Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Appomattox: The Fire Is Quenched


One hundred and forty eight years ago today, there was a place called Appomattox whose name was on every American's tongue, and seared in every American's heart, for good or ill. Today, it's almost forgotten.

On April 9th, 1865, it was the site of General's Lee's surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia to General Ulysses S. Grant and the Army of the Potomac.It meant the end of the bloodiest and most costly war in American history.

Fittingly, it was a Sunday, the Christian Sabbath, when the two men met to do what both of them knew would end a terrible struggle. The two armies had hewed and hacked at each other in places like Antietam, Fredericksburg, The Wilderness, Gettysburg, Cold Harbor and Spottsylvania. For a generation afterwards, men who had been there and experienced what happened at these and other battles would grow quiet, remembering the horror of places like the Cornfield,the Stone Wall, the Bloody Angle, the Peach Orchard, and Devil's Den.

But on that day, April 9th, the guns were eerily silent.It was as though the bones of 600,000 dead men had risen up as one to cry "enough! no more!"

General Lee had planned to make a final stand of it, a final try at breaking through and doing the broken field running he'd somehow managed to carry off throughout the war. Lee reasoned that if he could just smash through the Union cavalry screen with one all out effort and get his battered Army of Northern Virginia through to his supply trains at Lynchburg, he'd be able to regroup and fight another day.

When he learned that the Union cavalry was backed up by two fresh corps of infantry, he realized that after four years it was all over, that trying to break through with his starving, exhausted and outnumbered army was a vain hope. So on April 8th he sent a messenger under a flag of truce to ask for a meeting with General Grant to discuss terms. After the two men exchanged a series of notes, they agreed to meet.

Contrary to popular belief, Lee and Grant and their staffs didn't meet in an actual courthouse. Instead, they met in a private home, that of Wilmer McLean, at 1:30 PM on a balmy spring afternoon.

For two and a half hours they sat and talked. After pitting every muscle and sinew, every ounce of intelligence, every iota of courage and will the two of them and their armies possessed against each other, the two adversaries finally met face to face.They had not seen each other since the Mexican War two decades earlier.

Here's how General Horace Porter, one of Lee's staff described what happened next:

"We entered, and found General Grant sitting at a marble-topped table in the center of the room, and Lee sitting beside a small oval table near the front window, in the corner opposite to the door by which we entered, and facing General Grant. We walked in softly and ranged ourselves quietly about the sides of the room, very much as people enter a sick-chamber when they expect to find the patient dangerously ill.

The contrast between the two commanders was striking, and could not fail to attract marked attention they sat ten feet apart facing each other. General Grant, then nearly forty-three years of age, was five feet eight inches in height, with shoulders slightly stooped. His hair and full beard were a nut-brown, without a trace of gray in them. He had on a single-breasted blouse, made of dark-blue flannel, unbuttoned in front, and showing a waistcoat underneath. He wore an ordinary pair of top-boots, with his trousers inside, and was without spurs. The boots and portions of his clothes were spattered with mud. He had no sword, and a pair of shoulder-straps was all there was about him to designate his rank. In fact, aside from these, his uniform was that of a private soldier.

Lee, on the other hand, was fully six feet in height, and quite erect for one of his age, for he was Grant's senior by sixteen years. His hair and full beard were silver-gray, and quite thick, except that the hair had become a little thin in the front. He wore a new uniform of Confederate gray, buttoned up to the throat, and at his side he carried a long sword of exceedingly fine workmanship, the hilt studded with jewels. His top-boots were comparatively new, and seemed to have on them some ornamental stitching of red silk. Like his uniform, they were singularly clean, and but little travel-stained. On the boots were handsome spurs, with large rowels. A felt hat, which in color matched pretty closely that of his uniform, and a pair of long buckskin gauntlets lay beside him on the table."

The two men talked briefly of their experiences in Mexico, including the one time the two men had met as young officers near Vera Cruz. Then Lee, with an emotion that can only be imagined, asked Grant to write out his terms for surrender.

Grant took out his order book, and began to write:

"In accordance with the substance of my letter to you of the 8th inst., I propose to receive the surrender of the Army of N. Va. on the following terms, to wit: Rolls of all the officers and men to be made in duplicate. One copy to be given to an officer designated by me, the other to be retained by such officer or officers as you may designate. The officers to give their individual paroles not to take up arms against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged, and each company or regimental commander sign a like parole for the men of their commands. The arms, artillery and public property to be parked and stacked, and turned over to the officer appointed by me to receive them."

