The Story of Appomattox
By Charles Marshall
Note: Charles Marshall (1830–1902), a great-nephew of Chief Justice John Marshall, was born in Warrenton, Virginia, and attended the University of Virginia, graduating in 1849. From then until 1852 he taught mathematics at the University of Indiana, and after that he moved to Baltimore where he practiced law until the secession of Virginia. During the war Marshall served as aide-de-camp and military secretary to General Robert E. Lee. Marshall located the Appomattox home of Wilmer McLean for Lee and Grant to meet in, and drafted Lee's Farewell Order to the army. Marshall's book, An Aide-De-Camp of Lee, Being the Papers of Colonel Charles Marshall, Sometime Aid-de-Camp, Military Secretary, and Assistant Adjutant General on the Staff of Robert E. Lee, (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1927), is a standard source in Civil War history.
PRINTED BY THE SOCIETY.
THE STORY OF APPOMATTOX,
WHEN old soldiers and sailors meet for a talk about the war, it must be admitted that they sometimes forget the reverence due the divinity commonly spoken of as the Goddess of Truth.
For my part, I have heard events that occurred under my own eyes described in such a way that I failed to recognize them.
A distinguished Confederate officer who was dangerously wounded in one of the battles in Virginia, but not having lost consciousness remembered those who bore him from the field, told me that if all the men who had claimed that they assisted in that charitable work had been present in fact on the occasion and had taken part in the engagement the odds as to numbers would have been greatly in favor of the Confederate army. In fact, some of the war stories I have heard remind me of an anecdote General Lee once told me of General Zachary Taylor.
I was in General Lee's tent one day just before the battle of Chancellorsville, when an officer who had been with a scouting party came in with a report. The report was not a little affected by the excitement that usually begins to be felt when an engagement is impending, and did not in the least understate the number of the enemy that the scouting party had seen. General Lee listened very quietly and attentively to the narrative, which bore on its face evidence of its own want of probability, though the narrator may have believed it to be accurate. When the officer left the tent General Lee said in his grave way:
That report reminds me of something I heard General Taylor say, when I was with his army in Mexico, before I joined General Scott's, As we advanced into the interior of the country, there were rumours of the approach of General Santa Anna with an overwhelming force, and there was more or less excitement and anxiety on the subject. No considerable force of Mexicans had in fact been seen, and the alleged army of Santa Anna was left to the imagination, which always exaggerates the unknown and unseen. One day a cavalry officer came to General Taylor and reported that he had seen 20,000 Mexicans, with 250 pieces of artillery. General Taylor said to him: “Captain, do you say that you saw that force?” The captain asserted that he had seen it. Thereupon General Taylor remarked: “Captain, if you say you saw it, of course I must believe it, but I would not have believed it if I had seen it myself.”
This tendency to exaggerate and invent in describing events that excite great interest, and particularly such as appeal to the feelings and passions of men, makes itself felt long after the events have occurred, and impairs the value of history. We do not yet know with certainty the facts of the battle of Waterloo, and as to Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, although I witnessed both, I sometimes think, in view of the absolutely irreconcilable accounts we have of those two engagements, a Bishop Whately might readily create historic doubts as to whether either was in fact fought.
I am the more impressed with the want of accuracy in the accounts of military operations by my experience during the late war. It was my duty to prepare the reports of General Lee under his directions. To do this, as he required it to be done, I had first to read all the reports made by the different commanding officers, who always forwarded the reports of all their subordinates, down to company commanders. From all these I prepared a statement with great detail, of course using such information as I possessed from my personal knowledge and observation as a staff officer, and from orders and correspondence.
One of the most difficult things I had to do was to reconcile the many conflicting accounts of the same affair. Sometimes this was impossible, and when the matter was important enough to warrant it, I was required to visit the authors of the conflicting reports or they were brought together and required to reconcile or explain their respective narratives. After exhausting every means to attain entire accuracy, a more general report of the whole was prepared and submitted to General Lee, who made such corrections as he thought proper, and directed the omission of such things as he deemed unnecessary for a clear understanding of the subject, and the report thus verified and corrected was then written for his signature.
One who hap had this experience can appreciate the different ways in which the same thing presents itself to different minds, especially when the description is written long after the event, and in the midst of the distractions incident to active service. Yet it is from such sources as these that the details of military operations must be derived by the historian.
If I may be permitted to dwell a little on this subject, I desire to say that much of this confusion and contradiction of statement is due to the fact that the narrators of such things do not always confine themselves strictly to the statement as to what they did themselves, but are much disposed to include in their reports what they think was done or omitted to be done by others.
