General Robert E. Lee, The Christian Soldier, by Judith Brockenbrough McGuire, Chapter 17

General Robert E. Lee, The Christian Soldier


THE early spring of 1865 dawned on a declining cause, but still hopeful people; but the Confederacy was doomed. The greatest military genius in America, as General Scott most justly called General Lee, had led brave men who fought for home and country against overpowering numbers of veteran troops, and had led them to victory; but no human power could avert the calamities which now overshadowed the devoted South. Men who would never succumb to the missiles of war must now yield to grim want. Time wore on, and too soon came the end. The heart-rending surrender of Richmond on the 3d of April, and the final surrender on the 9th, are events too sad to dwell upon, but for the picture they present of a great Christian warrior mighty in defeat. Richmond had for months known herself to be in a state of siege. She knew that the serpent, wonderful for size and wiliness, was wrapping her in its coils, only waiting for the moment when he might strike his fangs into her heart, or crush her in its embrace. Yet was she calm, busily engaged as her men and women were in doing their duty to their country. They never for a moment allowed themselves to despair; they knew that they were in God’s hand, and that He was working by instruments, to which they were willing to trust themselves. They did not dream of failure.

The morning sun of the 2d of April arose brightly on a peaceful city; the church-bells which had not been cast into cannon, at eleven o’clock summoned the multitudes to their various places of worship. Friend passed friend on the street with the usual salutation of kindness, until the churches were filled with their congregations.

In the Episcopal churches, as usual on the first Sunday of the month, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was administered. The President was at St. Paul’s. The services were nearly over, when a messenger entered, and handed him a paper. It was General Lee’s dispatch announcing his determination to evacuate the city. The President’s agitation alarmed a portion of the congregation; in a few moments the blessing was pronounced, and all left the church,—many in alarm, all agitated by uncertainty. At St. James’s Church, Adjutant-General Cooper occupied his usual seat. As he was about to leave it to approach the Lord’s Table, a messenger walked quickly down the aisle, and extended his hand to give him a paper; but he was too much absorbed by the sacred rite to observe it. A gentleman sitting by received the dispatch, and held it until the venerable Christian returned to his seat, and then placed it in his hand. His cheek blanched as he read it, and he quietly left the church. All this passed as the communicants were passing to and fro in the aisles, and therefore it was observed but by a few persons, and they were too deeply anxious to communicate their feelings to others; but the moment soon came, when the congregation left the church and mingled with the thousands of anxious citizens who were moving in the streets. Horror and despair marked every countenance—some, agitated arid excited, expressed their feelings of woe, other went on in pallid silence. Some were rushing in pursuit of vehicles to carry them out of the city, they knew not whither; others, who were obliged to remain in the city, seemed to be calmly resigning themselves to the hands of God; the more sanguine men, still sending forth rays of hope, saying decidedly and confidently, “General Lee knows what he is about; he will remove the army farther south, where provisions are more abundant. The President will take the Government off, and re-establish it in some Southern town, and it will not be long before we are disenthralled. Nothing better could happen for the Confederacy, &c.” These were pleasant words, and we loved to hear them; but we listened to them with a strange, unrealizing feeling.

That night was passed, we scarcely know how; no one slept: the explosion of magazines, again and again, shook the houses and shivered the windows with a crashing sound. All was wild confusion. By daybreak it was discovered that the lower parts of the city were in flames; large commissary and quartermaster buildings were most unwisely fired, as well as some of the tobacco factories; and the flames spread from street to street,—in a few hours the principal business streets, the War Department, and other fine buildings presented a mass of blackened ruins. The armory was filled with bomb-shells, which exploded from time to time as the fire reached them, resembling heavy cannonading.

The Federal troops entered the city at an early hour. They treated the citizens with great courtesy, but the situation was humiliating in the extreme. But where was our great Chief from whom we still expected so much? His family remained in Richmond, but he was drawing off his army from Richmond and Petersburg under cover of darkness. A brave member of his staff dashed into the city at midnight, went to the house of a friend with whom his lady-love was refugeeing, claimed her promise to marry him if the city was evacuated; summoned a clergyman and a few friends, was married, placed his bride under his mother’s care, and was again with the army by break of day.

It is said that the soldiers were in fine spirits, hoping to go South and fight on. General Lee, too, was hopeful. “I have gotten my army safe out of the breastworks,” he was heard to say; “and in order to follow me, the enemy must abandon his lines, and can derive no farther benefit from the railroads and James River.”

General Lee designed taking his army into North Carolina, but the question of food, the very means of subsistence, was now the important one. The army had carried but one ration. Orders had been given for a supply to meet him at Amelia Court-House. By some fatal mistake, the cars laden with food from the South were sent on to Richmond without unloading at that point, and the provisions were lost in the general conflagration. The army had marched through mud and water, delayed by the risen streams which they must cross, buoyed by the hope that relief was near. What, then, must have been their bitter disappointment, when they reached the desired haven, to find that all hope was fallacious! How must the great heart of General Lee have quailed at the unlooked-for calamity! Starving men could neither march nor fight. It became necessary to send out foraging parties to gain a scanty subsistence from the impoverished country through which they passed. Next day his retreat was cut off while the troops were out hunting for bread. General Lee was then obliged to turn to the westward and retreat towards Lynchburg. The army of Northern Virginia marched on unmurmuringly, confident of the ability of their leader in any extremity.

