The Life and Campaigns of General Lee, by Edward Lee Childe, Chaper 16

The Life and Campaigns of General Lee, by Edward Lee Childe

CHAPTER XVI.
CONTINUATION OF THE SIEGE.—THE LAST COMBATS.—LEE’S RETREAT.—HIS CAPITULATION.

GENERAL LEE, about the end of March, perceived that preparations were making in the Federal army for some important movement,—a movement, for that matter, easy to divine. The Federal left having gradually gained ground in the direction of Southside, it became evident that Grant was contemplating an offensive movement in this direction. He hoped thus to acquire the only line of retreat open to Lee, and finish the war at a blow.

The catastrophe foreseen by the Southern chief for months was getting ready threateningly before his eyes. Unless he had recourse to some means as desperate as his situation, all struggling was at an end. Retreat appeared the only means open to him, but retreat was no longer an easy thing. His adversary had the command of forces placed not far from the roads over which Lee must necessarily pass. Without a diversion, the chances of retiring his army from the awkward position in which it was, seemed hopeless. He therefore decided on this.

His plan was, boldly to assume the offensive. It was of the utmost urgency to remedy the extreme pressure on his right wing, about to succumb to the accumulated masses of the enemy concentrated against it, and, by striking a blow elsewhere, to divert the danger threatening the Southside Railroad. By attacking the Federal centre, east of Petersburg, Lee would force Grant to partly strip his left wing. Should the Confederates succeed in introducing themselves between the two Federal wings, and likewise in menacing the railway coming from City Point, a place on the James where the steamers disembarked their cargoes, and where Grant received his supplies, affairs would wear an altered appearance. At the worst, admitting that Lee might judge it most prudent to beat a retreat, this offensive movement would permit him, while his adversary was occupied in massing his troops on his front with the object of arresting the attack on his centre, to retire suddenly by the Southside Railway to North Carolina, as he had originally intended.

General Gordon commanded the part of the Confederate army immediately before Petersburg; it was composed of three small divisions. Longstreet had the left wing, which extended to the north of the James, and the right wing was under the orders of A. P. Hill, stationed at Hatcher’s Run.

To Gordon, therefore, fell the principal part in the battle of the 25th of March. The positions to be taken were on Hase’s Hill, two hundred and fifty yards at 1east from the Confederate lines. The interval was defended by felled trees, trenches, and chevaux-de-frise; but should the first assault succeed, should the dash of the troops carry them on, and they be supported by sufficient reinforcements, the hill behind would fall into their hands, and, to maintain his position, Grant would be compelled to concentrate his army on the point menaced.

Before dawn, on March 25th, everything was ready. The attacking column was composed of from 3000 to 4000 men under General Gordon. In reserve enough forces were held to support him. With daylight Gordon gave the signal. His soldiers rapidly and silently crossed the space separating them from Fort Steadman, the most advanced of the Federal lines. Scrambling over the felled trees, they rushed to the parapets. The surprised garrison scarcely attempted a defence. To drive it out and turn the guns against the other Federal works, was the task of a moment. A cry of triumph announced that the Confederates were masters of the fort. They found there 9 guns, 8 mortars, and took 500 prisoners, one a general. But after this first success, whether because the sight of the formidable works still remaining to be captured discouraged them, or because the fatigue of so long a struggle had exhausted them, or because of the delay of the reinforcements in coming to their help, Gordon’s soldiers hesitated to go on. The column which assaulted Fort Haskell, did it so feebly, that it resulted in nothing. The Federals, recovered from their surprise, opened right and left an overwhelming fire on Fort Steadman. Left unsupported by his demoralized soldiers, General Gordon had all the difficulty in the world to lead back one-fourth of them. Fort Steadman fell again into the hands of the Federals. The Confederates lost 2000 men. This was the last offensive movement on the part of the army of Northern Virginia.

Nothing remained for the Southern chief but to resist, as long as possible, the immense avalanche of foes ready to crush him.

