Robert E. Lee, Knight of the South, by Isabel McLennan McMeekin, Chapter 26


“I Have Dane My Best for You”

THE past year had been a tragic one for the Confederacy. Grant had held the supreme command of the Union forces, directing operations in Virginia and hammering down the defenses of Richmond, and his strong right arm had a winning punch.

Every Southern port had been captured and closed and the Western operations, under Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan, had brought victory to the Union armies. This had resulted in Sherman’s march through Georgia, where he had cut railroad communications, destroyed property and left scarcely enough food for a crow to eat in the desolated countryside.

Lee faced the impossibility of attempting to hold Petersburg and Richmond any longer in the face of overwhelming odds and planned to lead his stricken men to North Carolina, to join the command under General Joe Johnston.

The South was cut off from the outside world by the blockade and the cost of everyday living was sky-high. Tea was thirty-five dollars a pound and a breakfast of ham and eggs cost one Johnnie Reb a month’s pay. Calico was thirty dollars a yard and lead pencils a dollar apiece. If a woman had to have a new dress, that meant spinning the cloth and weaving it before she could begin on the sewing. The girls, if they wished a spring bonnet, gathered wheat-straw which they plaited into strips to be stitched into shape. For pins and hairpins they used thorns, and for buttons, shells and nuts or little pieces of wood.

These makeshifts must have looked very queer, but the boys, when they got home on sick leave, didn’t seem to mind. All they noticed were the bright eyes and the tender smiles which greeted them and the fond tears which bade them good-bye again as they departed singing:

How can I bear to leave thee,
One parting kiss I give thee;
And then whate’er befalls me,
I go where honor calls me.

Farewell, farewell, my own true love,
Farewell, farewell, my own true love!

In these black days the Confederacy had need of every man, old or young, who could shoulder a rifle. Many another graybeard besides Lee took his place in the ranks, and the half-grown lads from the military schools were allowed to enlist. From Virginia Military Institute came one group so youthful in appearance that as they tell into step and joined the line a gathering of spectators began to sing Rockabye Baby.

The Southern general, Jubal Early, was moving toward Washington, hoping to pull some of the Union forces under Grant away from the lines which surrounded Petersburg and Richmond. But Sheridan met him in the Shenandoah Valley and laid waste the land as he conquered the remnants of the boys in gray, while Grant, with two men to Lee’s one, tightened the net around the Rebels.

As the spring of 1865 approached, a last desperate effort was made in Lee’s attempt to join Johnston, Sheridan broke Lee’s line at Five Forks. The Confederates were forced to withdraw from Petersburg and Richmond, and the Federal soldiers tramped in and stacked their arms in Capitol Square. Around them dense clouds of white smoke billowed from the burning tobacco warehouses.

While this was happening, Lee marched his men to Amelia Court House, where supplies of bread and meat were supposed to be ready for the half-starved soldiers. He found when he reached this spot that, through a mistake, the train bearing the food had been sent ahead to Richmond.

There was nothing to eat. Nothing at all but corn, which the men had to gnaw like hungry horses from the ear, or parch as best they could.

Eight thousand ghosts in gray—tired, discouraged, sad, gaunt-eyed and pitiful. Encircling them was Grant’s army of eighty thousand.

Lee stood in the midst of his men, his face a tragic mask. General Venable, a staff officer, approached him. “There is no further hope, sir,” he said. “The troops cannot fight their way out.”

Lee bowed his head. His answer was so low that the other man could hardly hear it, “Then,” he said, “there is nothing left me but to go and see General Grant—and I would rather die a thousand deaths!”

Venable looked at his great commander pityingly. There was nothing he could say to comfort him, But he knew in a moment that the Good Gray Knight’s heart was too big to need the sympathy which he, or anyone else, might have to offer. Lee’s head was raised now and his eyes were calm and unafraid as he said thoughtfully, “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. But,” he added quickly, “it is our duty to live, for what will become of the women and children of the South if we are not here to support and protect them?”

“General Lee,” one of the officers who was standing near by inquired, “what will history say of the surrender of the Army in the field?”

Lee thought for a moment before he replied, and then he answered that though history might say hard things, that was not the question to be considered. The question was whether or not it was the right thing to do.

The decision was up to Lee. He made it, according to his conscience, and assumed all the responsibility.

The surrender took place at Appomattox, on April 9, 1865. There the two generals, Grant and Lee, met face to face in the McLean House. A few officers were present and they have described the momentous occasion.

There was no air of the humble suppliant about Robert E. Lee, nor of the arrogant conqueror about Grant. Both men showed to great advantage. Lee was the taller of the two, the older and by far the handsomer, with his snow white hair and beard and his erect bearing. He was immaculately clad in a shabby but spotless gray uniform, highly polished boots and fresh gauntlets. At his side he wore his shining sword. Ulysses S. Grant made a less impressive figure, with his disheveled blue uniform and muddy boots.

Grant greeted Lee and remarked, “General Lee, I have no sword. I rode all night.”

This statement did not seem to Lee to need an answer, so he merely bowed his head in acknowledgment.

“I don’t always wear a sword,” Grant continued, and Lee bowed again.

After a pause, Lee said, “General, I am here to ascertain the terms on which you will accept the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia; but it is due to proper candor and frankness that I should say at once I am not willing to discuss, even, any terms incompatible with preserving the honor of my army, which I am determined to maintain at all hazards and to the last extremity.”

Grant replied, “I have no idea of proposing dishonorable terms, General, but I should like to know what terms you would consider satisfactory.”

Lee said he would be satisfied with the terms which Grant had sent him in a note preceding the interview and requested that these be written down.

Grant took a lead pencil from his pocket and set down his demands: that he be given a copy of the rolls of all officers and men, that the officers give their individual paroles not to take up arms against the Government, and that the company commanders give this same parole for their men. All arms and public property, he stated, were to be turned over to Federal officers appointed to receive them, but this was not to include the side arms of the officers nor their private horses nor baggage. After this, he wrote, all Confederate soldiers were to be allowed to return to their homes, where they would not be disturbed by the United States authority so long as they observed their parole.

Lee read the paper and accepted the terms, and it was turned over to one of Grant’s subordinates to be copied in ink.

While this was being done, one of the officers standing near by made an effort to fill the necessary wait with conversation, saying, “General Lee, what became of the horse that was such a favorite of yours in the Mexican War? It may not be dead yet; it was not so old.”

The man was speaking of Grace Darling, Lee knew. She had long ago been taken from his son’s home and put to use by the Union troops. He answered suavely, “I left her at the White House on the Pamunkey River, and I have not seen her since then.”

The paper was prepared now. It was quickly signed. Grant offered food for the starving army and the offer was accepted in the spirit in which it was made. Lee extended his gracious thanks and, bowing with old-fashioned elegance to the assemblage, left the house where the meeting had taken place. He mounted Traveler and rode back toward his own headquarters. Here he was greeted by the Rebel yell. It swelled and died away and silence followed—a silence which said more than words could ever say. Men pressed about Lee, touching his hand, his arm, his horse—by their touch conveying that sympathy which it was beyond their power to express.

Lee looked down at his beloved boys in gray and said simply, “We have fought through the war together. I have done my best for you. My heart is too full to say more.” His hand fell from the salute he had given them and rested on Traveler’s mane as he rode on—into an unknown future.

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