The Federals under General Sheridan hung on the flank of the army. On the 6th a sharp fight ensued, in which the Confederates under General Ewell, though so overcome with fatigue as in many instances to fall asleep at their guns, held their ground for some time, keeping the enemy at bay by an overwhelming fire; but the enemy being largely reinforced, General Ewell found himself obliged to surrender, This blow was irreparable. General Ewell and nearly his whole corps, with several general officers, were now in the hands of the enemy. This occurrence took place while General Lee was confronting a body of Federals near Sailor’s Creek.

“The scene,” says one who witnessed it, “was one of gloomy picturesqueness and tragic interest. On a plateau raised above the forest from which they had emerged were the disorganized troops of Ewell and Anderson, unofficered, and uttering exclamations of rage and defiance. Rising above the weary groups which had thrown themselves upon the ground were the grim barrels of cannon in battery, ready to fire as soon as the enemy appeared. In front of all was placed the still line of battle, placed by General Lee, and waiting calmly. Lee had rushed his infantry over just at sunset, leading it in person, his face animated and his eye brilliant with the soldier’s spirit of fight, but his bearing unflurried as before. An artist desiring his picture ought to have seen the old cavalier at this moment, sweeping on upon his large iron-gray, whose mane and tail floated in the wind; carrying his field-glass half raised in his right hand, with head erect, gestures animated, and in the whole face and form the expression of the hunter close upon his game. The line once interposed, he rode in the twilight among the disordered groups above mentioned, and the sight of him aroused a tumult. Fierce cries resounded on all sides, and, with hands clinched violently and raised aloft, the men called on him to lead them against the enemy. ‘It’s General Lee! Uncle Robert! Where’s the man who won’t follow Uncle Robert?’ I heard on all sides; the swarthy faces, full of dirt and courage, lit up every instant by the glare of the burning wagons. Altogether, the scene was indescribable.”*

On the 7th, General Fitz-Lee gave an unexpected repulse to a cavalry force under General Sheridan. Again General Fitz-Lee met and captured a force of about six thousand. General Lee was very much gratified, and said to his son, General Wm. H. F. Lee:

“Keep your command together, and in good spirits, General. Don’t let them think of surrender. I will get you out of this.”

On the 8th and 9th hope seemed to die in the breast of every human being except the Commanding General. The resolution of the troops, in consequence of hunger and other hardships incident to retreat, seemed to waver. The men were almost without food, except a little corn; but those who were still able to carry their muskets, marched and fought with wonderfa1 cheerfulness.

General Lee’s spirits did not flag, and up to the last day he did not seriously contemplate surrender. The corps commanders first saw the necessity, and requested General Pendleton, his chief of artillery, to suggest to General Lee the hopelessness of a longer struggle. The communication came like a shock.

“Surrender!” he exclaimed, his eyes flashing. ”I have too many good fighting-men for that.”*

On the night of the 8th, the last council of war of the army of Northern Virginia was held. It met around a bivouac-fire in the woods. General Lee, Generals Gordon, Longstreet, and Fitz-Lee were present. Generals Gordon and Fitz-Lee half reclined upon an army blanket near the fire. Longstreet sat upon a log smoking, and General Lee stood by the fire, holding in his hand the correspondence which had just passed between Grant and himself. The question was course it was advisable to pursue, was put by General Lee in a calm voice. It was agreed that the army should advance on the next morning beyond Appomattox Court-House, and if only General Sheridan’s cavalry was in front to brush it from the path and proceed to Lynchburg. If, however, the Federal cavalry vas discovered in large force, then to dispatch a flag to General Grant, requesting an interview to arrange terms of capitulation. General Lee acquiesced in the plan with such deep heart-burning as none will ever know.

At three o’clock in the morning he awoke from his troubled sleep by the bivouac-fire, and sent Colonel Venable to know General Gordon’s opinion as to the probable result of another attack upon the army. The answer was most discouraging. He received it with great feeling, and said:

“There is nothing left but to go to General Grant; and I had rather die a thousand deaths.”

One of his staff officers said to him. “What will history say of our surrendering, if there is any chance of escape? Posterity will not understand it!”

General Lee immediately replied, “Yes, yes, they will understand our situation; but that is not the question. The question is, ‘What is right?’ If it is right, I take the responsibility!”

His expression now changed from hopefulness to deep melancholy, and turning to an officer near, he said, “How easily I could get rid of all this and be at rest! I have only to ride along the line and all would be over.” He was silent for a short time, and then 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?”

