no reference to this portrait, but concluded the tour.  My exasperated husband asked her if the house had any Confederate history.  She bashfully admitted that there used to be a large portrait of General Robert E. Lee in the other parlor until it “had to come down” and bless her heart, she dutifully took us to a small closet under the stairs to show us this offensive painting.

There he was, the dear General, in a closet under the stairs, hidden away from public view.  I have never seen a sadder likeness of Robert E. Lee.  I have since read General Sorrel’s book and in it he wrote this description of Lee:

“An unusually handsome man, he has been painted with brush and pen a hundred times, but yet there is always something to say of that noble, unostentatious figure, the perfect poise of head and shoulders and limbs, the strength that lay hidden and the activity that his fifty-five years could not repress.  Withal graceful and easy, he was approachable by all; gave attention to all in the simplest manner.  His eyes – sad eyes! The saddest it seems to me of all men’s – beaming the highest intelligence and with unvarying kindliness, yet with command so firmly set that all knew him for the unquestioned chief.

Carefully restraining tears that spring from righteous anger, I went to that supposedly haunted piano and defiantly played “Dixie” before I left the home.  I would have to get to know General Sorrel and his family better after leaving Savannah, but as I played the triumphant melody, I swear that handsome soldier smiled down at me.

I ordered his book when I returned to my hotel room and it beat me home.  In it, Moxley reveals himself to be brave, intelligent, capable, humble, forgiving, reluctant to censure, essentially a gentleman in all respects.  His descriptions of and stories about prominent figures like Lee, Longstreet, Hill, and Stuart allow us to know them as they really were.  The attention and tenderness given to less famous personal friends, many of whom he lost in the War, endears him even more to the reader.  Sorrel’s insights into the battles gives us the feeling of actually being there, as he was.  Most of all, the persistence of humor and hope amidst death and deprivation shows the Southern character powerfully.  Recollections of a Confederate Staff Officer is a great antidote to the perverted history and hateful attitude toward Confederates so prevalent in our society.  General Sorrel’s writing is humanizing and ennobling at the same time.

Regrettably, my ignorance prevented me from visiting Moxley’s grave at Laurel Grove Cemetery while in Savannah, but I later discovered that his memorial is inscribed with the words, “et virtute et valore”.  I cannot imagine a more apt tribute to General Sorrel than “Virtue and Valor”.  I invite you to make his acquaintance, through his own writing of course, since Savannah tour guides will probably lock him in a closet next.

Julie Paine

Julie Paine is an independent family educator living in Meridian, Idaho with her husband and four children. She is active in local politics and has taught United States and Idaho State Constitution classes to youth and adults in the community.


  • Paul Yarbrough says:

    Your reception by your “guide” is not surprising in today’s Yankee-ghost-rapture. I have seen the same “attitude” of the modern Republican at Vicksburg’s battlefield tour. Once, as a boy, it was exciting to hear Southern guides tell the story of gallantry, courage and devotion. Today, political modernity stinks up the ground once soaked with the blood of patriots.
    Had I been there, regardless of what others chose to do, I would have stood erect (in spite of an old man’s arthritis) when you played Dixie.
    Many thanks, Ma’am.

  • Karen L. Stokes says:

    It would be interesting to know what the sources of the sensationalized, unfounded stories about the family were.

    • Julie Paine says:

      I specifically asked if Matilda’s letters or journals were preserved and was not given an answer, only reluctantly handed Moxley’s book, in which I could find no mention of his mother. I have looked in vain for her actual death certificate, and have only found statements to the effect that her death was officially recorded as the result of a concussion due to a fall. As for the fabled Molly, I am not very experienced at archival research but did find an article stating, “Despite extensive archival research, Tiya Miles never found Molly. No evidence exists of the ‘real’ Molly, who caught Miles’s attention and set her on her path.” (Moody, Jessica, et al. “Where Is ‘Dark Public History’? A Scholarly Turn to the Dark Side, and What It Means for Public Historians.” The Public Historian, vol. 38, no. 3, 2016, pp. 109–14. JSTOR, Accessed 25 July 2023.) There were many other interesting reviews of Miles’s book that explore the reasons and ramifications for this style of tourism. My religious convictions keep me grounded when studying history and those who have passed away, and I did not appreciate the attempt to manipulate history or my emotions. I can contrast it with my tour of the Andrew Low house where I was shown, with equally pleasant detachment, the room where Robert E. Lee stayed and the room where Thackeray stayed.

