Exaggerated Praise (April 12, 1865)

Major General George Gordon Meade (lLibrary of Congress).

Major General George Gordon Meade (lLibrary of Congress).

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the official surrender ceremony for the Army of Northern Virginia, with Brig. Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in charge of overseeing the event. After George Gordon Meade’s letter from April 12, I will include Chamberlain’s account of the surrender ceremony. Meade doesn’t write about that—he is fuming with indignation over the way Philip Sheridan is being lionized, while his own role in recent events is being ignored.

Your indignation at the exaggerated praise given to certain officers, and the ignoring of others, is quite natural. Still, I do not see how this evil is to be remedied, so long as our people and press are constituted as they are now. I have the consciousness that I have fully performed my duty, and have done my full share of the brilliant work just completed; but if the press is determined to ignore this, and the people are determined, after four years’ experience of press lying, to believe what the newspapers say, I don’t see there is anything for us but to submit and be resigned. Grant I do not consider so criminal; it is partly ignorance and partly selfishness which prevents his being aware of the effects of his acts. With Sheridan it is not so. His determination to absorb the credit of everything done is so manifest as to have attracted the attention of the whole army, and the truth will in time be made known. His conduct towards me has been beneath contempt, and will most assuredly react against him in the minds of all just and fair-minded persons.

Philip Sheridan (Library of Congress).

Philip Sheridan (Library of Congress).

Grant has left us on a visit to Richmond and Washington. My army is being assembled around this place, where I presume we will await events in North Carolina, and go to Danville, and farther South if it should be deemed necessary. The prevailing belief is that Johnston, on learning the destruction of Lee’s army, will either surrender or disband his. It is hardly probable he will attempt to face Sherman and us.

Meade’s correspondence taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 2, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), p. 271. Available via Google Books.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Library of Congress).

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Library of Congress).

Here is Chamberlain’s account. It is tinged in a glow of romanticism—I suspect the reality was perhaps a little less steeped with glory and reconciliation—but it is a classic account. This is from the end of Oliver Norton’s Attack and Defense of Little Round Top.

How or why it came about, I do not know, but on the evening of the 10th of April I was summoned to headquarters, and informed that I was to command the parade which was to receive the formal surrender of the arms and colors of the rebel army the next morning. This was an order, and to be received and obeyed without question. One request only I ventured to make of my corps commander. It was that, considering this occasion, I might resume command of my old brigade, the Third, from which I had been transferred in June, 1864, with which I had served up to that time since my entrance into the service. My request was granted, and on that evening I yielded the command of my gallant First brigade, and went back to my veterans.

General Grant was a magnanimous man, great-minded and large-minded. He would have nothing done for show and no vain ceremony. He granted to officers the high privilege of retaining their swords, and all men who owned their horses were made welcome to keep them, as they would need them to plow their land. The rebels had begged to be spared the pain of actually laying down their arms and colors in the presence of our troops, and to be permitted to stack them in front of their own camps and march off, and let us go and pick them up after they had gone. But this would be to err too far on the side of mildness. So it was insisted that, while the surrendering army should be spared all that could humiliate their manhood, yet the insignia of the rebellion and the tokens of the power and will to hurt, lifted against the country’s honor and life, must be laid down in due military form in presence of a designated portion of our army.

This latter office fell to our lot. It gave us, no doubt, a grateful satisfaction and permitted a modest pride, but it was not accepted as a token that we surpassed our comrades in merit of any kind.

We formed our line of battle on the southern margin of the principal street in Appomattox Court House. Massachusetts on the right — her Thirty-second regiment, with all that was left to us of her Ninth, Eighteenth, and Twenty-second; then Maine — her Twentieth regiment, with the delivered remnant of her Second and her First Sharpshooters; Michigan next — her Sixteenth, with interminglings of her First and Fourth. On the left Pennsylvania’— her One Hundred and Fifty-fifth holding also filaments which bound us with the Sixty-second, Eightythird, Ninety-first, and One Hundred and Eighteenth, an immortal band, which held in it the soul of the famous “Light Brigade,” and of the stern old First division, Porter’s, which was nucleus of the Fifth corps, men among them who had fired the first shot at Yorktown, and others that had fired the last at Appomattox, and who thus bore upon their banners all the battles of that army.

By the courtesy of General Bartlett the First brigade, which I had so long commanded, and the Second, which had been with me in this last campaign, were sent to me and held part in the parade, being formed on another line across the street and facing us. These were, with the exception of the One Hundred and Ninety-eighth Pennsylvania, composed of New York regiments,— the One Hundred and Eighty-fifth, One Hundred and Eighty-seventh, One Hundred and Eighty-eighth, and One Hundred and Eighty-ninth,— which in severe service had made themselves veterans worthy the fellowship of those sterling old New York regiments that had fulfilled their time and fame. Names and figures, all of these, dear to every heart that had shared their eventful and glorious history.