At that point, according to the men who were there, General Grant gazed at General's Lee and at his sword for almost a full minute. And then continued writing:

"This will not embrace the side-arms of the officers, nor their private horses or baggage. This done, each officer and man will be allowed to return to their homes, not to be disturbed by United States authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside."

Grant said later that after looking at Lee and thinking about the matter for a moment, he realized that it would be an unnecessary humiliation to require officers to surrender their swords,and that requiring members of the Confederate Army to lose their privately owned horses and mules would be a great hardship, because those animals would be badly needed to carry out the spring plowing and planting and to help rebuild the devastated South.So in the end, all officers and men were allowed to take their privately owned horses and mules home with them.

Lee read over the terms, which were as generous as he could have possibly wanted. He had fully expected that senior officers like himself might be arrested and prosecuted for treason on the spot, with Grant demanding unconditional surrender.

So Lee took up a pen and wrote out a short note agreeing to the terms, which was officially recorded at 4 PM that same afternoon.

Grant immediately issued orders to send food rations to Lee's starving army, and then Lee took his leave. From the account of General Porter:

"At a little before 4 o'clock General Lee shook hands with General Grant, bowed to the other officers, and with Colonel Marshall left the room. One after another we followed, and passed out to the porch. Lee signaled to his orderly to bring up his horse, and while the animal was being bridled the general stood on the lowest step and gazed sadly in the direction of the valley beyond where his army lay - now an army of prisoners. He smote his hands together a number of times in an absent sort of way; seemed not to see the group of Union officers in the yard who rose respectfully at his approach, and appeared unconscious of everything about him. All appreciated the sadness that overwhelmed him, and he had the personal sympathy of every one who beheld him at this supreme moment of trial. The approach of his horse seemed to recall him from his reverie, and he at once mounted. General Grant now stepped down from the porch, and, moving toward him, saluted him by raising his hat. He was followed in this act of courtesy by all our officers present; Lee raised his hat respectfully, and rode off to break the sad news to the brave fellows whom he had so long commanded."

As Lee rode away and the news of the surrender spread, the Union soldiers broke out in wild cheering. But as Grant recounted later, he ordered an immediate halt. "I at once sent word, however, to have it stopped," he said. "The Confederates were now our countrymen, and we did not want to exult over their downfall."

Wilmer McLean got an unexpected bonanza out of the use of his home for the surrender. A number of Union officers led by Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer descended on him afterwards and bought up all of the furnishings in the room where the surrender took place as souvenirs, stripping it bare. History doesn't record whether the officers paid normal prices or whether McLean realized their historic value and held out for top dollar.

That night, Lee sat with some of his staff and fellow generals at a fire in front of his tent. History does not record what was actually said. Colonel Charles Marshall, Lee's adjutant only wrote later that the conversation that night concerned 'the events of the day' and that Lee's 'feelings toward his men were strongly expressed'.

We'll never know what was talked about that night, or what emotions were expressed by Lee, his staff and his generals. Bitterness? Relief? Memories of battles won and lost, of departed comrades in arms? Fear for the future?

The next day, April 10th, it rained and in accordance with General Lee's instructions, Colonel Marshall wrote out a general order to be read to the defeated Army of Northern Virginia:

Headquarters, Army of Northern Virginia, 10th April 1865.

General Order
No. 9

After four years of arduous service marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources.

I need not tell the survivors of so many hard fought battles, who have remained steadfast to the last, that I have consented to the result from no distrust of them.

But feeling that valour and devotion could accomplish nothing that could compensate for the loss that must have attended the continuance of the contest, I have determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen.

By the terms of the agreement, officers and men can return to their homes and remain until exchanged. You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from the consciousness of duty faithfully performed, and I earnestly pray that a merciful God will extend to you his blessing and protection.

With an unceasing admiration of your constancy and devotion to your Country, and a grateful remembrance of your kind and generous consideration for myself, I bid you an affectionate farewell.

— R. E. Lee, General, General Order No. 9

On April 12, the rain had stopped and the sun broke out, almost as if the heavens had allowed the southern officers and men an appropriate background to mourn over their dead and the Lost Cause, and then signaled that it was time to move on. Something like 28,000 Confederate soldiers passed by and stacked their arms on that day as the victorious Union Armies held a ceremony of surrender.