  • Earl Starbuck says:

    “Lee, too, made no complaint; but the tragedy of his people was written perpetually on his face.” -Gamaliel Bradford, Confederate Portraits, p. 149.

  • Charles Roberts says:

    A portrait of Lee hung in our guest bedroom. My mother left it to me in her will and it is hanging now in my study. She would be astounded at the treatment of Lee today, after having written a book on the Lee family (tidewater dynasty, Carey Roberts).
    Lee will continued to be revered privately if not publicly. This essay painted a good picture of the radical slant of tour guides and exhibitions today. I suspect the tide will turn again to a more balanced view of history as “presentism” and woke ideology (group labels) disappear in time, as these belief systems are so inherently flawed.
    Until then we must stand tall when Dixie is played. Great article and thank you for the book referral.

  • Carol Willey says:

    Wow! The tour guides! My great-great grandfather, Watson Allen, 5th Tennessee Infantry, CSA, fought the whole War in the West, including Chickamauga, Atlanta, Perryville and worse. Mr. Allen was shot at the Carter Farm in Franklin, which was essentially the end for the CSA Army of Tennessee. Pa, whom I know very well through my grandmothers’s memories, survived after being treated at Carnton, which is most famous for its Confederate Cemetery. So I follow the Carnton Facebook Page. There is a passionate hater of the Confederacy who runs that page. Why in God’s name would such a person work for a place that is on the map for its Confederate Cemetery. I understand that they recently erected a monument to “Enslavement.”

  • William Quinton Platt III says:

    Thank you for standing up for truth.

    “Dixie” will echo on in that house, forever.

  • Silas Dodgen says:

    This reminds me of my family’s experience when we took a guided tour of the battlefield at Franklin, Tennessee a couple of years ago in the course of which our enthusiastic young guide made no pretense of objectivity regarding which of the contending armies was motivated by a noble cause and which was fortunately (as he made us understand) crushed at Franklin. At least he was magnanimous enough at one point in the midst of predictable Righteous Cause mythologizing to condescendingly remark, “We don’t hate Confederates here.” So considerate of him, especially since I was wearing my Sons of Confederate Veterans cap.

  • Silas Dodgen says:

    We saw a plaque prominently placed in front of the Carnton house proclaiming that “enslaved persons” (mandatory terminology in the latest edition of the woke lexicon) were oppressed on the premises. As if that is the paramount fact that visitors to the place must be impressed with. As if such a sign is even necessary–how many folks are unaware that slavery was practiced in the mid-nineteenth century and need to be constantly reminded of it as if that is the single most important feature of American and Southern history? The fact that the McGavocks owned slaves is quite unremarkable for the period and is a singularly unimportant one as it relates to the the significance of Carnton and the battle that was fought around it. Obviously the present curators of the place would have visitors’ awe at the devotion, sacrifice, gallantry, and honor of those who perished overshadowed by some presentist sense of shame over what they regard as the McGavocks’ unpardonable sin.

    These sad experiences with tour guides suggest a corrective. More of us who love the South and honor our Confederate ancestors need to be working at these Southern historical sites. We need more Southern patriots guiding these tours and involved in the organizations that maintain these sites so that the whole story can be told and the truth made available to visitors.

    • William Quinton Platt III says:

      Yes, but did you see those magnificent slave quarters? Most of my ancestors would not have been able to afford such luxury.

      I went there many years ago and shot holes in the “they threw the legs out of the window” story. At the same time, putting the “they cut off the legs upstairs” misinformation to rest (Did you see the architecture of the staircase? No one was dragging leg wounds up that stairway).

      I went back a few years later and they’d put the “throwing legs out the window” lie to rest. Then the guide showed the group a recently-donated sword but she said, “we don’t know if it was a real sword or if it was ceremonial”. I asked the guide if she would be able to bring the sword and scabbard closer, and she was so proud of her power over these items. I said, “do you see those two dents in the scabbard”…she admitted she’d not noticed them before. I then told her that when she turned the scabbard over, she would find a dent half-way between the two dents, on the other side. She was shocked when she turned the sword over and the described dent was present. I told her those were anti-rattle dents and the sword was an actual battlefield weapon.

      I also told the group as we were shown the slave quarters that these buildings were nicer than most houses of free white men. The guide didn’t comment; she’d had enough by that time probably.

      You pay money to see an exhibit, you get the right to hear truth…or at least the right to make the guides look like amateurs.

  • Ashley Shea Legg says:

    O God Bless YOU! I am chuckling to myself, a much needed laugh. Thank you!

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