The first idea of his slow and prudent adversary was to await General Sherman’s arrival before risking a general attack. This fact alone is the most eloquent tribute of praise that can be paid to Lee, when one remembers he had but 30,000 men to oppose to Grant’s 150,000! Fearing, however, lest Johnston might succeed in joining Lee if Sherman quitted the banks of the Roanoke, Grant decided on a final assault without delay.

The arrival of a reinforcement at this auspicious moment confirmed his decision. General Sheridan, who had been charged to march into North Carolina in order to intercept Lee’s retreat in that direction—for Grant expected day by day to see him retreat—General Sheridan, hindered by the rise of the James river, had been unable to execute this plan, and so brought back to the Federal commander his 10,000 excellent cavalry troops.

The final hour approached. On the 29th of March, Lee learnt that the enemy was directing his columns in close order towards his extreme right. He comprehended that the intention was to turn him on the White Oak Road. This position covered the railway of Southside, the only remaining road by which the Confederates received their provisions.

Grant, was effecting this movement, no longer with detached corps. A portion of his whole army was being drawn up in columns mutually supporting each other, and provisioned for several days. He hoped to hide the movement, at any rate, for some hours, but Lee penetrated it, on receiving the earliest reports of his scouts. He could not think of completely stripping all his lines of defence in the centre and on the left. Already, his army was insufficient to cover this long line of forty miles; to withdraw troops from any one point to reinforce another that was menaced, was to expose himself to certain destruction. What, then, was to be done to maintain his position with so few men and so few horses? Nothing, but to supplement the number with the energy of despair; and this he attempted.

Uncertain whether there would not be a simultaneous attack on the left wing, Lee was obliged to leave there Longstreet’s whole force. He enjoined him, if he became assured that Grant did not mean to assault him, at once to march on Petersburg with all the troops not absolutely necessary for the defence.

Uniting, massing all that he could find, leaving with Gordon, in the centre, only 7000 men, to keep the nine miles of works before and around Petersburg, Lee, on the morning of March 31st, succeeded in putting in line on his menaced right 17,000 men, of whom 2000 were cavalry, under Fitz-Lee. They were cavalry only in name. General Lee, speaking of the vaunted exploits of Sheridan, said that his “victories were only gained when the South had no more horses for its cavalry, and no more men to mount what few foundered horses it could get together.”

Happily for the Confederates, a frightful tempest, which lasted all the 30th, much retarded the march of the Federal columns, and the roads, on the morning of the 31st, were in such a wretched condition, that Grant hesitated to advance.

Lee posted his troops behind the works which protected the White Oak Road. Further west, four or fie miles off, the Confederates occupied an important fortified position, Five Forks, a cross-way where five roads met. Towards this, a strategic point of immense consequence, all the efforts of the two armies insensibly gravitated.

The part of resisting to the bitter end, in spite of the prodigious disproportion in numbers, taken by Lee, ought not to be attributed to the desperate resolution of a man who stakes his all. He had the well-founded hope that, if he vigorously repulsed the Federal attack on his right, there would ensue a scene of confusion and disorder among his adversaries, which would permit him to retire to Lynchburg. It was not the first time all the chances had been against him, and he yet had issued triumphant. The appearance of his veterans, hardened to everything, ready to brave no matter what perils, gave him the assurance that he had in them the requisite energy to enable him to retire his army from the bad pass to which it had been brought.

The events of the following days, up to a certain point, completely justified him, and if he failed finally, still he was within the merest trifle of getting out of his enemy’s clutches.

Grant’s forces were not all in line near Boydton Road, beyond Hatcher’s Run, when Lee, on his heads of columns in the most furious manner. Defeating the first divisions in his path, the Southern chief appeared on the point of snatching from fortune a victory which would decide the fate of the campaign. But he was presently fighting with masses of new troops, and his meagre battalions could not struggle in the open against forces so overwhelming. It was, therefore, necessary for his soldiers to retreat behind their works of defence, but only to recommence the conflict elsewhere. Five Forks, that important point, had just fallen into the hands of General Sheridan. Lee drove him from it, and General Pickett pursued the enemy to Dinwiddie Court House

At nightfall, Sheridan, still on the defensive, sent Grant word, that, without reinforcements, he could not renew the struggle next day. On the morning of April 1st, the 5th Federal corps, which had marched all night, joined him. But General Lee, also, having no wish to leave his soldiers so exposed, had re-entered the Five Forks’ lines.