Further resistance seeming impossible, General Lee sent a flag to General Grant, requesting an interview, that the terms of surrender might, if possible, be arranged. This meeting took place at the house of Mr. Wilmer McLean, at Appomattox Court-House. General Lee vas accompanied by his aid, Colonel Marshall; General Grant by a few of his officers. He (General Grant;) behaved with great courtesy and delicacy. The demeanor of General Lee was as usual, that which marked the Christian gentleman, calm and courteous, 2nd he confined his remarks strictly to the bitter business before him.

The interview was brief. Seated at a plain deal table, the two commanders wrote and exchanged the necessary papers. They then bowed to each other, and leaving the house, General Lee mounted his gray war-horse and returned to his headquarters. As he passed through the army the men gathered around him, and with love and sorrow called upon God to help him. He was deeply afflicted; tears came to his eyes as he said in tremulous tones, “We have fought through the war together. I have done the best I could for you. My heart is too full to say more.” He then passed into his tent, where he was left by his considerate officers to commune with his own heart and with his God. His appearance on that day is thus described by a Federal officer:

General Lee looked very much jaded and worn, but nevertheless presented the same magnificent physique for which he has always been noted. He was neatly dressed in gray cloth, without embroidery or any insignia of rank, except three stars worn on the turned portion of his collar. His cheeks were very much bronzed by exposure, but still shone ruddy beneath it all. He is growing quite bald, and wears one of the side-locks of his hair thrown across the upper portion of his forehead, which is as white and fair as a woman’s. He stands fully six feet in height, and weighs something over two hundred pounds, without being burdened with a pound of superfluous flesh. During the interview he was retired and dignified to a degree bordering on taciturnity, but was free from all exhibition of temper or mortification. His demeanor was that of a thoroughly possessed gentleman who had a very disagreeable duty to perform, but was determined to get through it as well and as soon as possible.

On the day after the capitulation, General Lee issued the following farewell address to his old soldiers:

April 10, 1865.


VETERANS OF THE ARMY OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA: 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 valor 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 agreement, officers and men can return to their homes 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 army of Northern Virginia made their last sad march to Appomattox Court-House, and laid down the arms which they had never dishonored, and the flags which had floated over heroes as brave, and battle-fields as gloriously contested, as ancient or modern history can boast.

The victors were kind and considerate of the feelings of our vanquished heroes. Neither music nor cheers were heard, except distant music from those who were not aware of what was passing, and that was apologized for by one of the officers. But the heart of the South was broken; the sword of Robert Lee was sheathed forever.

The sadness of that thought called forth from our gifted Southern poet, “Father Ryan,” the following touching lines:

Forth from its scabbard, pure and bright,
   Flashed forth the sword of Lee!
For in the front of the deadly fight,
High o’er the brave, in the cause of right,
Its stainless sheen, like a beacon light,
   Led us to victory.

Out of its scabbard, where full long
   It slumbered peacefully—
Roused from its rest by the battle-song,
Shielding the feeble, smiting the strong,
Guarding the right, and avenging the wrong—
   Gleamed the sword of Lee!

Forth from the scabbard, high in air,
   Beneath Virginia’s sky;
And they who saw it gleaming there.
And knew who bore it, knelt to swear
That where that sword led they would dare
   To follow and to die.

Out of its scabbard! Never hand
   Waved sword from stain so free,
Nor purer sword led braver band,
Nor braver bled for a brighter land,
Nor brighter land had a cause as grand,
   Never cause a chief like Lee!

Forth from the scabbard! how we prayed
   That sword might victor be!
And when our triumph was delayed,
And many a heart grew sore afraid,
We still hoped on, while gleamed the blade
   Of noble Robert Lee!

Forth from its scabbard! all in vain!
   Forth flashed the sword of Lee!
’Tis shrouded now in its sheath again;
It sleeps the sleep of our noble slain,
Defeated, yet without a stain,
   Proudly and peacefully.

The painful arrangements being over, General Lee set out for Richmond, like his men, a paroled prisoner. The parting from the soldiers was most pathetic. He pressed the hand of each man who stood near enough; uttered a farewell which can be better imagined than described; mounted his noble “Traveller,” and slowly left the scene of his deep mortification. Accompanied by a party of about twenty-five horsemen, among whom was a detachment of Federal cavalry, he turned his face towards Richmond. Among the wagons carrying the private effects of the party was the well-known old black vehicle which he had occasionally used during the war when too unwell to travel on horseback. He had also been in the habit of carrying stores for the wounded, but had never used it for transporting articles for his own convenience.*

During the ride, the impoverished people watched for him, to welcome him with demonstrations of affection and admiration. They had provisions prepared for him, and were gratified to have him under their roofs, and to give anything, everything, for his comfort. He gratified them by most graciously accepting their kindness; but said to one of his officers, “These people are kind, too kind. Their hearts are as full as when we began our first campaign in 1861. They do too much, for they cannot now afford it.”

He seemed unwilling to give up his soldierly habits, for when d poor woman, at whose house he stopped, showed him a nice bed she had prepared for him, he courteously declined, and, spreading his blanket down, he slept on the floor. He was evidently unwilling to enjoy comforts which the gentlemen who accompanied him could not share.


* Cooke’s Life of General Lee.

* J. E. Cooke.

* J. E. Cooke.

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