I remember a striking illustration of this which occurred during the battle of Fredericksburg.
Fighting on that occasion took place on the right and left of the Confederate Army, its centre not having been engaged at all. General Longstreet on the Confederate left had repulsed the repeated attacks made on the troops posted at the foot of Marye's Hill, and General Jackson had repulsed the assault made on our right near Hamilton's Crossing. The distance between the two scenes of combat was between three and four miles.
In the afternoon I was sent to the right with an order to General Jackson, and while looking for him I came across General D. H. Hill, who commanded a division in Jackson's corps. As soon as he saw me General Hill exclaimed “Well, it is just as usual. This corps does all the fighting. Those fellows on the left haven't fired a shot all day, except some little artillery firing.” I offered, with great respect, to bet the General a very large apple that “the fellows on the left” could show two dead in their front for every one that “the fellows on the right” could show. Nearly fifteen hundred Federal dead lay in front of Marye's Hill, and General Hill did not know that there had been any fighting there.
With the full knowledge of this tendency to error I now present to you as accurately as I can the facts of the surrender of General Lee at Appomattox, about which you have asked me to talk to you on this occasion when we are met to celebrate his birthday.
Had you not designated the subject of my remarks I might have chosen another for this occasion, but I confess that I know of no other event in his life which more strongly illustrates some of the great qualities that adorned his character. I shall present our great chieftain to you, as well as I can, as he appeared under adverse fortunes, and shall endeavor to show you how he bore himself.
1 shall begin my narrative with the opening of the correspondence between General Lee and General Grant.
After the disaster of Sailor's Creek, the army, reduced to two corps under the command of General Longstreet and General Gordan, moved through Farmville, where rations were issued to some of the starving troops. A close pursuit of the overwhelming army of General Grant made it necessary to remove the wagon trains before all the men could be supplied, and the remnant of the great Army of Northern Virginia, exhausted by fight and starvation, moved in the road to Appomattox Courthouse. On the afternoon of the 7th of April, 1865, General Grant sent to General Lee the first letter. It read:—
There was some difference of opinion among the general officers as to the nature of the reply to be made to General Grant's letter, some thinking that it was yet possible to save the remnant of the army. Finally, General Lee decided to send the following answer to General Grant's letter:—
The next day General Grant replied as follows:—
It will be observed that General Grant, in this letter, manifested that delicate consideration for his great adversary which marked all his subsequent conduct toward him. He offered to have the terms of the capitulation arranged by officers to be appointed for the purpose by himself and General Lee, thus sparing the latter the pain and mortification of conducting personally the arrangements for the surrender of his army.
I have no doubt that this proposition proceeded from the sincere desire of General Grant to do all in his power to spare the feelings of General Lee, but it is not unworthy of remark that when Lord Cornwallis opened his correspondence with General Washington, which ended in the surrender at Yorktown, his lordship proposed in his letter of October 17, 1781, “a cessation of hostilities for 24 hours, and that two officers may be appointed by each side to meet at Mr. Moore's house to settle terms for the surrender of the posts of York and Gloucester.”
In view of this letter, and of the fact that Cornwallis declined to attend the ceremony of the surrender of his army, deputing General O'Hara to represent him on that occasion, it is very plain that his lordship shrunk from sharing with his army the humiliation of surrender.
General Grant's letter offered General Lee an opportunity to avoid the trial to which the British commander felt himself unequal. But General Lee was made of different stuff. It is not without interest to recall what General Lee's father, Light Horse Harry Lee, says of the conduct of Cornwallis at Yorktown.
In “Lee's (Light Horse Harry's) Memoirs of the War,” the author, who was a witness of all that occurred, says:
Every eye was turned searching for the British Commander-in-Chief, anxious to look at that man, heretofore so much the object of their dread. All were disappointed. Cornwallis held himself back from the humiliating scene, obeying emotions which his great character ought to have stifled. He had been unfortunate; not from any false step or deficiency on his part, but from the infatuated policy of his superior and the united power of his enemy brought to bear upon him alone. There was nothing with which he could reproach himself; there was nothing with which he could reproach his brave and faithful army; why not, then, appear at its head in the day of its misfortune, as he had always done in the day of triumph? The British general in this instance deviated from his general line of conduct, dimming the splendour of his long and brilliant career.
Little did the father think when he wrote these words that he was marking the arduous path of duty along which his son was one day to be called upon to walk. That son was worthy of such a father and of such teaching.