On April 1st, Sheridan, at head of 40,000 men, rapidly traversed the two miles separating him from Five Forks. The exhausted survivors of Pickett and Johnson’s divisions opposed but a feeble resistance to this avalanche. Taken in front and on the two flanks, after attempting an impossible defence, more than 5000 of them were made prisoners; the rest were dispersed and hotly pursued by the Federal cavalry. All the Confederate right was compromised, and Southside Railway became the enemy’s.

Although, in effect, this action was decisive, the Federal general-in-chief wished to risk nothing. All the Northern artillery received orders to bombard the Confederate lines along their whole extent, and during the remaining part of April 1st, a shower of shells and cannon-balls fell on Petersburg and its environs. The assault was not to be till the next day, April 2nd. But the Confederate lines were so badly manned, that at any point whatever the Federal chief might easily have broken through on the 1st.

Longstreet was still retained to the north of the James, in order to protect the railway leading to Richmond, as well as the approaches to the city. Seeing the enemy always in force before him, he had been unable to strip his already feeble lines in even the slightest degree. The only forces remaining to Lee to defend his centre, which rested on Petersburg, were what was left of Gordon and A. P. Hill’s, two corps. A splendid sun illuminated the morning of April 2nd. On all sides, and simultaneously, the Federal columns marched against the Confederate lines. Driven back into the suburbs of the town, Gordon’s forces there re-formed a line of interior defence. The Federal 9th corps was stopped by this magnificent attitude. On the right, A. P. Hill, with some remnants of regiments and a few artillerymen, seemed unable to resist. The Confederate army was on the point of being cut in two. Luckily, at this place, two fortified redoubts, commanding the approaches of the River Appomattox, offered a suitable rallying ground. One of them, Fort Alexander, was speedily taken by the ever-mounting wave of invaders. The other, Fort Gregg, must be defended at all hazards, and to the last extremity, in order to give the Confederate army time to contract its lines around Petersburg, and there concentrate what remained of its forces.

For two hours the efforts of the enemy to take it were fruitless against the desperate defence of the little garrison. At length, at seven o’clock a.m., a last charge of the Federals carried them to the ditch. The front ranks, being received with a close fire, paid for their audacity with their lives, but in the end the assailants penetrated on all sides into the fort. Of the 250 defenders, only thirty survived to fall alive into the hands of the Northerners. This precious interval of delay in the march of the Federal army permitted Lee, whom Longstreet had just joined, to concentrate his last means of resistance (15,000 men) behind his third line of defence. This line, of small extent, but very strong, commenced from the River Appomattox, higher up than Petersburg, and having gone round the suburbs, rejoined the river below the town.

Several assaults on this line were of no avail. In repulsing one of the attacks General A. P. Hill, one of the best of Lee’s lieutenants, of whom we have often had to speak, met with his death. At nightfall the Confederates were still masters of Petersburg, although Grant, who had 150,000 men with him, might easily have concentrated 100,000 of them against the last defenders of this little town.

With the night Lee executed his plan of retreat. All the roads south of the Appomattox having fallen beneath the power of the Federals, it was necessary to withdraw in a direction north of the river, which thus served as a line of defence. Lee, whom nothing seemed to trouble, had by no means, as we have seen, renounced the hope of reaching North Carolina, or, at the worst, the Alleghany Mountains, in the west of Virginia. He determined, therefore, to march quicker than the bulk of his adversaries, and rout all the detached corps who sought to bar his passage. The only outward proof which he gave of the gravity of the situation was to gird on his sword, which he very rarely did. On the morning of the 2nd, on seeing his lines forced, the Confederate chief had contented himself with saying to the commander of his staff, Colonel Marshall, in the most natural tone possible, “This is very bad for us, Colonel. As I told them at Richmond, the cord has been so stretched as to end by snapping.”

