Four Years With General Lee, by Walter H. Taylor, Chapter 12

Four Years With General Lee

Evacuation of Petersburg.—General Lee’s Retreat up James River.—Appomattox.—Surrender.—General Lee goes to Richmond.

ON the first day of April General Grant directed a heavy movement against the Confederate right near Five Forks; this necessitated the concentration of every available man at that point to resist the Federal advance, and a consequent stretching out of our line, already so sadly attenuated that at some places it consisted of but one man to every seven yards—nothing more than a skirmish-line. It was without serious resistance, therefore, that on the 2d of April the Federals obtained possession of a portion of the lines between Hatcher’s Run and the city. Indeed, we had so few men to contest the matter with them that they were within our lines before it was reported to General Lee or General Hill. From the point occupied by these officers, detached squads of men were observed advancing toward us in the plateau beyond; it was impossible to say whether they were our men or the enemy; and it was for the purpose of solving this doubt and ascertaining the actual condition of affairs in that locality, that General A. P. Hill rode toward these detachments, by the fire from one of which he was shot dead from his horse.

Under cover of a heavy fire of artillery the Federal army now made a general advance. It was apparent that our position could be no longer maintained. General Lee communicated to the authorities at Richmond his intention of evacuating his lines that night, for which emergency they should have been prepared.

During the whole day he was engaged in issuing orders and sending dispatches by couriers and by telegraph, in preparation for this event. Early in the forenoon, while the telegraph-operator was working his instrument at headquarters, under the supervision of the staff-officer charged with the duty of transmitting these orders, a shell came crashing through the house, and the operator declared himself unable longer to work his instrument. He was ordered to detach it, and as the staff-officer and the operator emerged from the house, they with difficulty escaped capture at the hands of the Federal infantry, which just then advanced upon and drove away the battery of artillery which had been placed in position around the house to assist in delaying the advance of the enemy. The comfortable dwelling of Mr. Turnbull, occupied by General Lee as his headquarters, and thus hastily evacuated by the rear-guard of his military family, was soon enveloped in flames. It is to be hoped that the fire was accidental; by General Lee it was then thought and feared to have been by design. One of the many arguments always advanced by him why he should not occupy a house was, that, in event of its falling into the hands of the enemy, the very fact of its having been occupied by him might possibly cause its destruction; and, as before stated, it was only during the last year of the war, when his health was somewhat impaired, that one of his staff had the temerity, on the occasion of one of the general’s visits to Richmond, to turn in his tent to the quartermaster’s department, and move his effects into a house, which he was thus almost compelled to occupy.

After a gallant resistance our forces were retired to the second or inner line of defense around the city of Petersburg, and there maintained their ground till nightfall. By the dawn of day next morning the lines had been evacuated, and the gallant but sadly-reduced Army of Northern Virginia had made good way in its retreat westwardly toward Amelia Court-House. The intention was to take the direction of Danville, and turn to our advantage the good line for resistance offered by the Dan and Staunton Rivers. The activity of the Federal cavalry and the want of supplies compelled a different course, and the retreat was continued up the South Side Railroad toward Lynchburg.

Despite the great numerical superiority of the Federals and their immense resources, General Lee managed to check their pursuit from time to time, and to continue his retreat for seven days, until, on the morning of the 9th of April, our advance under General Gordon was confronted by the enemy in the neighborhood of Appomattox Court-House. The returns from the various commands made that morning showed an aggregate of eight thousand muskets in line of battle.

On the previous evening I became separated from General Lee in the execution of his orders in regard to the parking of our trains in places of safety, and did not rejoin him until the morning of the 9th. After making my report the general said to me,1 “Well, colonel, what are we to do?”

In reply, a fear was expressed that it would be necessary to abandon the trains, which had already occasioned us such great embarrassment; and the hope was indulged that, relieved of this burden, the army could make good its escape.

“Yes,” said the general, “perhaps we could; but I have had a conference with these gentlemen around me, and they agree that the time has come for capitulation.”

“Well, sir,” I said, “I can only speak for myself; to me any other fate is preferable—”

“Such is my individual way of thinking,” interrupted the general.

“But,” I immediately added, “of course, general, it is different with you. You have to think of these brave men and decide not only for yourself, but for them.”

“Yes,” he replied; “it would be useless and therefore cruel to provoke the further effusion of blood, and I have arranged to meet General Grant with a view to surrender, and wish you to accompany me.”

