6) An Awed Stillness: Appomattox

“On to Richmond” had been the cry these four years, and now Richmond was the legitimate prize of the Army of the Potomac. On April 3 Union troops marched into the city and raised the national flag over the capital of a dying republic. But the Army of the Potomac proper would not see it; Grant meant to send them in hot pursuit of their crippled foe. As close to Richmond as most would get was Petersburg, and even then it was only the IX Corps who had to march through the town to get at Lee’s retreating Rebels. Lee was making his last run now, pulling the pieces of his army out of the lines at Richmond, Bermuda Hundred, and Petersburg, gathering in as they tramped westward the survivors of Pickett’s adventure at Five Forks. As Lee fled west on the north bank of the Appomattox, leaking stragglers as he went, Grant was shadowing him south of the river, every man in his army legging it now for all he was worth. There can hardly have been a man in either camp who did not see as clearly as the commanders the nature of the game. Lee needed to reach Amelia Court House sixteen miles to the west on the Richmond and Danville line, draw supplies there, and then follow that road southwest to Danville and to Joe Johnston beyond. Grant had to cut the Danville line first to block that southward thrust and somehow outdistance the head of Lee’s column to hold Lee for the crushing pursuit coming up in his rear. Get enough infantry across the path of Lee’s westward march just once and the game was up.

In the effort to get those infantrymen ahead of Lee, Sheridan’s horsemen would be instrumental. His scouts–spies more properly–galloped ahead gathering information on the route of Lee’s retreat. While these ranged ahead, the main body of the cavalry kept up the hot work of slashing at the flanks of the fugitive grey columns. Driving in to attack thus, they forced the Confederates to stop and turn the blue troopers back. Then the Yankees would trot off up the road a mile or two and strike again. Two days after the fighting at Five Forks, Sheridan reached Jetersville, just southwest of Amelia Court House and squarely on the Richmond and Danville line. Turning northeast now toward Amelia, he had his men throw up works just six miles from the place where the head of Lee’s army was now coming up. When Griffin with the V Corps reached Jetersville likewise and filed in alongside the troopers (with Humphreys and Wright just behind), Lee’s escape south by that road was closed. Now there was only a westward road for Lee’s exhausted and hungry men to hike. Already dumb with fatigue, they were going to be hungrier yet. The rations Lee had ordered sent to Amelia never made it. Foraging parties now went out with empty wagons and returned with empty wagons. Lee was losing valuable time looking for food that was not to be found. Ahead was the forlorn hope of Lynchburg, there to turn south if possible; if not, to make a stand that must surely be the last. Behind, now that both armies were south of the river, there was, as John B. Gordon put it, “one almost continuous battle.” From ridge to ridge, “the lines were alternately forming, fighting, and retreating.” One soldier, hardly more than a boy, ran by Gordon at full tilt. Asked why he was running, he answered up smartly without breaking stride: “I’m running ’cause I can’t fly.”

Grant by now was up with the pursuit in person to see the final blow struck good and proper. He thought it might be done with the infantry on Lee’s flank between Jetersville and Amelia and ordered an advance on the little courthouse town for the morning of April 6. Lee, however, had already led his staggering columns westward in the dark, headed this time for Farmville on the Southside line. Grant’s response was to put two corps, Humphreys’ and Wright’s, immediately on Lee’s tail. These were to pitch into Lee’s rear whenever possible and force him to turn and fight. Meanwhile, Sheridan’s cavalry with Griffin and Ord’s riflemen in their wake would follow on Lee’s south flank until such time as they could get across his path and, as Grant put it, end the business. The pursuing Yankees were at least as weary as the Rebels and just as hungry, having out-marched their own supply wagons. But they had more to sustain the spirit. For as they marched, they saw the unmistakable signs of an army collapsing. All along the muddy roads lay abandoned muskets, broken down guns and caissons, and their equally broken-down horses. More important was the number of dazed and despairing scarecrow men who had simply exhausted their last measure of endurance and were willing at last to surrender. A Yankee overtook one of these by a little stream, pointed his musket, and exulted, “I’ve got you this time!” The ragged soldier didn’t even bother to rise. “Yes, you’ve got me,” he grimly agreed, “and a hell of a git you got.”