In the morning he had informed the government at Richmond that Grant had forced his lines, and that he intended with night to evacuate Petersburg. Orders had been sent with the utmost haste to all the troops north of the James River to rally round him in all urgency. When night came the Confederates began to cross the Appomattox. This movement was effected without disturbance from the Federals. The bridge was then burnt.

The Southern army taking a road which, at some distance from the north bank of the river, turns to the west, began its march through the semi-obscurity. Lee himself watched the operation. On foot, with his horse’s bridle in his hand, he stood at the crossing of the two roads, and gave his orders with the greatest tranquillity. His voice betrayed no trace of emotion, his behaviour was as calm as if he were taking part in a review. When the rearguard had defiled, he mounted and followed his men.

While the burning of the magazines at Petersburg, to which they had set fire, illuminated the heavens with lurid tints, and filled the air with the noise of explosions, the remnants of the Virginian army, about 15,000 men, travelled on in darkness. All along the line hitherto occupied by the Confederates, from Petersburg to Richmond, explosion followed explosion in rapid succession, shaking the ground like an earthquake.

Generals Mahone and Ewell, with the Richmond garrison, joined Lee in the morning of April 3rd. At break of day his army was nearly sixteen miles from Petersburg. Under such circumstances one would have expected to find the Confederate troops, after the reverses they had just sustained, downcast and discouraged. Quite the contrary; the pleasure of perceiving themselves out of those abominable trenches, in the open air, in the midst of the budding woods, rendered them almost joyful.

Their commander shared, if not their confidence, at least their relief at having quitted the lines. But the question of victuals outweighed all his other cares. During the winter he had already had much difficulty in feeding his soldiers on quarter-rations. On withdrawing from Petersburg, Lee felt he would have to live as best he could in the districts through which he passed. He had consequently already taken preliminary measures by ordering that a depôt for provisions should be established at Amelia Court House. The prospect of finding there necessaries for his soldiers undoubtedly contributed to support him at this difficult moment. But this was the last ray of hope granted him. Whether his orders had been badly understood, whether there had been an involuntary error, or whether there was some other cause, the train which should have unloaded the provisions at Amelia Court House did not stop there, but carried them on to Richmond, where they fell into the hands of the Federals, who were at length masters of the city. Thus, when, after some unforeseen delays caused by the rising of the Appomattox, Lee reached Amelia Court House, upwards of thirty-seven miles from Petersburg, at the head of his soldiers, worn out by fatigue and hunger, what was the general consternation to find no victuals! All hope of bringing the retreat to a happy termination from that moment had to be abandoned!

On all faces was marked the deepest dejection. Before so cruel a stroke of fate Lee comprehended that all was over, and for the first time his countenance displayed the depth of his despondency. Hitherto he had had no doubt as to the possibility of forcing his way through, but only on condition that his men were fed; for an army that eats not can neither march nor fight. He was obliged to halt, and send foraging parties into the country round, already quite impoverished. Meanwhile Grant’s columns in close masses were gaining on him, advancing to cut off the Confederate retreat. The want of a few thousand pounds weight of bread and meat had finished the war.

The days of the 5th and 6th,—preciou moments which should have been allowed to the Southern chief in order to maintain a sufficient distance between him and those who were pursuing,—were passed in getting together a little provision. Without this fatal mistake, which must be attributed to the stupidity of the Richmond Government, Lee would have been able to keep his little army together, and pass Burkesville safe and before the enemy could overtake him. The time lost at Amelia Court House permitted Sheridan, whose cavalry was much in advance of the rest of the Federal army, to intercept the Confederates’ line of retreat. In the afternoon of the 4th he arrived with 18,000 horses at Jetersville, on the Danville Railway, about six miles south-west of Amelia Court House. Meade next day joined him with two corps of infantry.

General Lee, on perceiving this new peril, immediately abandoned his march towards North Carolina, and, turning west, tried to reach Lynchburg. Resuming his march on the night of April 5th, he directed it on Farmville, about thirty miles off, through an uneven country, whence he hoped more easily to get to the mountains. At the moment, therefore, when Grant was making arrangements to attack Lee at Amelia Court House, it was perceived he had gone off towards Farmville. A column immediately started in pursuit; two other took two parallel roads north and south of the Confederate line of retreat respectively, while a fourth Federal corps marched from Burkesville on Farmville to destroy the bridge at that place.