Shortly after this the general, accompanied by Colonel Marshall and myself, started back in the direction from which we had come, to meet General Grant as had been arranged.

We continued some distance without meeting any one after passing our lines; but finally came upon a staff-officer sent by General Grant’s order to say to General Lee that he had been prevented from meeting him at that point, and to request that he would meet him upon the other road. General Lee then retraced his steps, and, proceeding toward our front in the direction of Appomattox Court-House, dismounted at a convenient place to await General Grant’s communication. Very soon a Federal officer, accompanied by one of General Gordon’s staff, rode up to where General Lee was seated in a small orchard on the road-side. This proved to be General Forsythe, of General Sheridan’s staff, who was sent by General Sheridan to say that, as he had doubt as to his authority to recognize the informal truce which had been agreed upon between General Gordon and himself, he desired to communicate with General Meade on the subject, and wished permission to pass through our lines as the shortest route. I was assigned to the duty of escorting General Forsythe through our lines and back. This was scarcely accomplished, when General Babcock rode up and announced to General Lee that General Grant was prepared to meet him at the front.

I shrank from this interview, and while I could not then, and cannot now, justify my conduct, I availed myself of the excuse of having taken the two rides through the extent of our lines and to those of the enemy, already mentioned, and did not accompany my chief in this trying ordeal.

The scene witnessed upon the return of General Lee was one certain to impress itself indelibly upon the memory; it can be vividly recalled now, after the lapse of many years, but no description can do it justice. The men crowded around him, eager to shake him by the hand; eyes that had been so often illumined with the fire of patriotism and true courage, that had so often glared with defiance in the heat and fury of battle, and so often kindled with enthusiasm and pride in the hour of success, moistened now; cheeks bronzed by exposure in many campaigns, and withal begrimed with powder and dust, now blanched from deep emotion and suffered the silent tear; tongues that had so often carried dismay to the hearts of the enemy in that in describable cheer which accompanied “the charge,” or that had so often made the air to resound with the pæan of victory, refused utterance now; brave hearts failed that had never quailed in the presence of an enemy; but the firm and silent pressure of the hand told most eloquently of souls filled with admiration, love, and tender sympathy, for their beloved chief. He essayed to thank them, but too full a heart paralyzed his speech; he soon sought a short respite from these trying scenes and retired to his private quarters, that he might, in solitude and quiet, commune with his own brave heart and be still. Thus terminated the career of the Army of Northern Virginia—an army that was never vanquished; but that, in obedience to the orders of its trusted commander, who was himself yielding obedience to the dictates of a pure and lofty sense of duty to his men and those dependent on them, laid down its arms, and furled the standards never lowered in defeat.

The work of paroling the army was now proceeded with, and was completed on the 10th of April. On the same day General Meade called to pay his respects to General Lee. The latter reported to his staff, after the visit, that the conversation had naturally turned upon recent events, and that General Meade had asked him how many men he had at Petersburg at the time of General Grant’s final assault. He told him in reply that by the last returns he had thirty-three thousand muskets. (In his recital of the matter he appealed to me to know if his memory was correct, and was answered in the affirmative.) General Meade then said, “You mean that you had thirty-three thousand men in the lines immediately around Petersburg?” to which General Lee replied “No,” that he had but that number from his left on the Chickahominy River to his right at Dinwiddie Court-House. At this General Meade expressed great surprise, and stated that he then had with him, in the-one wing of the Federal army which he commanded, over fifty thousand men.

The number of men and officers paroled, including the stragglers who had caught up with the army, and all the extra-duty or detailed men of every description, was in round numbers between twenty-six and twenty-seven thousand.

On his way to Richmond General Lee stopped for the night near the residence of his brother, Mr. Carter Lee, of Powhatan County; and, although importuned by his brother to pass the night under his roof, the general persisted in pitching his tent by the side of the road, and going into camp as usual. This continued self-denial can only be explained upon the hypothesis that he desired to have his men know that he shared their privations to the very last.

On the 12th day of April he returned to the city of Richmond a paroled prisoner of war, but a monarch still in the hearts of his countrymen, and an object of admiration in the eyes of the civilized world.


1 General Lee frequently thus addressed those around him—not that he attached any importance to or expected any aid from what might be said in reply; but, in giving expression to that which occupied his own mind—thinking aloud, so to speak—he at the same time drew from others such information as they might possess, or such views as they might entertain.

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