As we stood there in the morning mist, straining our eyes toward that camp about to break up for the last march, a feeling came over our hearts which led us to make some appropriate recognition of this great, last meeting.

We could not content ourselves with simply standing in line and witnessing this crowning scene. So instructions were sent to the several commanders that at the given signals, as the head of each division of the surrendering column approached their right, they should in succession bring their men to ” attention ” and arms to the ” carry,” then resuming the “ordered arms ” and the ” parade rest.” And now we see the little shelter tents on the opposite slope melting away and carefully folded, being things which were needed by men as men and not as tokens of rebellion. Soon the gray masses are in motion — once more toward us — as in the days that were gone. A thrilling sight. First, Gordon, with the “Stonewall Corps “; then their First corps,— Longstreet’s,— no less familiar to us and to fame; then Anderson, with his new Fourth corps; and lastly, A. P. Hill’s corps, commanded now by Heth, since Hill had fallen at one of the river fights a few days before. On they come with careless, swinging route step, the column thick with battle Hags, disproportionate to their depleted numbers. As they come opposite our right our bugle sounds the signal, repeated along our line. Each organization comes to “Attention,” and thereupon takes up successively the “Carry.” The gallant General Gordon, at the head of the marching column, outdoes us in courtesy. He was riding with downcast eyes and more than pensive look; but at this clatter of arms he raises his eyes, and instantly catching the significance, wheels his horse with that superb grace of which he is master, drops the point of his sword to his stirrup, gives a command, at which the great Confederate ensign following him is dipped, and his decimated brigades, as they reach our right, respond to the “Carry.” All the while on our part not a sound of trumpet or drum, not a cheer, nor word nor motion of man, but awful stillness, as if it were the passing of the dead. Now and then a gust of wind would spring up from the south with strange greeting; our starry ensigns stiffen and fly out as if to welcome back the returning brothers. The ensigns of rebellion seem to shrink back and strain away from the fated farewell.

So a division at a time covers our front. They halt, face inward, some ten paces from us; carefully “dress” their lines, each captain as careful of his alignment as if at a dress parade. Then they fix bayonets, stack arms, then wearily remove their cartridge boxes and hang them on the pile; lastly, reluctantly, painfully, they furl their battlestained flags and lay them down; some, unable to restrain themselves, rushing from the ranks, clinging to them, kneeling over them and kissing them with burning tears. And then the Flag of the Union floats alone upon the field.

Then, stripped of every sign of the rebellion and token of its hate and will to hurt, they march off to give their word of honor never to lift arms against the old flag again, and are free to go where they will in the broad Republic.

Thus division after division passes, and it takes the whole day long to complete this deliverance. Twenty-seven thousand men paroled, one hundred and forty cannon and near that number of battle flags surrendered, but only about seventeen thousand stand of small arms. For sometimes a whole brigade, or what was left of it, had scarcely a score of arms to surrender, having thrown them away by roadside and riverside in weariness of flight or hopelessness of heart, or disdaining to carry them longer, only to be taken from them in token of a lost cause. After this it remained only to gather up what was serviceable of this material of war and to destroy the rest. Nothing was left which could be turned to use against the Union armies. The cartridge-boxes were emptied on the ground for the most part, burned, and after the troops had withdrawn, at the first dusk of evening, it was a weird and almost sad sight to see the running flame with frequent bursts of lurid explosion along the lines where the surrendering army had stood; then only bits of leather writhing in the gray ashes.

All was over. With the dawn of morning the hillsides were alive with men, in groups or singly, on foot or horse, making their way as by the instinct of an ant, each with his own little burden, each for his own little harbor or home.

And we were left alone and lonesome! The familiar forms that had long so firmly held our eyes, until they almost demanded the sight of them for their daily satisfaction, had vanished like a dream. The very reason of our existence seemed to have been taken away. And when on the morrow we took up our march again, though homeward, something was lacking in the spring and spice which had enlivened us through even the dreariest times. To be sure, the war was not over yet, but we felt that the distinctive work of the old Third brigade was over. We were soon to be mustered out; but never to be again as if the Third brigade had not become a part of our lives; a part of our souls. There were “thoughts that ran before and after,” memories of things that cannot be told, and new purposes of manly living and hopes of useful service yet, in visions of a broader citizenship and the career of an enfranchised country.

