A Great Contempt for History (April 10, 1865)

Robert E. Lee, photographed in Richmond in April 1865 (Library of Congress).

Robert E. Lee, photographed in Richmond in April 1865 (Library of Congress).

Robert E. Lee has surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at a meeting with Grant in Wilmer McLean’s parlor at Appomattox Court House. George Meade, who had been with his army in the field, was not present at the meeting. On the next day, though, Meade comes face-to-face with Lee, with whom he had been tangling, in one way or another, since the Seven Days on the Peninsula in June and July 1862. (Grant, by comparison, had been fighting Lee only since May 1864). In this letter, Meade also mentions an encounter with Henry A. Wise, the former governor of Virginia and Meade’s brother-in-law (Wise had married a sister of Meade’s wife). Throughout the war, Meade had written to his wife with whatever news he was able to pick up about Wise and his family. There is a strong streak of bitterness in this letter, mainly over the way Meade has been shunted to the sidelines in the press accounts. The “certain individuals” he mentions are, no doubt, Sheridan and his followers.

Following Meade’s letter, Theodore Lyman includes a great deal more detail about Meade’s encounters with Lee and Wise.

The telegram will have announced to you the surrender of Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. This I consider virtually ends the war. I have been to-day in the rebel camp; saw Lee, Longstreet, and many others, among them Mr. Wise. They were all affable and cordial, and uniformly said that, if any conciliatory policy was extended to the South, peace would be at once made. Mr. Wise looked old and feeble, said he was very sick, and had not a mouthful to eat. I secured him the privilege of an ambulance to go home in, and on my return to camp immediately despatched George with an ambulance load of provisions to him. He enquired very affectionately after yourself, your mother and all the family.

The officers and men are to be paroled and allowed to go to their homes, where they all say they mean to stay. Lee’s army was reduced to a force of less than ten thousand effective armed men. We had at least fifty thousand around him, so that nothing but madness would have justified further resistance.

I have been quite sick, but I hope now, with a little rest and quiet, to get well again. I have had a malarious catarrh, which has given me a great deal of trouble. I have seen but few newspapers since this movement commenced, and I don’t want to see any more, for they are full of falsehood and of undue and exaggerated praise of certain individuals who take pains to be on the right side of the reporters. Don’t worry yourself about this; treat it with contempt. It cannot be remedied, and we should be resigned. I don’t believe the truth ever will be known, and I have a great contempt for History. Only let the war be finished, and I returned to you and the dear children, and I will be satisfied.

Our casualties have been quite insignificant in comparison with the results. I don’t believe in all the operations since we commenced on the 29th that we have lost as many men as we did on that unfortunate day, the 31st July, the day of the Petersburg mine.

Federal soldiers and some civilians pose for a photograph in front of the building that gave Appomattox Court House its name. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Federal soldiers and some civilians pose for a photograph in front of the building that gave Appomattox Court House its name. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Although this letter from Theodore Lyman is dated April 23, I think I will post it today because it describes the events of April 10, the day after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. William H.F. “Rooney” Lee, son of Robert, had been Lyman’s classmate at Harvard.

I think I must write you a letter, though it may get to you not much before the winter, to tell of the end of our campaign. Monday April 10 is a day worthy of description, because I saw the remains of our great opponent, the Army of Northern Virginia. The General proposed to ride through the Rebel lines to General Grant, who was at Appomattox Court House; and he took George and myself as aides; a great chance! for the rest were not allowed to go, no communication being permitted between the armies. At 10.30 we rode off, and, passing along the stage road, soon got to the picket line, where a row of our men were talking comfortably with an opposite row of theirs. There the General sent me ahead to see some general of theirs who might give us a guide through the lines. I rode a little beyond a wood, and came on several regiments, camped there. The arms were neatly stacked and the well-known battle-flags were planted by the arms. The men, looking tired and indifferent, were grouped here and there. I judged they had nothing to eat, for there was no cooking going on. A mounted officer was shown me as General Field, and to him I applied. He looked something like Captain Sleeper, but was extremely moody, though he at once said he would ride back himself to General Meade, by whom he was courteously received, which caused him to thaw out considerably. We rode about a mile and then turned off to General Lee’s Headquarters, which consisted in one fly with a camp-fire in front. I believe he had lost most of his baggage in some of the trains, though his establishment is at all times modest. He had ridden out, but, as we turned down the road again, we met him coming up, with three or four Staff officers. As he rode up General Meade took off his cap and said: “Good-morning, General.” Lee, however, did not recognize him, and, when he found who it was, said: “But what are you doing with all that grey in your beard?” To which Meade promptly replied: “You have to answer for most of it!” Lee is, as all agree, a stately-looking man; tall, erect and strongly built, with a full chest. His hair and closely trimmed beard, though thick, are now nearly white. He has a large and well-shaped head, with a brown, clear eye, of unusual depth. His face is sunburnt and rather florid. In manner he is exceedingly grave and dignified—this, I believe, he always has; but there was evidently added an extreme depression, which gave him the air of a man who kept up his pride to the last, but who was entirely overwhelmed. From his speech I judge he was inclined to wander in his thoughts. You would not have recognized a Confederate officer from his dress, which was a blue military overcoat, a high grey hat, and well-brushed riding boots.

As General Meade introduced his two aides, Lee put out his hand and saluted us with all the air of the oldest blood in the world. I did not think, when I left, in ’63, for Germantown, that I should ever shake the hand of Robert E. Lee, prisoner of war! He held a long conference with General Meade, while I stood over a fire, with his officers, in the rain. Colonel Marshall, one of his aides, was a very sensible and gentlemanly man, and seemed in good spirits. He told me that, at one time during the retreat, he got no sleep for seventy-two hours, the consequence of which was that his brain did not work at all, or worked all wrong. A quartermaster came up to him and asked by what route he should move his train: to which Marshall replied, in a lucid manner: “Tell the Captain that I should have sent that cane as a present to his baby; but I could not, because the baby turned out to be a girl instead of a boy!” We were talking there together, when there appeared a great oddity—an old man, with an angular, much-wrinkled face, and long, thick white hair, brushed a la Calhoun; a pair of silver spectacles and a high felt hat further set off the countenance, while the legs kept up their claim of eccentricity by encasing themselves in grey blankets, tied somewhat in a bandit fashion. The whole made up no less a person than Henry A. Wise, once Governor of the loyal state of Virginia, now Brigadier-General and prisoner of war. By his first wife he is Meade’s brother-in-law, and had been sent for to see him. I think he is punished already enough: old, sick, impoverished, a prisoner, with nothing to live for, not even his son, who was killed at Roanoke Island, he stood there in his old, wet, grey blanket, glad to accept at our hands a pittance of biscuit and coffee, to save him and his Staff from starvation! While they too talked, I asked General Lee after his son “Roonie,” who was about there somewhere. It was the “Last Ditch” indeed! He too is punished enough: living at this moment [April 23, when Lyman wrote this letter] at Richmond, on the food doled out to him by our government, he gets his ration just like the poorest negro in the place! We left Lee, and kept on through the sad remnants of an army that has its place in history. It would have looked a mighty host, if the ghosts of all its soldiers that now sleep between Gettysburg and Lynchburg could have stood there in the lines, beside the living.

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), pp. 270-1. Available via Google Books.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 359-62. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.