So on they went, blue and butternut tramping the muddy spring roads, headed for the last ditch. April 6 brought it a good deal closer. One of Sheridan’s commanders, George Armstrong Custer, brought his troopers slashing down on a Rebel wagon train near Sayler’s Creek, sabering and scattering teamsters as they came. Custer’s attack here had cut a gap in the grey column, and if infantry could get up in short order, this piece of Lee’s army would be overwhelmed. Wright’s VI Corps veterans were closest, and Sheridan now called for them to come on the run. This would be no mean feat for men who had just tramped a night and a day without a meal. In fact, they were just about to boil coffee when the orders came to form up in lines of battle. Now they stood opposite two much-diminished Confederate corps–Ewell’s and Anderson’s. Ready to strike on the Rebel flank were four full brigades of Yankee cavalry. When the infantry and cavalry struck together, the blow was an immensely destructive shock. The Confederates struggled for a time with the terrible energy of desperation, but it was a doomed fight. Some Rebels made a stumbling run for the woods, but most simply threw down their muskets or raised them horizontally over their heads in token of surrender. Watching from a distant ridge, Confederate general William Mahone pronounced this part of Lee’s army “a harmless mob.” Lee, wondering why he had lost contact with Anderson and Ewell, rode up to see for himself. It was as bad as he feared: “That half of our army has been destroyed.” It wasn’t altogether half, but it would be some 8,000 dead, wounded, and captured men before the day was done, three-quarters of these prisoners. Among the lot were six generals, including one-legged Old Bald Head Ewell. “Our cause is lost,” a despondent Ewell told his captors. “Lee should surrender before more lives are wasted.”

Not far away Sheridan was pressing his pursuit of the Rebel fragments with tireless energy and thinking likewise of Lee’s surrender. A rider to Grant carried this message: “If the thing is pressed, I think Lee will surrender.” Although sufficiently shaken by the collapse at Sayler’s Creek, Lee was not quite ready for that extremity. To Mahone, he had exclaimed, “My God! Has the army been dissolved?” Mahone answered up smartly, “No, General. Here are troops ready to do their duty,” pointing to his own division just at hand. That was enough for Lee. He put Mahone to the work of forming a rear-guard line and rode himself to gather up those fugitives still willing to make another westward hike with Uncle Robert. To continue west, Lee would need to get to Farmville and cross to the north bank of the Appomattox ahead of the Federals. Wright’s VI Corps men went to a well-deserved bivouac that night, but Humprey’s II Corps trudged on. The race for the Farmville crossings was a near thing. The last of Lee’s rearguard had just crossed and were burning the last bridge when Humphreys’ advance reached it, igniting a sharp little firefight in both its senses. The II Corps men rushed down, some banging away at Rebels, others beating out the flames of the burning bridge. Soon the entire II Corps was over the river, and soon after that Wright’s men were roused once more to join the hunt. Four years of struggle had come to this: thousands and thousands of men, gnawingly hungry, blear-eyed, filthy, stupid with fatigue, all trudging as best they could westward to make an end. What the end of so long an agony would mean these men could ponder in the years to come if they outlived these last days. But just now, on this seventh day of April in an Appalachian spring, there was this remorseless march to make. One soldier in the famous 20th Maine thought that “we had never endured such marching before.” And that may say as much as can be said about these last miles since that regiment had once humped 150 miles in six sweltering days on its way to that fateful encounter at Gettysburg.

