The Anniversary of the Surrender at Appomattox

KeithRocco NPS Image

Keith Rocco’s image of the surrender – NPS Image 

April 9, 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia to the Army of the Potomac.  While this does not mark the end of the American Civil War, it was the beginning of the end.  It marked the first step in the healing of the nation.  We may yet still be on that road of healing – more on that later.  As a historian it is worth taking a look at the event.

General Robert E. Lee was out of options when it came to facing surrender.  General Ulysses S. Grant and his commanders had driven the Lee’s forces out of Richmond after a siege there and earlier in Petersburg. Lee’s Army was heading west waging a series of skirmishes and battles with the Army of the Potomac hot on their trail, moving in to surround them.  Lee’s men were starving and nearly out of supplies.  They, and their foes, had endured four long years of war which had consumed two percent of the US population.  The fact that such men were still willing to fight for Robert E. Lee, after all they had suffered, says something of the measure of the men and their commander.

Rather than surrender, some of his officers argued at the Army of Northern Virginia could go on and wage a guerilla-style war against the Federal forces.  It certainly was an option – and one can only imagine what that kind of conflict would have looked like.  Robert E. Lee had grown weary of the war and knew that a guerrilla campaign would only prolong the inevitable and make the risk of retribution even worse.  As much as surrender pained him – it was the best option not just for his men but for the nation.

When he made the decision Lee had no idea what his fate would be.  He assumed he would be made General Grant’s prisoner.  That lonely ride to Wilbur McLean’s farmhouse that April day had to be one of the longest and loneliest in Lee’s illustrious life.  The McLean family had lived in Manassas and their farm had been a headquarters at the first major battle of the war.  It was a sense of historic irony that their home would serve as the place of the surrender.

The story of Appomattox has been told and retold often.  There are things that stick out to me that make it significant, though few are tied to the actual surrender but the events that followed.  Grant extended gracious terms to Lee’s men, going so far as to offer them rations.  Warrior to warrior, Grant understood his one-time-foe and recognized the importance the event would have in years to come.

After the surrender, Lee mounted his horse Traveler, and a cheer rose from the gathered Union troops.  Grant stopped his men’s celebrating.  “The Confederates were now our countrymen, and we did not want to exult over their downfall.”   Grant too realized that the defeat of Lee’s Army was the first step to reconciliation as well.

Lee addressed his troops one last time with 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”

The formal surrender ceremony, the stacking of arms and flags, took place on April 12.  The ceremony was commanded by General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the hero of Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg.  Chamberlain himself had been wounded several times in the fighting and received his last promotion on the battlefield when it was thought he was about to die. The tough Maine scholar overcame his injuries, defying the odds.

As the Confederates marched, still proud, by each Union regiment, the order was given from the “order arms” to “carry”, the salute of the individual soldiers to the Confederates as they passed.  This has always struck me as so genuine, so purely honorable.  Soldiers, who only days before had been trying to kill each other; acknowledged their defeated comrades with respect that only military men can fully comprehend.  Confederate General Gordon, at the front of the column, reached Chamberlain and tipped his sword to his boot point in a gentlemanly salute – and then ordered the Confederates to perform the same shift of their weapons to salute the Federal troops.  Honor answered honor.  By the day’s end over 28,000 Confederates stacked their arms, surrendered their torn and tattered battle flags, and were pardoned and allowed to go home.  For this Confederate Army, the long and horrific war was over.  They could still return home for spring planting.

Despite popular understanding, the Civil War was still raging in other parts of the south.  The slowness of communications and the fact that the Confederate government was fleeing made matters drag out for some time.  The last land battle would be fought in May – and the surrender of the CSS Shenandoah didn’t happen until November.  The assassination of President Lincoln cast a dark pall over the Union victory.

Reconciliation was far from smooth.  Some might argue we’re still reconciling even today.  Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States, was imprisoned at Fort Monroe for two years after the war, first on suspicions of being part of the Presidential Assassination, then  for more political reasons.  Robert E. Lee’s home, Arlington, was seized from his family and used as a cemetery for Federal troops who had died in the war.  It would be decades before the Lee family received any compensation for their loss.  There was talk of bringing Confederate leaders up on treason charges but General Grant himself squashed those efforts, threatening to resign.

Some Southern Generals/Historians went on to apply an almost mythical quality to the war – “The Lost Cause.”  Others went on an exodus to Mexico in hope of re-forging the Confederacy there.  While the shooting was over the issue of the rights of people of color was left almost unresolved.

As much as the Civil War was over, we, as a people, are still struggling with its aftermath.  The issues revolving around Civil Rights are still plaguing us today.  We struggle as to whether the war was about slavery or state’s rights when both may be right (and wrong).  Single answers to complex things like wars rarely work.  Society chaffs at the Confederate flag, wondering whether it is a symbol of the “Lost Cause” or a symbol of slavery – or both.  When matters like Ferguson Missouri raise their ugly heads, I find myself looking at the men at Appomattox and the respect and honor they displayed to each other and hope that we too can find that within ourselves.

Those men, at Appomattox, 150 years ago showed us the way but we have lost it.  They demonstrated respect and honor.  All we have to do is measure up the examples they set.

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