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“The Army of Northern Virginia Has Surrendered!” (April 9, 1865)

Robert E. Lee surrendered in Wilmer McLean's parlor. Afterwards, souvenir-seeking Union soldiers nearly stripped McLean's house of furnishings. In an attempt to recoup his losses, McLean commissioned this fanciful print of the surrender. George Meade is one of the people who appear here, but were not present at the actual surrender. Click to enlarge (via Wikipedia).

Robert E. Lee surrendered in Wilmer McLean’s parlor at Appomattox Court House. Afterwards, souvenir-seeking Union soldiers nearly stripped McLean’s house of furnishings. In an attempt to recoup his losses, McLean commissioned this fanciful print of the event. Goerge Meade is one of the people who appear here, but were not present at the actual surrender. Click to enlarge (via Wikipedia).

One hundred and fifty years ago today, Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virgina. While this did not end the American Civil War, it certainly indicated that the end of was near. Lee’s army was the most prominent one of the Confederacy, and once it left the field, the others were sure to follow.

Here’s how I wrote about the surrender, which took place at Wilmer McLean’s home in the village of Appomattox Court House, in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg:

“Lee, immaculately attired in his clean dress uniform, arrived first and waited in McLean’s parlor with Charles Marshall. Grant rode up later, wearing a private’s coat with his insignia pinned on. After some small talk about the Mexican War (Lee somewhat passive-aggressively told Grant that, try as he might, he hadn’t been able to remember a single feature of his), the two men got down to business. With a number of Union officers watching, including Sheridan, Ord, Custer, Porter, and Seth Williams, Grant wrote out a letter offering generous terms of surrender: parole for the soldiers upon their promise not to raise arms against the U.S. government until properly exchanged, with the officers keeping their sidearms, horses, and baggage. Lee pointed out that many of the men owned their own horses as well, so Grant said he would tell his men to allow any soldier who claimed ownership of a horse or mule to keep it. ‘This will have the best possible effect upon the men,’ said Lee. ‘It will be very gratifying, and will do much toward conciliating our people.’

Wilmer McLean's house, as it appeared in 1865 (Library of Congress).

Wilmer McLean’s house, as it appeared in 1865 (Library of Congress).

The reconstructed McLean house, as it appears today.

The reconstructed McLean house, as it appears today.

Alfred Waud depicted Lee as he rode away from the surrender meeting (Library of Congress).

Alfred Waud depicted Lee as he rode away from the surrender meeting (Library of Congress).

“Col. Ely Parker of Grant’s staff, a full-blooded Seneca Indian, wrote out a clean copy of Grant’s letter, and Lee had a formal letter of acceptance drafted. Lee told Grant his men lacked rations; Grant said he would make arrangements to have some delivered. Sheridan provided the only note of discord when he stepped forward and asked Lee to give him back some letters he had sent that morning complaining of truce violations. Lee handed them over. Then Grant and Lee signed their letters of agreement. Lee requested that Grant send a messenger to Meade with word of the surrender.

“It was all over sometime around 4:00, and Lee bowed to the Union officers and left the house with Marshall. As Lee waited for his orderly to bring his horse, he stood on the steps and gazed sadly into the distance. ‘He thrice smote the palm of his left hand slowly with his right fist in an absent sort of way, seemed not to see the group of Union officers in the yard, who rose respectfully at his approach, and appeared unaware of everything about him,’ wrote Horace Porter. ‘All appreciated the sadness that overwhelmed him, and he had the personal sympathy of every one who beheld him at this supreme moment of trial. The approach of his horse seemed to recall him from his reverie, and he at once mounted. General Grant now stepped down from the porch, moving toward him, and saluted him by raising his hat. He was followed in this act of courtesy by all our officers present. Lee raised his hat respectfully, and rode off at a slow trot to break the sad news to the brave fellows whom he had so long commanded.’”

Here’s Theodore Lyman’s account of the events he witnessed on this momentous day.