Their chief now hoped that an end might be made without more musketry. Near sundown on April 7, Grant sent to Lee this message: “The result of last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance… I… regard it as my duty to shift from myself the responsibility of any further effusion of blood, by asking of you the surrender of that portion of the Confederate States Army known as the Army of Northern Virginia.” My duty. There was no more sacred phrase in the Virginian’s vocabulary than that. It was a mighty imponderable that Lee was now compelled to ponder. One subordinate argued for surrender, to which Lee responded with some heat, asking what his country would think of his capitulation. “Country be damned!” was the hotter riposte. “There is no country. There has been no country for a year or more. You’re the country to these men.” Lee handed Grant’s letter to his old warhorse, Pete Longstreet, whose counsel he had spurned at Gettysburg. Surrender? “Not yet” was Old Peter’s laconic reply. Now Lee wrote to Grant, first denying the hopelessness of further resistance, then asking what terms Grant proposed if and when Lee should consider that emergency. While men continued to march, Grant in turn replied with generous terms under the circumstances: surrender and parole for the Confederates until properly exchanged, a long way from the “immediate and unconditional surrender” that had won him a name back at Donelson. After the Cold Harbor disaster, Grant had been forced to act the politician in asking Lee for a cease-fire to fetch in the wounded “of both armies,” knowing as he did that his maimed alone lay on that desolate field. It was clumsy enough politics at the time, and Lee had refused the gambit, insisting on a flag of truce by the customary offices of war. Now Lee, no more politic than Grant himself, was forced to try his awkward hand. In his reply he did not “think that the emergency has arisen to call for the surrender of this Army,” but he would be pleased to meet Grant between the lines to open negotiations for a “restoration of peace.” Grant was no more willing than Lee to accept a stricken adversary’s gambit. He had no authority to treat for peace in any case, only a legion of armed men who were, even as he wrote in reply, slogging down Virginia’s muddy roads to finish the business begun in high summer when they tramped their dusty way down to defeat at Bull Run. The thing would be pressed, and the thing would be settled in the field.

Little Phil Sheridan, who had done a lion’s share of knocking the Confederacy to pieces, was now about to deal it one more hard knock. On April 8 his scouts brought word that four trains had pulled into Appomattox Station on the Southside line bearing supplies for Lee’s gaunt survivors. This station, a mile or so from Appomattox Court House, was west of Lee’s advance from Farmville, and about halfway between that place and Lynchburg. Sheridan was determined that the Confederates would never see those supplies or Lynchburg. He sent Custer, who had made his share of trouble and more, riding with his division to Appomattox where they promptly seized the trains. (There were railroad men in his command, and they had a high old time running the trains back and forth until somebody had sense enough to send them off to the west and out of harm’s way.) Now Custer turned his troopers east in the dusk where they continued their destructive work, capturing some two dozen Rebel guns, wagons, and a lot of road-worn Rebels. Then they dismounted and threw up a line of breastworks square across the Lynchburg Road. Just east of them now they could see the campfires of Lee’s army. In Lee’s camp Longstreet’s artillery chief, Edward Alexander, could read a map as well as any. Looking at “the jug-shaped peninsula between the James and the Appomattox,” he saw that “there was but one outlet, the neck of the jug at Appomattox Station.” To it, he added, “Grant had the shortest road.”

Sheridan was even then calling on Grant to send infantry down that road as hard as they could hike. If “the 5th Corps can get up tonight,” he wrote, “we will perhaps finish the job in the morning.” Grant had Griffin with the V Corps on the road that night along with Ord’s men from the Army of the James (who were actually closer) for good measure, six hungry divisions in all, trudging for Appomattox. Two motives pulled them onward, and it would be hard to say which was the more compelling. For one, they could sense the sure end of things now if they could only win this last race. As one veteran put it, “we wanted to be there when the rebels found the last ditch of which they had talked so much.” For another, they had been told that rations awaited them at Appomattox Station, and breakfast was as enticing as victory. In the Rebel camp that night Lee’s army, such as it was, diminished now to less than 13,000 men of all arms, got what supperless rest they could. They were utterly played-out, a Virginia trooper remembered, yet still they waited “for General Lee to say where they were to face about and fight.” A fight was precisely what Lee intended. On the night of April 8, Lee told his staff: “I will strike that man a blow in the morning.” All the imponderables of war had come to this: either Gordon’s men could clear the Lynchburg Road in the morning or the last emergency was at hand.