As I said on another occasion: “Through the pain and humiliation of his position his great career about to close in defeat, and all that he had done about to be made unavailing, he saw the path of duty and he trod it with as firm a step and as brave a heart and as lofty a mien as if it had been the Way of Triumph.”
The march was continued during the 8th of April with little interruption from the enemy, and in the evening we halted near Appomattox Courthouse, General Lee intending to march by way of Campbell Courthouse, through Pittsylvania county, toward Danville, with a view of opening communication with the army of General Joseph E. Johnston, then retreating before General Sherman through North Carolina, General Lee's purpose was to unite with General Johnston to attack Sherman or call Johnston to his aid in resisting Grant, whichever might be found best. The exhausted troops were halted for rest on the evening of the 8th of April near Appomattox Courthouse, and the march was ordered to be resumed at 1 o'clock a.m. I can convey a good idea of the condition of affairs by telling my own experience.
When the army halted on the night of the 8th, General Lee and his staff turned out of the road into a dense wood to seek some rest. The General had a conference with some of the principal officers, at which it was determined to try to force our way the next morning with the troops of Gordon, supported by the cavalry under General Fitz Lee, the command of Longstreet bringing up the rear, with my comrades of the staff, and staff officers of General Longstreet and General Gordon, I sought a little much-needed repose.
We lay upon the ground near the road, with our saddles for pillows, our horses picketed near by, eating the bark of trees for want of better provender, our faces covered with the capes of our overcoats to keep out the night air. Soon after 1 o'clock I was aroused by the sound of a column of infantry marching along the road. We were so completely surrounded by the swarming forces of General Grant that at first when I awoke I thought the passing column might be Federal soldiers.
I raised my head and listened intently. My doubts were quickly dispelled, I recalled the order to resume the march at that early hour and knew that the troops I heard were moving forward to endeavour to force our way through the lines of the enemy at Appomattox Courthouse. I soon knew that the command that was passing consisted in part at least of Hood's old Texas brigade.
It was called the Texas Brigade, although it was at times composed in part of regiments from other States. Sometimes there was a Mississippi regiment, sometimes an Arkansas regiment and sometimes a Georgia regiment mingled with the Texans, but all the strangers called themselves Texans and all fought like Texans.
On this occasion I recognized these troops as they passed along the road in the dead of night by hearing one of them repeat the Texan version of a passage of Scripture with which I was familiar—I mean with the Texan version. You will readily recall the original text when I repeat the Texan rendition of it that fell upon my ear as I lay in the woods by the roadside that dark night. The version was as follows:
The race is not to them that's got
This simple confession of faith assured me that the immortal brigade of Hood's Texans was marching to battle in the darkness.
Soon after they passed we were all astir and our bivouac was at an end. We made our simple toilet, consisting mainly of putting on our caps and saddling our horses. We then proceeded to look for something to satisfy our now ravenous appetites.
Somebody had a little cornmeal, and somebody else had a tin can, such as is used to hold hot water for shaving. A fire was kindled, and each man in his turn, according to rank and seniority, made a can of cornmeal gruel and was allowed to keep the can until the gruel became cool enough to drink. General Lee, who reposed, as we had done, not far from us, did not, as far as I remember, have even such refreshments as I have described.
This was our last meal in the Confederacy. Our next was taken in the United States, and consisted mainly of a generous portion of that noble American animal whose strained relations with the great Chancellor of the German Empire made it necessary at last for the President of the United States to send an Ohio man to the Court of Berlin.
“Tantas componere lites.”
As soon as we had all had our turn at the shaving can we rode toward Appomattox Courthouse, when the sound of guns announced that Gordon had already begun the attempt to open the way.
He forced his way through the cavalry of the enemy only to encounter a force of infantry far superior to his own wearied and starving command. He informed General Lee that it was impossible to advance further, arid it became evident that the end was at hand.
General Lee had replied to the letter of General Grant of the 8th of April, which I have read, as follows:—
No reply to this letter had been received when early on the morning of April 9 General Lee arrived near Appomattox Courthouse, which was occupied by the enemy.
