One Man’s Opinion

Dick Nicholas

Volume 8, Number 12
December 2000

On Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia formally surrendered at the sleepy little village of Appomattox Court House. However, that was not the end of hostilities between the North and South. It took nearly three more weeks for the remnants of General Joseph E. Johnston’s army in North Carolina to receive the same terms of surrender that Grant had given to Lee. But, even then, the turmoil of the war continued.

Jefferson Davis and his party were finally captured in Irwinville, Georgia, on May 10, and three days later, the Confederates won the last land fight of the war in a skirmish at Palmito Ranch, Texas, on May 13. Unbelievably, the Confederate raider Shenandoah continued capturing and sinking Union whaling ships in the Pacific until it finally gave up the cause on November 6 in Liverpool England.

The termination of the conflict has been aptly called “the long surrender.” Leaving aside the political problems associated with the reconstruction era, the Confederate soldiers returned home to a devastated landscape and economy. Some, including the imprisoned Jefferson Davis, remained defiant. Most felt that they were soldiers without a country, and many looked to a house at 707 East Franklin Street in Richmond for inspiration and guidance. There, in a house still standing today, Robert E. Lee retired for a few months after Appomattox, and contemplated his own as well as the country’s future. For much of the people of the South, Lee was the country.

All of Lee’s public utterances reflected his view that his devastated Virginia and the South must go forward. To one of his soldiers considering fleeing west to greener pastures he said: “Don’t leave Virginia. Our country needs her young me now.” In a letter to his devoted aid, Colonel Walter Taylor, who had told him of the misery and discontent of many Confederate veterans, Lee wrote: “Tell them they must all set to work, and if they cannot do what they prefer, do what they can. Virginia needs wants all their aid, all their support, and the presence of all her sons to sustain and recuperate her.”

In testimony before a hostile congressional committee in 1866, Lee continued to advocate reconciliation and the uniting of the nation. He emphasized that the war was over, and refused to be baited into any sort of debate on the divisive issues of the conflict or the conduct of the war.

Lee let his actions speak for his convictions. In August of 1865, barely four months after surrendering his army, he accepted the job as president of the little poverty-stricken school in Lexington known as Washington College where he could help educate the young men of the South for the future. Lee accepted the job offer with some reservation, however, because he had been excluded from the general amnesty and pardon given to Confederate soldiers. He felt that as president of the college, he might bring hostility and injury to the institution. Fortunately for all of us, Washington College dismissed his concern, and proceeded to hire him. Due to a bureaucratic error, Lee’s formal request for a pardon was inexplicably lost in State Department files for over a hundred years, and his citizenship was not restored until President Ford signed a bill in 1975.

In spite of Lee and the efforts of others towards restoring unity and reconciliation in the nation, there were some who stubbornly refused to accept defeat and the thought of living under the Yankee government. The bitterness and disgrace were too much for them to tolerate. One of the more extreme examples occurred on July 4, 1865, when Brigadier General Jo Shelby led about 500 “irreconcilables” across the Rio Grande at Eagle Pass, Texas, into Mexico. A column of infantry, cavalry, and artillery started across the river. In midstream they paused. The soldiers then bared their heads, and came to attention. As a bugler sounded a mournful call, a trooper weighted down the tattered Confederate battle flag with a rock, and tossed the stone into the muddy water. With that, Shelby led he column into exile in Mexico on his way to the court of Emperor Maximillian. The whole scene sounds like something out of an old John Wayne movie!

Numerous other notables of the Confederacy including a passel of governors, generals, senators, and congressmen followed Shelby. While many of those fleeing to Mexico were from the western states and armies of the Confederacy such as Shelby, Kirby Smith, and Sterling Price, the Army of Northern Virginia was also well represented by men such as Jubal Early, John B. Magruder, and John McCausland. In addition, Commodore Mathew Fontaine Maury of Virginia, the world’s first oceanographer, soon joined the group.

Another group of “irreconcilables” ended up in Brazil, of all places, and established a colony, which has persisted to this day. Although thoroughly absorbed into Brazil at this late date, some of the descendants of these people are said to still retain facets of Southern culture and traditions.

For the migrants to Mexico, however, it was another story. Maximillian was soon gone, and the charms and opportunities of the new life south of the border quickly faded. While some drifted into other ventures, most soon returned home.

In the end, the bitterness and despair of the South passed, and Lee’s admonition to the young men to stay home was a major factor in helping to bring about a United States. As a demonstration of the new harmony, and reunion, by 1898 a very corpulent Fitzhugh Lee was commissioned as major general of volunteers for the Spanish-American War. Perhaps fortunately, for both him and the American cause, the 67-year-old former Confederate cavalryman was too fat to mount a horse and never saw any action.