The next dawn–it was Palm Sunday–came mild and misty. John B. Gordon formed his three divisions in line of battle, hardly more than a full-strength brigade now, with Fitz Lee’s troopers on his right. (One of his brigades in fact numbered eight men; one of his divisions some 250.) Then they stepped off through the fog to push Sheridan’s dismounted troopers off the Lynchburg Road. On they came for all their terrible weariness with a relentless rush and a wild Rebel yell. In the first stroke, they overwhelmed and scattered Sheridan’s troopers left and right. For a moment–and it was just that, a moment–it looked as if the road to Lynchburg was open. But as the morning fog and battle smoke lifted Gordon saw away to the west line after line of bluecoat infantry. They were Ord and Griffin’s men in three heavy lines of battle, 30,000 strong on a front three miles wide. These had marched all night in hope of breakfast only to be sent, still fasting, to confront once more their old antagonists. Some admitted they felt sold. “We were angry at ourselves,” one said, “to think that for the sake of drawing rations we had been foolish enough to keep up and, by doing so, get in such a scrape.” Every man wanted to be there when the Army of Northern Virginia furled its battle flags; no man wanted to be the last man shot before they did so. But it was the Rebels who were in the last extremity. Little Phil had by now got his cavalry formed up, mounted now, on Gordon’s left flank and Fitz Lee’s men were overlapped on the right. Gordon could perhaps keep up a sharp enough skirmish fire to fall back without being overwhelmed. But as soon as the combined host across the way made an aggressive assault, it would be destruction. About 8:00 Gordon warned Lee: “I have fought my corps to a frazzle and I fear I can do nothing unless heavily supported by Longstreet.” Longstreet, however, now the rear of the army, had in his rear two full Federal corps as well, Wright and Humphreys, and as soon as they made contact, it would be all Old Peter could do to stave off destruction from the east. The Army of Northern Virginia had been brought to bay at last. Before the last blow fell, a lone grey rider galloped out from the Rebel lines with a white towel knotted to a staff. He rode into the lines of Chamberlain’s brigade with a message from Robert E. Lee to U. S. Grant. There was no equivocating in this. It was a request to meet “with reference to the surrender of this army… in accordance with the offer contained in your letter of yesterday, for that purpose.” The last Rebel yell, first loosed on Henry House Hill where Stonewall Jackson had won his name, died on the misty air of Appomattox on the morning of April 9, 1865.

A private in one of Ord’s divisions expressed the tactical situation with simple clarity: “Lee couldn’t go forward, he couldn’t go backward, and he couldn’t go sideways.” Lee himself put it thus: “There is nothing for me to do but to go and see General Grant and I would rather die a thousand deaths.” As for Grant, he had been suffering a piercing headache when Lee’s note reached him. Suddenly the pain disappeared. In the blue ranks, men were beginning to see that they, as well as the Rebels, were going to be spared the last smash-em-up battle that Sheridan had been urging this morning. Peace was finally and truly at hand. It was over–the burning wilderness, the blind and bitter fighting, the muddy trenches, the forced marches, all behind them now. It was over and men could not quite realize it yet. Someone called for three cheers, and some few tried to lift a hurrah, but it died feebly. Many wept. In the Confederate camp men sat in dazed silence or furled their battle flags with scalding tears streaming down their faces. Lee put on his best uniform, sash and sword. “I have probably to be General Grant’s prisoner,” he told an aide, “and thought I must make my best appearance.” Then he mounted Traveller and rode for Appomattox Court House. Grant likewise was on the way, not, however, making his best appearance. He had outridden his headquarters’ wagon and wore now a private’s tunic with a lieutenant general’s stars. His trousers were mud-spattered; he carried neither sidearm nor sword.

Lee was waiting in the home of Wilmer McLean in the little courthouse town when Grant arrived. McLean had once owned a home in Manassas, but the First Battle of Bull Run had convinced him to move his family to safety farther south. Now the war begun in his back yard was coming to a close in his front parlor. The commanders spoke not at all of the eleven months they had been locked in deadly combat. They spoke instead, pleasantly Grant thought, of that distant day when they had been comrades in Mexico. Then Lee turned Grant to the object of the meeting. Grant posed liberal terms. All military property was to be surrendered, but officers could keep their sidearms and personal effects. Officers and men alike who claimed to own a horse or mule could keep these also, a blessing with spring planting time now at hand. Most important, once he signed his parole, “each officer and man will be allowed to return to his home, not to be disturbed by the United States authorities.” Hard men there were in the North just then, politicians who wanted to see prominent Rebels hanged for treason. But so long as these kept the terms of their parole, Grant had made it impossible to hang them, and if a Rebel as prominent as Robert E. Lee could not be hanged, it would be difficult to hang any. In closing, Grant sent Lee’s hungry survivors 25,000 rations. Referring to both the terms and the rations, Lee said, “This will have the best possible effect on my men. It will be very gratifying and do much toward conciliating our people.” Our people. After four years of driving “those people” with such elan, did Lee now mean the people, North and South, of a reunited country? The two men signed the instrument of surrender and shook hands. Lee mounted and rode off, infinitely weary. The Federals now began to cheer and Yankee guns to boom salutes to victory. Grant put a stop to the celebration. “We did not want to exult over their downfall,” he remembered. Grant for his part was unmistakably clear about what he understood the country to mean. The Rebels were “our countrymen again,” he said. Our countrymen.