Lee, to feed his soldiers, was obliged partly to disperse them; consequently many of these foragers were made prisoners. The sufferings of his soldiers became unbearable. Many kept themselves alive by eating buds and young shoots. The horses and mules perished by hundreds, for want of provender. The greater part of the waggons had to be burnt, and the guns buried. All around the soldiers fell from weakness, or threw away their rifles for want of strength to carry them. Every moment the enemy’s squadrons became bolder, and harassed the flanks of he little army; waggons set on fire, the ammunition kept blowing up; showers of cannon-balls swept the Confederate ranks, which left behind a long train of dead and wounded.

Gradually the circle around Lee’s soldiers was closing in, but they were no less resolved to struggle as long as human nature would allow them. Their general, recovered from his momentary dejection, thought only of making the best use of his acquaintance with the country and of the devotion of his heroic soldiers.

On the 6th, in the evening, at Deatonsville, Sheridan vigorously attacked with three of his divisions the train of carriages, defeating Pickett’s division, reduced to 800 men, taking sixteen guns, a large number of prisoners, and destroying 400 waggons. Ewell hastened to his colleague’s succour with his corps of 4200 men. But all the Federals 6th corps, more than 20,000 foot soldiers, joined Sheridan’s cavalry, and had no great difficulty in overwhelming these poor exhausted fellows, so enfeebled that often, after having loaded their rifles, they let them fall, then sunk down themselves on them, and gave way to an irresistible sleep. While Ewell bravely showed a front to the Federal infantry, Sheridan’s cavalry attacked him on the flank and in the rear. There was presently no other resource but to lower his arms, his adversaries being five times as numerous as his own force. The remnants of his corps, including General Custis Lee and three other generals, were made prisoners.

On the 7th, the Federals still hotly pursued what was left of the Southern army. General Fitz-Lee, who formed the rearguard with his 1500 men, mounted on screws, drove back and routed General Gregg at the head of 6000 men, well mounted and admirably equipped, making Gregg himself a prisoner to the great satisfaction of General Lee, who said to his nephew: “Keep your command together, and in good spirits, general. Don’t let them talk of surrender. I will get you out of this.”

Lee was in advance of the Federal corps of General Ord, who had been despatched to destroy the bridge over the Appomattox, at Farmville, and the remains of the Confederate army crossed this river and bivouacked around the little village. The exhaustion of the men, who for five days of incessant marchings and fights had literally eaten nothing except some grains of maize and bark of trees, became such, that after a council of war held by the generals, the commander-in-chief of the artillery, General Pendleton, was commissioned to communicate to the general-in-chief that the unanimous opinion of the council was, that no other course remained but to surrender. Such, however, was not Lee’s view. “Surrender!” exclaimed he with a fiery glance; “I have too many good soldiers for that!”

He undoubtedly thought he should be able to reach the mountains, and as long as that chance remained he did not feel authorized to abandon the struggle. The retreat continued. Before the bridges of the railway and road could be entirely burnt, the Federal second corps arrived, and, in spite of the desperate resistance of a brigade left by Gordon to effect their destruction, it crossed, and likewise captured a good number of prisoners. The same day Grant occupied Farmville. To the north of the village, about five miles distant, Lee had intrenched himself in a defensive position, covering the road to Lynchburg and well chosen to give his men a little rest, and to maintain himself till night. The Federals attacked, but having lost 600 men, killed and wounded, and receiving no reinforcements before evening, they were compelled to suspend operations.

On arriving at Farmville, Grant sent the following letter to Lee:—

April 7th, 1865.
General R. E. LEE, Commanding C.S.A.

GENERAL,

The result of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the army of Northern Virginia in this struggle. I feel it is so, and 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 Southern army known as the Army of Northern Virginia.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
U. S. GRANT,
Lieutenant-General commanding armies
of the United States.

Lee received this letter the same evening. He answered immediately as follows:—

April 7th 1865.