The Union officer chosen to lead the ceremony was not General Grant or any of the professional soldiers. Instead, it was Brigadier General Joshua Chamberlain, the former Maine college professor who could justifiably be said to have won the Battle of Gettysburg, holding the left flank of Little Round Top at Gettysburg against all hope by leading the survivors of the 20th Maine in a successful bayonet charge down the south slope when they were almost out of ammunition to push the enemy troops out.

Chamberlain did an unusual thing for a victor in a hard won war, something that showed he was a man of rare courage and insight both on and off the battlefield. As the Confederate Army trooped by to stack arms, Chamberlain ordered his men to present arms in salute to their defeated enemies. As he recounted later in his book:

The momentous meaning of this occasion impressed me deeply. I resolved to mark it by some token of recognition, which could be no other than a salute of arms. Well aware of the responsibility assumed, and of the criticisms that would follow, as the sequel proved, nothing of that kind could move me in the least. The act could be defended, if needful, by the suggestion that such a salute was not to the cause for which the flag of the Confederacy stood, but to its going down before the flag of the Union. My main reason, however, was one for which I sought no authority nor asked forgiveness. Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood: men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond;—was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured? Instructions had been given; and when the head of each division column comes opposite our group, our bugle sounds the signal and instantly our whole line from right to left, regiment by regiment in succession, gives the soldier's salutation, from the "order arms" to the old "carry"—the marching salute. Gordon at the head of the column, riding with heavy spirit and downcast face, catches the sound of shifting arms, looks up, and, taking the meaning, wheels superbly, making with himself and his horse one uplifted figure, with profound salutation as he drops the point of his sword to the boot toe; then facing to his own command, gives word for his successive brigades to pass us with the same position of the manual,—honor answering honor. On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glorying, nor motion of man standing again at the order, but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead!

The passing of the dead..an interesting and moving phrase.

General Chamberlain, like many others who stood on the grounds of Appomattox that bright spring day day was undoubtedly thinking of the men left behind, and it is to his credit that he had the depth of empathy and understanding to see it from both sides. But that was then. At Appomattox today, you don't find the ghosts you find in other civil war sites. No matter how bulldozed,cleaned up and changed the landscape is, the spirits of the dead remain in easy reach at those other places. But not at Appomattox.

Even the furnishings at the McLean House are mere replicas with no real history of their own.


Appomattox today is a shrine to something else entirely.Not to the dead, but to the living, the ones who survived that great conflict that ran like a livid scar across the American landscape.

Just as there was a time of war, there came a time of peace. Just as there was a time of bitter divide and conflict,there came a time of healing, a time when men who had fought each other with an uncommon ferocity for four years remembered again that they were all still members of one American family with more in common than they realized.

That should give us hope in our own times, when morally bankrupt charlatans and their willing stooges seek to manipulate us, divide us and turn us against ourselves for their own power, enrichment and aggrandizement.

Take a moment today, if you will, to remember what occurred that long ago, almost forgotten April day, what happened there. It's something worth thinking about.


nazar said...

These historic pieces you do are by far my favorite. I really enjoyed this one!

Anonymous said...

This piece brought tears to my eyes. My great-grandfather was at Appomattox with the Army of Northern Virginia when Lee surrendered. Thank you for bringing it all to life.

Anonymous said...

I don't always agree with you Rob, but when you're on, boy are you on!

This is one of your best.

papahowie said...

this wonderful story of a sad dark day is put into light through the words of Andy Andrews' book THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT; where he tells the story of (then) COL CHAMBERLAIN holding the line at Gettysburg and the ramifications of that through history ... WWII to today... personalizing us... and ours

edable said...

The nostalgia of honor is a bit more pungent when its absence is so imbued. Kind a like lookin at a pic of a big fish while your fishin poles been broke for 5 years.

Rob Stephenson said...

Great Story! I would that we had men of such principle and character in the land today.

I have one short clarification. There always seems to be a bit of confusion about the name of the village where Lee surrendered his army to Grant. Grant received Lee's surrender in the McLean house very close to the court house of Appomattox County in the village of Appomattox Court House. The village is about three miles east of Appomattox Station, now know simply as Appomattox.

HMS Defiant said...

Very good. Thank you.

Chanman said...

Wonderful reminder of the incredible stories from that day of the meeting between two Gods of War.

One slight correction for you: Gen. Horace Porter was on Grant's staff, not Lee's.

Porter wrote a wonderful book after the War called "Campaigning With Grant."

Beth said...

Thank you so much. Just read your post aloud to my homeschooled children. Many tears on my part. Great lesson today.