According to the proposal contained in his letter to General Grant of the 8th of April, General Lee, attended by myself, and with one orderly, proceeded down the old stage road to Richmond to meet General Grant, and while riding to the rear for this purpose he received the message of General Gordon that his andvance was impossible without reinforcements. We rode through the rear guard of the army, composed of the remnants of Longstreet's corps. They had thrown up substantial breastworks of logs across the roads leading to the rear, and cheered General Lee as he passed in the way they had cheered many a time before. Their confidence and enthusiasm were not one whit abated by defeat, hunger and danger. It was lucky for the Secretary of the Treasury that this rear guard was not permitted to try its hand at increasing the pension roll with which he is now struggling. Those men made no fraudulent pensioners. When they were done with a man, he or his representatives had an indisputable claim to a pension under any kind of a pension law. But soon as General Lee received the report of General Gordon as to the state of affairs in front, he directed that officer to ask for a suspension of hostilities and proceeded at once to meet General Grant.
General Lee, with an orderly in front bearing a flag of truce, had proceeded but a short distance after passing through our rear guard when we came upon the skirmish line of the enemy andvancing to the attack.
I went forward to meet a Federal officer who soon afterward made his appearance coming toward our party. This officer proved to be Lieutenant-Colonel Whittier of the staff of the late General Humphreys, whose division was immediately in our rear, and Colonel Whittier delivered to me General Grant's reply to the letter of General Lee of April 8, which I have read, declining to meet General Lee to discuss the terms of a general pacification on the ground that General Grant possessed no authority to deal with the subject.
I took this letter of General Grant back to General Lee, who was a short distance from the spot, where I met Colonel Whittier, and General Lee at once dictated the letter of April 9 to General Grant, which I wrote and gave to Colonel Whittier. That letter is as follows:—
When I placed this letter in the hands of Colonel Whittier I saw indications that the Federal troops in our immediate front were advancing, and I knew that in a few minutes they would meet the skirmishers of our rear guard. I knew that if such a meeting occurred, to use a common expression, “the fat would be in the fire,” so far as a suspension of hostilities was concerned,
I therefore told Colonel Whittier the purport of the letter I had given him, and expressed the hope that hostilities might be suspended until it could reach General Grant. Colonel Whittier left me, taking General Lee's letter to General Grant with him, and saying that he would answer my request for a suspension of hostilities as soon as he could submit it to his commanding officer.
He soon returned and told me that he had reported my request that hostilities be suspended pending the correspondence, but that he had been directed to say that an attack had been ordered, and that the officer in command of the force in our rear had no discretion. He added that General Grant had left General Meade some time before, and that General Lee's letter could not reach him in time to receive orders as to the intended attack.
1 expressed my regret and asked him to request the officer commanding the troops then moving to the attack to read General Lee's letter to General Grant, saying that perhaps that officer would feel authorized under the circumstances to suspend the movement and avoid the useless sacrifice of life.
I have said that as General Lee passed through his rear guard on his way to the place where the conference I have mentioned took place the men cheered him as of old. They were the flower of the old Army of Northern Virginia, and I felt quite sure that if the officer commanding the advancing Federal troops, should consider himself bound by his orders to refuse my request for a suspension of hostilities until General Lee's letter could reach General Grant the rear guard of the Army of Northern Virginia would secure all the time necessary.
Colonel Whittier again returned to the Federal lines and when he came back informed me that General Meade had read the letter of General Lee and had agreed to suspend operations for one hour.
General Lee then returned to the front and with General Longstreet proceeded to a small orchard on the foot of the hill on which the line of battle was formed, where he awaited the reply of General Grant. He sent a formal request for a suspension of hostilities into the Federal lines. As he was much fatigued, a rude couch was prepared under an apple tree, upon which he reclined until the approach of a flag of truce from the Federal line in our front was announced.
Soon afterwards Colonel Babcock of General Grant's staff was conducted to the presence of General Lee and delivered to him the following letter:—
Colonel Babcock told General Lee that he had been sent forward by General Grant with instructions to make any arrangements for the meeting that General Lee desired within the Federal or Confederate lines.
General Lee dirrected me to accompany him, with one orderly, and immediately mounting his horse rode with Colonel Babcock toward Appomattox Courthouse.
We passed through an infantry force in front of the village, and General Lee directed me to find a suitable place for the meeting. I rode forward and asked the first citizen I met to direct me to a house suitable for the purpose. I learned afterward that the citizen was Mr. McLean, who had lived on the battle-field of Bull Run, but had removed to Appomattox Courthouse to get out of the way of the war. Mr. McLean conducted me to an unoccupied and unfurnished house, in a very bad state of repair. I told him that it was not suitable, and he then offered his own house, to which he conducted me.
I found a room suitable for the purpose in view and sent back the orderly who had accompanied me to direct General Lee and Colonel Babcock to the house.