GENERAL,

I have received your note of this day. Though not entirely of the opinion you express as to the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the army of Northern Virginia, I reciprocate your desire to avoid useless effusion of blood, and therefore, before considering your proposition, ask the terms you will offer on condition of its surrender.

Your obedient servant,
R. E. LEE.
Commanding Confederate forces.

In the interval between the two letters Lee had, by a night march, put a long distance between himself and his enemies. General Grant answered this note:—

April 8th, 1865.

GENERAL,

Your note of last evening, in reply to mine of same date, asking the conditions on which I will accept the surrender of the army of Northern Virginia, is just received. In reply, I would say, that peace being my great desire, there is but one condition I would insist upon, namely: That the men and officers surrendered shall be disqualified for taking up arms again against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged. I will meet you, or will designate officers to meet any officers you might name for the same purpose (? object), at any point agreeable to you, for the purpose of arranging definitely the terms upon which the surrender of the army of Northern Virginia will be received.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
U. S. GRANT, Lieutenant-General.

To General R. E. LEE.

But the Confederates had not lost their time. On the 8th, in the evening, they entered Appomattox Court House. Lynchburg was not more than twenty-four miles off. They were not near beaten yet The enemy did not show himself, and the Confederates began to hope that after all they would arrive at Lynchburg. The line of retreat followed the narrow tongue of land which extends between the James River and the Appomattox. This is the answer Lee made to the foregoing letter:

April 8th, 1865.

GENERAL,

I received at a late hour your note of to-day. In mine of yesterday, I did not intend to propose the surrender of the army of Northern Virginia, but to ask the terms of your proposition. To be frank, I do not think the emergency has arisen to call for the surrender of this army; but as the restoration of peace should be sole object of all, I desire to know whether your proposals would lead to that end. I cannot, therefore, meet you with a view to surrender the army of Northern Virginia, but as far as your proposal may affect the Confederate States forces under my command, and tend to the restoration of peace, I should be pleased to meet you at 10 a.m., to-morrow, on the old stage road to Richmand, between the picket lines of the two armies.

Your obedient servant,
R. E. Lee, General.

To this letter Grant next morning replied:

April 9th, 1865.

GENERAL,

Your note of yesterday is received. I have no authority to treat on the subject of peace. The meeting proposed for 10 a.m. to-day would lead to no good. I will state, however, General, that I am equally anxious for peace with yourself, and the whole North entertains the same feeling. The terms upon which peace can be had are well understood. By the South laying down its arms it will hasten that most desirable event, save thousands of human lives, and hundreds of millions of property not yet destroyed. Seriously hoping that all our difficulties may be settled without the loss of another life, I subscribe myself, &c.

U. S. GRANT, Lieutenant-General.

This answer never came to General Lee. During this correspondence Sheridan’s cavalry had arrived, on the evening of the 8th, at Appomattox Station, on the railway leading to Lynchburg, about five miles beyond the Court House, thus barring the only way which remained open to the Confederates. Having seized four trains of provisions coming from Lynchburg, intended for Lee’s army, he planted himself on the Confederate line of march, determined to make a stand there, well assured hat in the morning he would be rejoined by the army of the James, while the army of the Potomac would press upon the Southern rear. A brisk musketry fire at the outposts, announced to Lee’s veterans that they were surrounded on all sides.

That same night, around the bivouac fire in the woods the last council of war of the army of Northern Virginia was held. There were present, Generals Lee, Longstreet, Gordon, and Fitz-Lee. The commander-in-chief indicated to them their position, and acquainted them with his correspondence with Grant. After a short conversation, it was resolved that next morning the entire army should advance: if only the cavalry of Sheridan was before it, it should sweep it out of its way and pursue the march to Lynchburg; if, on the contrary, imposing masses of hostile infantry should be encountered beyond the Court House, what was impossible must not be attempted; a flag of truce should go forward to ask General Grant to concede an interview, in order to agree upon the conditions on which the Southern army should lay down its arms.

Much against his will, General Lee was compelled to approve these arrangements. Shortly after the generals separated, each divisionary saluting the commander-in-chief, who, on his side, returned their salute with grave courtesy; then all went back to their posts.