We all were up, according to habit, about daylight, with horses saddled, having staid near Stute’s house for the night. In reply to a summons from Grant, Lee has sent in a note to say that he would meet Grant at ten a.m. to confer on measures for peace. The Lieutenant-General answered that he had no authority in the premises and refused the interview; but repeated his offer to accept the army’s surrender on parole. Indeed, we suspected his affairs were from bad to worse, for last night we could hear, just at sunset, the distant cannon of Sheridan. He, with his cavalry, had made a forced march on Appomattox Station, where he encountered the head of the Rebel column (consisting, apparently, for the most part of artillery), charged furiously on it, and took twenty cannon and 1000 prisoners; and checked its progress for that night, during which time the 24th and 5th Corps, by strenuous marching, came up and formed line of battle quite across the Lynchburg road, west of Appomattox C.H. Betimes this morning, the enemy, thinking that nothing but cavalry was in their front, advanced to cut their way through, and were met by the artillery and musketry of two corps in position—(Ah! there goes a band playing “Dixie” in mockery. It is a real carnival!) This seems to have struck them with despair. Their only road blocked in front, and Humphreys’s skirmishers dogging their footsteps! Well, we laid the General in his ambulance (he has been sick during the whole week, though now much better) and at 6.30 a.m. the whole Staff was off, at a round trot—(90 miles have I trotted and galloped after that Lee, and worn holes in my pantaloons, before I could get him to surrender!). An hour after, we came on the 6th Corps streaming into the main road from the upper one. A little ahead of this we halted to talk with General Wright. At 10.30 came, one after the other, two negroes, who said that some of our troops entered Lynchburg yesterday; and that Lee was now cut off near Appomattox Court House. This gave us new wings! An aide-de-camp galloped on, to urge Humphreys to press the pursuit, and all waggons were ordered out of the road, that the 6th Corps might close in immediately on his rear. Away went the General again, full tilt, along the road crowded by the infantry, every man of whom was footing it, as if a lottery prize lay just ahead! A bugler trotted ahead, blowing to call the attention of the troops, while General Webb followed, crying, “Give way to the right! Give way to the right!” Thus we ingeniously worked our way, amid much pleasantry. “Fish for sale!” roared one doughboy. “Yes,” joined in a pithy comrade, “and a tarnation big one, too!” The comments on the General were endless. “That’s Meade.” “Yes, that’s him.” “Is he sick?” “I expect he is; he looks kinder wild!” “Guess the old man hain’t had much sleep lately.” The heavy artillery firing we had earlier heard, now had suddenly ceased, and there was a perfect stillness—a suspicious circumstance that gave us new hope. Somewhat before noon we got to General Humphreys, some five miles east of the Court House and at the very head of his men. He reported that he had just struck the enemy’s skirmish line, and was preparing to drive them back. At that moment an officer rode up and said the enemy were out with a white flag. “They shan’t stop me!” retorted the fiery H.; “receive the message but push on the skirmishers!” Back came the officer speedily, with a note. General Lee stated that General Ord had agreed to a suspension of hostilities, and he should ask for the same on this end of the line. “Hey! what!” cried General Meade, in his harsh, suspicious voice, “I have no sort of authority to grant such suspension. General Lee has already refused the terms of General Grant. Advance your skirmishers, Humphreys, and bring up your troops. We will pitch into them at once!” But lo! here comes now General Forsyth, who had ridden through the Rebel army, from General Sheridan (under a flag), and who now urged a brief suspension. “Well,” said the General, “in order that you may get back to Sheridan, I will wait till two o’clock, and then, if I get no communication from General Lee, I shall attack!” So back went Forsyth, with a variety of notes and despatches. We waited, not without excitement, for the appointed hour. Meantime, negroes came in and said the Rebel pickets had thrown down their muskets and gone leisurely to their main body; also that the Rebels were “done gone give up.” Presently, the General pulled out his watch and said: “Two o’clock—no answer—go forward.” But they had not advanced far, before we saw a Rebel and a Union officer coming in. They bore an order from General Grant to halt the troops. Major Wingate, of General Lee’s Staff, was a military-looking man, dressed in a handsome grey suit with gold lace, and a gold star upon the collar. He was courageous, but plainly mortified to the heart. “We had done better to have burnt our whole train three days ago”; he said bitterly. “In trying to save a train, we have lost an army!” And there he struck the pith of the thing. And so we continued to wait till about five, during which time General Humphreys amused us with presents of Confederate notes, of which we found a barrel full (!) in the Rebel waggons. It was a strange spectacle, to see the officers laughing and giving each other $500 notes of a government that has been considered as firmly established by our English friends!

About five came Major Pease. Headed by General Webb, we gave three cheers, and three more for General Meade. Then he mounted and rode through the 2d and 6th Corps. Such a scene followed as I can never see again. The soldiers rushed, perfectly crazy, to the roadside, and there crowding in dense masses, shouted, screamed, yelled, threw up their hats and hopped madly up and down! The batteries were run out and began firing, the bands played, the flags waved. The noise of the cheering was such that my very ears rang. And there was General Meade galloping about and waving his cap with the best of them! Poor old Robert Lee! His punishment is too heavy—to hear those cheers, and to remember what he once was! My little share of this work is done. God willing, before many weeks, or even days, I shall be at home, to campaign no more.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 355-8. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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