They came in presently and Colonel Babcock said that, as General Grant was approaching on the road in front of the house, it would only be necessary for him to leave an orderly to direct him to the place of meeting.
General Lee, Colonel Babcock and myself sat in the parlor for about half an hour, when a large party of mounted men arrived, and in a few minutes General Grant came into the room, accompanied by his staff and a number of Federal officers of rank, among whom was General Ord and General Sheridan.
General Grant greeted General Lee very civilly, and they engaged for a short time about their former acquaintance during the Mexican War.
Some other Federal officers took part in the conversation, which was terminated by General Lee saying to General Grant that he had come to discuss the terms of the surrender of his army, as indicated in his note of that morning, and he suggested to General Grant to reduce his proposition to writing.
General Grant assented and Colonel Parker of his staff moved a small table from the opposite side of the room and placed it by General Grant, who sat facing General Lee. When General Grant had written his letter in pencil he took it to General Lee, who remained seated.
General Lee read the letter and called General Grant's attention to the fact that he required the surrender of the horses of the cavalry as if they were public horses. He told General Grant that Confederate cavalrymen owned their horses, and that they would need them for planting a spring crop. General Grant at once accepted the suggestion and interlined the provision allowing the retention by the men of the horses that belonged to them.
The terms of the letter having been agreed to, General Grant directed Colonel Parker to make a copy of it in ink, and General Lee directed me to write his acceptance.
Colonel Parker took the light table upon which General Grant had been writing to the opposite corner of the room, and I accompanied him. There was an inkstand in the room, but the ink was so thick that it was of no use. I had a small boxwood inkstand which I always carried, and I gave it, with my pen, to Colonel Parker, who proceeded to copy General Grant's letter.
While he was so engaged I sat near the end of the sofa on which General Sheridan was sitting and we entered into conversation, In the midst of it General Grant, who sat nearly diagonally across the room and was talking with General Lee, turned to General Sheridan and said:
General Sheridan, General Lee tells me that he has some 1,200 of our people prisoners, who are sharing with his men, and that none of them have anything to eat. How many rations can you spare?
General Sheridan replied, “About 25,000.”
General Grant turned to General Lee and said, “General, will that be enough?”
General Lee replied. “More than enough.”
Thereupon General Grant said to General Sheridan, “Direct your commissary to send 25,000 rations to General Lee's commissary.”
General Sheridan at once sent an officer to give the necessary orders.
When Colonel Parker had concluded the copying of General Grant's letter I sat down at the same little table and wrote General Lee's answer.
I have yet in my possession the original draft of that answer. It began:
“I have the honour to acknowledge.” (General Lee struck out those words and made the answer read as it now appears. His reason was that the correspondence ought not to appear as if he and General Grant were not in immediate communication.) When General Grant had signed the copy of his letter made by Colonel Parker and General Lee had signed the answer, Colonel Parker handed to me General Grant's letter and I handed to him General Lee's reply and the work was done. Some further conversation of a general nature took place, in the course of which General Grant said to General Lee that he had come to the meeting as he was and without his sword, because he did not wish to detain General Lee until he could send back to his wagons, which were several miles away.
This was the only reference made by any one to the subject of dress on that occasion.
General Lee had prepared himself for the meeting with more than usual care, and was in full uniform, wearing a very handsome sword and sash. This was doubtless the reason of General Grant's reference to himself.
At last General Lee took leave of General Grant, saying that he would return to his headquarters and designate the officers who were to act on our side in arranging the details of the surrender. We mounted our horses, which the orderly was holding in the yard, and rode away, a number of Federal officers standing on the porch in front of the house looking at us.
When General Lee returned to his lines a large number of men gathered around him, to whom he announced what had taken place and the causes that had rendered the surrender necessary.
Great emotion was manifested by officers and men, but love and sympathy for their commander mastered every other feeling.
According to the report of the chief of ordnance less than 8,000 armed men surrendered exclusive of the cavalry. The others who were present were unarmed, having been unable to carry their arms from exhaustion and hunger. Many had fallen from the ranks during the arduous march, and unarmed men continued to arrive for several days after the surrender, swelling the number of paroled prisoners greatly beyond the actual effective force.
I have thus given you an exact narrative of the circumstances attending the surrender of General Lee's army, as far as they fell under my observation. I have endeavoured to give the facts as they occurred without comment and excluding everything not immediately connected with the great event, believing that it possesses sufficient interest in itself to render comment unnecessary, if not inappropriate.
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