At three in the morning, Lee sent to ask Gordon, who commanded the vanguard, what probability there was of an attack succeeding: “Tell General Lee,” replied Gordon, “that my old corps is reduced to a frazzle (? zero), and unless I am supported by Longstreet heavily, I do not think we can do anything more.” When this report was made to Lee, for the first time some words of discouragement escaped from his lips. After a moment’s silence he said: “There is nothing left but to go to General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths!” His staff was around him. One of his officers made this observation: “What will history say of our surrendering if there is any possibility of escape? Posterity will not understand it.” “Yes, yes,” replied Lee, “they will not understand our situation; but that is not the question. The question is, whether it is right; and if it is right I take the responsibility.”

An expression of quiet confidence, of serenity almost joyful, had appeared in his face, instead of profound sadness: the thought of having to capitulate was to him bitterer than death. At the moment of quitting his tent, the acclamations of the soldiers were heard: There is Uncle Robert! Turning to one of his officers he said to him, in a tone at once firm and sweet: “How easily I could get rid of all this and be at rest! I have only to ride along the lines and all will be over!” Then, after a moment’s silence he added, with a deep sigh: “But it is our duty to live. What will become of the women and children of the South, if we are not here to protect them?”

At length the time had come when it would be decided whether retreat was still possible. To General Gordon, who had nobly distinguished himself in the later military operations, fell the command of the attacking column. The Confederate army consisted of only 8000 men, armed with rifles. Gordon’s 2000 men formed the van. The remains of various corps under Longstreet were in the rear. Between the two was placed all that was left of the army trains, together with several thousands of stragglers without arms, hardly able to drag themselves along, so much had cold and hunger played havoc with them. The cavalry, 2000 sabres, mounted on gaunt lean horses, were in no condition to render any service. Such was the army preparing to pierce the lines of Sheridan.

Marching beyond Appomattox Court House, Gordon briskly attacked the enemy, supported by Fitz-Lee’s cavalry and Colonel Carter’s artillery. The dash of his soldiers was such that he drove all the Federal troops before him over a space of about a mile and a half. But then he found in his front a compact mass of infantry, estimated, on the authority of the Federal officers themselves, at 80,000 men! Having behind him only 5000 bayonets, there was no possibility of advancing. Already the Federal mass was moving to rush on him, when the arrival of a flag of truce spared a carnage rendered useless. General Lee, appreciating the absolutely desperate condition in which he was, had despatched this flag of truce to Grant, asking him to treat. It was this incident which arrested the offensive movement of the Federals. Grant conceded the interview requested.

The two armies remained with their arms in their hands during the conference of their two commanders, which took place at a farmhouse near the Court House. General Lee was attended by Colonel Marshall, of his staff: several Federal officers accompanied General Grant. The latter was perfectly courteous. Lee remained impassive. The fatigues of the latter days had indeed left traces on his emaciated features. His form was erect; look, confident; behaviour, dignified and polite. He confined himself to treating of the affair for which they were assembled. Seated at a small deal table, the two generals drew up and exchanged the two following documents:

Appomattox Court House, Virginia,
April 9th, 1865.

GENERAL,

In accordance with my letter to you of the 8th inst., I propose to receive the surrender of the army of Northern Virginia 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 United States until properly exchanged; and each company or regimental commander to 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 officers appointed by me to receive them. 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 his home, not to be disturbed by United States authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
U. S. GRANT, Lieutenant-General.

Head-Quarters, Army of Northern Virginia,
April 9th, 1865.

GENERAL,

I have received your letter of this date, containing the terms of the surrender of the army of Northern Virginia, as proposed by you. As they are substantially the same as those expressed in your letter of the 8th inst, they are accepted. I will proceed to designate the proper officers to carry the stipulations into effect.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
R. E. LEE, General.