Three days after Robert E. Lee signed the articles of surrender in the McLean sitting room, on April 12–the fourth anniversary of the first explosion over Fort Sumter–a formal ceremony of surrender took place at Appomattox. Fittingly, redoubtable John B. Gordon, wounded five times in its service, would lead what remained of the Army of Northern Virginia to stack arms for the last time. With equal fitness, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the Bowdoin professor who had spent his sabbatical in the hard school of war and was himself wounded six times, would accept the surrender. As the Rebels marched out at the route step, Chamberlain remembered, there was “not a cheer, nor word, nor whisper or vain-glorying” in the blue ranks, only “an awed stillness… as if it were the passing of the dead.” As Gordon approached at the head of the column, chin sunk down on his chest in dejection, Chamberlain ordered a bugler to sound “carry arms”–a salute of honor. As the Yankee ranks snapped from order arms to carry arms, Gordon ordered his own men to carry arms in return. Then he turned his horse toward Chamberlain, reared it slightly with the spur, then dropped his sword to his toe–salute answering salute. It was on both sides, as Chamberlain thought, “a token of respect from Americans to Americans.”

The long national agony was nearly over. Less than a week after the formal surrender at Appomattox Court House Joe Johnston surrendered the Army of Tennessee to Sherman in North Carolina on terms so expansively generous that they were promptly abrogated by the Federal government. Johnston was forced to surrender again, on April 26, this time on terms identical to those posed by Grant. Jefferson Davis fled south with defiant speeches but was captured at length in Georgia. The Federals kept him in chains at Fort Monroe while politicians wrangled over what to do with him. Fighting went on sporadically in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas. On the high seas, Captain James Waddell took the Rebel raider Shenandoah from the Pacific all the way to Liverpool, England, to surrender to the British the following autumn. Still, by the middle of May the American Civil War was over. But before lilacs bloomed in the dooryard, the nation had one more agony to endure. On April 14–it was Good Friday–John Wilkes Booth, an actor full of vengeance, race hatred, and brandy, shot Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in Washington. Lincoln died the next morning in a little room in a boardinghouse across the street. In less than a week Northerners swung from wild jubilation to the deepest grief. In life, few had been able to take the full measure of this man; in death, many were beginning to see the true dimensions of his character and vision.

As much as any man, he had seen and articulated for the nation the meaning of so vast a violence. The war, he had argued at Gettysburg, was the ultimate trial of the nation’s two core convictions: civil liberty and human equality. Unbending men, North and South, had their own purposes in the rush to war four Aprils earlier. In a sense, the inciting motives on each side were deeply conservative. Both wished to preserve the pre-war status quo: the North wanted to maintain the old Union; the South, for all its talk of revolution, wanted to maintain its peculiar institution and the kind of society it made possible. But, as Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address, each party “looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.” The old Union and the old South were gone forever, gone the way of slavery itself, the essential cause of all the discord. In the years ahead North and South would work with westward expansion to forge a new polity, and it would not be easy for a Southland in utter ruin. There would be a great deal of malice and precious little charity in the bitter years of Reconstruction. In the end, though, Lincoln understood the Civil War not simply as the bloody working out of an unresolved political problem. (And bloody enough it was: 360,000 Federals and 260,000 Confederates perished in the conflict.) It was the working out of a vast moral drama, and at the heart of it was an atonement made in blood for the republic’s violation of its own best principles. Men, seeing by their lights, have their purposes, Lincoln believed, but the “Almighty has His own purposes… If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to him?” In the crucible of war was wrought a new ideal of justice, hardly fully realized in our own time, but still the ideal that might one day achieve and cherish, as Lincoln dreamed, a “lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”