I ‘M NOT A Civil War buff I ‘ve never heard the old battlefield., like Gettysburg and Chickamauga calling to me to walk over them and re-enact what happened there. The story is just too sad.
But one Civil War site did keep beckoning to me—not one where the armies fought but the one where they stopped fighting: Appomattox.
To see it I flew to Richmond and drove west across southern Virginia, choosing a route that would take me over terrain that Gen. Robert F. Lee covered with his Confederate army in its last week.
For nine months Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had been dug in near Petersburg, south of Richmond. On April 2, his railroad lifeline cut by the North, Lee retreated. But Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was in close pursuit, and by April 6 it was all over. Union troops routed almost a fifth of Lee’s army at Saylers Creek and took some 7000 prisoners. Hearing the news, Lee said, “My God! Has the army been dissolved?” It largely had. Hungry and exhausted, huge numbers of soldiers had dropped out, and the army was down to 30,000 men when Lee, hurrying west, received a note from Grant calling on him to surrender.
Outnumbered and almost encircled, Lee considered his dwindling options. One officer suggested that the troops could disperse and carry on as guerrillas. Lee refused; further fighting, he explained, would only inflict needless pain on regions of the South that had been spared the havoc of war. “There is nothing left me but to go and see General Grant,” he said, “and I would rather die a thousand deaths.” On April 9, Lee sent his aide, Lt. Col. Charles Marshall, into the nearby village of Appomattox Court House to find a suitable place for the two men to meet.
My SCHOOLBOY MEMORY was that Grant and Lee actually met in a court-house. They didn’t, as I learned on my visit; in 19th century southern Virginia, certain towns that served as the county seat had the words Court House appended to their name. But in fact when Colonel Marshall rode into town it was Palm Sunday and the courthouse was closed. Almost nothing was stirring. Only about 100 people—half of them slaves—lived in the village, and many white homeowners, hearing the rumble of armies, had left. One who remained, a merchant named Wilmer McLean, was persuaded by Colonel Marshall to allow his home to be used for the surrender.
Lee arrived first, wearing full-dress uniform, with a sash and a presentation sword. Grant, who had outraced his baggage wagon, was in his customary field uniform, with muddy trousers tucked into muddy boots. Seated in McLean’s parlor, the two men chatted amiably about their Army days in the Mexican War. Finally Lee brought up “the object of our present meeting.” Grant took out a pencil, rapidly wrote out the terms of surrender, and handed the paper to Lee.
“This will have a very happy effect on my army,” Lee said after reading the terms, which, far from hounding the enemy with reprisals, simply let them all go home. Lee mentioned that many of his men owned their horses and asked if those horses could be kept. Grant agreed. He said he assumed that most of the men were small farmers, and without their horses he doubted that they would be able to put in a crop to get through the next winter. “This will do much toward conciliating our people,” Lee replied. In parting, he told Grant that he would be returning some Union prisoners because he didn’t have any provisions for them—or, in fact, for his own men. Grant said he would send 25,000 rations to Lee’s army.
When word of the surrender reached the nearby Union headquarters it touched off a spree of cannon firing. Grant put an end to it. “The war is over—the rebels are our countrymen again,” he told his staff. He felt that he couldn’t exult in “the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly.” Catching the clemency of the moment, the Union troops decided not to wait for the official delivery of food to the defeated enemy. They went to the Confederate camps and emptied their haversacks of the beef, bacon, sugar and other delicacies that the rebels had long gone without.
On April 12, four years to the day after the attack on Fort Sumter which started the war, Lee’s Confederate troops marched into the village and stacked their arms. Here the final act of healing that runs through the whole Appomattox story took place, set in motion by another remarkable figure Joshua L. Chamberlain, the Union general designated to receive the surrender. A Bowdoin College professor who left to enlist in the army, Chamberlain won a battlefield commission for repeated acts of bravery and was wounded six times, once so severely that an army doctor gave him up for dead.
Now, with his soldiers standing at attention, General Chamberlain watched the first ragged Confederate soldiers coming up the road, led by Gen. John B. Gordon. “The momentous meaning of this occasion impressed me deeply,” Chamberlain later wrote. “I resolved to mark it by some token of recognition: which could be no other than a salute of arms. I was well aware of the criticisms that would follow. My main reason, however, was one for which I sought no authority nor asked forgive-ness. Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood: men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopeless-ness could bend from their resolve; standing there before us now, thin, worn and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond. Was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured?”
Responding to his command, “instantly our whole line, regiment by regiment, gives the soldier’s salutation, from the ‘order arms’ to the old ‘carry ‘—the marching salute. Cordon, at the head of the column, riding with heavy spirit and downcast face, catches the sound of shifting arms, looks up, and, taking the meaning, wheels superbly, making with himself and with his horse one uplifted figure, with pro-found salutation as he drops the point of his sword to the boot toe; then facing to his own command, gives word for his successive brigades to pass us with the same position ... honor answering honor. On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glorying, but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead!”
From early morning until late afternoon the saluting soldiers of the South marched past the saluting Union soldiers, stacked their rifles and tattered Confederate flags and started for home. Counting the Union troops, almost 100,000 men had been in Appomattox House. A few days later they were all gone.
“AFTER THE SURRENDER the village went right back into its cocoon,” I was told by Ron Wilson, historian of Appomattox Court House, which is now a National Park Service site, consisting of the reconstructed McLean house and courthouse and more than 20 smaller buildings. He and I were sitting on the porch of the restored Clover Hill Tavern, where printing presses ordered by Grant had printed 28,231 parole passes for the Confederate soldiers. We were looking across a vista of overwhelming stillness. The road that the surrendering rebels took into the village climbed across a countryside so recognizable from i9th-century paintings that I almost expected to see them coming down the road again.
Today the site gets roughly 110,000 tourists a year. “They come to Appomattox because they really want to—-it’s off the usual path,” said superintendent Jon B. Montgomery. “They’re looking for inspiration. The story we try to tell is not the final battle. It’s the reconciliation of the country and the generous terms offered by Grant. He didn’t try to play the conquering hero.”
That theme of forgiveness and reconciliation kept booming in my ears through the stillness at Appomattox. “Grant and Lee had to look far into the future,” said Wilson. “They knew that the energies that had been given to divisions for so many years would have to be devoted to rebuilding the country. There was no vindictive-ness.” Three people were strongly alive to me there. Two of them, Lee and Grant, continued to radiate powerful qualities that Americans still honor: one, symbolizing nobility and the aristocratic tradition of the old South, and the other symbolizing the self-made common man of the new North, Midwest and West.
The third person was the inescapable Lincoln. Appomattox was, finally, his show. I could almost see him standing over the little table in the McLean house where Grant sat scribbling his terms. I knew that Lincoln had often spoken of wanting a merciful peace, but I didn’t know whether he and Grant had found time to discuss it. Ron Wilson said they had met just two weeks earlier—on the River Queen, in the James River—and had talked at length about the rapidly approaching end of the war and the disarray it was bound to bring. “You just know,” Wilson told me, “that Lincoln said, ‘Let ‘em down easy.’”
Copyright @ 1992 by William K. Zinsser
Published by: HARPERCOLLINS Publishers, Inc.
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Church of the Science of God
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© Church of the Science of GOD, 1993