The interview ended the two generals parted. Lee, remounting his courser, returned to his headquarters. The emotion of the Confederates, on seeing their adored chief again, and learning what had passed, cannot be described. Breaking their ranks, they rushed to him, seeking to seize his hand, calling down on his head the blessings of the Most High, begging Heaven, with tears in their eyes, to sustain him in this latest trial. “God help you, General!” resounded on all sides. This spontaneous ovation touched him deeply. With eyes brimful through emotion, he cast on his men a look of inexpressible pride, and with a trembling voice said to them: “Men, we have fought through the war together. I have done the best I could for you. My heart is too full to say more!”

The victors were magnanimous. They abstained from every appearance of insult towards the vanquished. Abundant victuals were distributed to die prisoners, who were dying of hunger.

The day after the capitulation, Lee addressed to his heroic soldiers an order of the day, his final adieu to them:

Head-Quarters, Army of Northern Virginia,
April 10th, 1865.

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 this result from no distrust of them; but, feeling that valour and devotion could accomplish nothing that could compensate for the loss that would have attended the continuation 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 home’s, and remain there 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 kindness and generous consideration of myself, I bid you, soldiers, an affectionate farewell.

R. E. LEE, General.

On the 12th of April, the Confederate army of Virginia was fanned into divisions for the last time. Conducted to a place near Appomattox Court House, the soldier-prisoners had there to park their artillery, pile their rifles, lay down their accoutrements, and finally to part for ever from those flags they had so much loved. 7500 men lowered their arms, but nearly 18,000 stragglers without arms also took advantage of the capitulation. 2000 cavalry, under Fitzhugh Lee and Rosser had escaped before Sheridan’s troops had closed in all the ways. Some hours later, however, they likewise surrendered. General Grant had the delicacy to delegate one of his generals to receive the prisoners. He himself abstained from appearing at the ceremony.

The melancholy details of the capitulation over, General Lee, a simple prisoner on parole, like the meanest of his soldiers, prepared to return to Richmond. Tearing himself away from the passionate display of affection on the part of his soldiers, he departed towards the city. His veterans saw him for the last time on his faithful Traveller, who, without a scratch, had passed through all the dangers of this campaign. His escort was composed of a detachment of Federal cavalry, preceded by an ensign. Twenty-five Confederate officers accompanied him. Several waggons filled with baggage and personal effects followed, among other things the little open carriage of which Lee had made use over and over again during the war, when, through accident or sickness, he could not ride on horseback. It was generally in this he used to lay aside choice provisions for the wounded.

All along the road Lee appeared much more concerned about the sad state to which the unhappy inhabitants were reduced, than about his own personal situation. He was exceedingly affected at the delicate care with which these poor folk received him, preparing for him warm repasts, and evincing towards him all the tokens of loving respect. Notwithstanding hospitable offers made to him, he continued to sleep on the bare ground, wishing in nothing to be better treated than his companions on the road. Even at his brother’s house he passed the night in his little carriage. On approaching Richmond he went in front of his escort, followed only by a few officers, and crossed the James on pontoons, the ordinary bridge having been burnt when the Confederates evacuated the town. The appearance of Richmond was desolate. Much of the lower part of the city had been burnt on the 3rd of April, and all around nothing was seen but blackened ruins.

A few persons having recognised the general, the report of his arrival rapidly spread; immediately the inhabitants crowded round him, welcoming him with acclamations, waving their hats and handkerchiefs. Desirous to avoid all public manifestations, the illustrious prisoner, bowing to his numerous admirers, escaped from this impromptu ovation as soon as he could, and presently reached the house where his family waited for him. The Federal soldiers, grouped round the door, gave him a milita[r]y salute. It was with great difficulty he dismounted, such was the crowd, everybody wishing to shake his hand, hear his voice, or touch his person: some actually embraced the faithful Traveller that had borne him safe and sound through so many dangers. Hastening to cross the threshold of his house, which the impassioned admiration of his fellow-citizens had the good taste to respect, he kept there constantly within doors, going out only at night, in order to avoid demonstrations as melancholy as useless, and which besides might attract the anger of the Federal authorities towards the people of Richmond, who had already had a sad experience. Nevertheless, his door continued to be besieged by the curious, and by Confederate soldiers returning to their firesides, who had a wish to see their general once more.

Return to The Life and Campaigns of General Lee