The Sunset of the Confederacy: Vii
THE historian of Gregg’s South Carolina brigade says of the formation of this last line of battle which the Army of Northern Virginia ever made: ‘The nature of the campaign of the past week was easily read in the countenances and gait of the troops. Their faces were haggard, their step slow and unsteady. Bare skeletons of the old organizations remained, and those tottered along at wide intervals.’
Two hundred moved up in the rear of Gregg’s brigade, and at once lay down; thereupon some one asked, ‘ Whose regiment is that?’ A soldier among them with a grim smile replied, ‘Kershaw’s division.’ Just think of it: two hundred and fifty, all that was left of that heroic division that turned the tide in the Wilderness, and whose volleys I can hear as I write these lines!
Meanwhile, Gibbon, Turner, and the Fifth Corps, led on by Griffin, are quickening their steps at every moment. Now they are all out in the open across the Lynchburg Road, coming on like a mighty wave ready to break at any moment on the disorganized, retreating Confederates. That garden of poppies, red roses, and cockscombs that marched up so gayly is broken into patches and carried back fast on the out-going tide of defeat.
It is now about nine o’clock, and many a village and country churchbell is ringing for morning service, their tones dying away over fields where lambs are frisking; but no smoke of battle rises, and no poor boys are breathing their last, their young blood staining the lea.
Gordon has been through four or five dreadful hours. But trying as they have been to him, what must they have been to Lee, who when we left him was waiting for dawn to come, and for Gordon to attack.
On account of the mist it is doubtful if, from his position beyond the river, he could see Grimes mounting the fields to the Bent Creek Road and thence on to the timber. The uppermost question now was: Has Grant been able to out-march me, and will they encounter infantry? Yes, General Lee, he has out-marched you, and I think the world will hold that he has out-generaled you, too, in this last campaign. Minutes, quarters of an hour, went by; the firing seemed to hang at one spot, and every one knows that when that is the case the advance is, momentarily at least, checked. Lee could stand the anxiety no longer, and sent the accomplished Venable of his staff to Gordon to ask him if he thought he could cut his way through. Gordon replied emphatically, ‘Tell General Lee that my command has been fought to a frazzle, and I fear I can do nothing unless I am heavily supported by Longstreet’s corps! ’
Venable galloped back with the discouraging response, and says that Lee exclaimed, ‘There is nothing left me but to go and see General Grant, and I had rather die a thousand deaths.’
Rather die a thousand deaths! Rather die a thousand deaths! Here we have about the first and only recorded spontaneous, right-out-of-the-heart, furnace-glowing utterance from that remarkably self-poised man; and, if true, it is a mighty interesting revelation. What was there in the occasion so painful as to wring this burst of feeling from his habitually-deliberate lips. It could not have been surprise. Had not these very circumstances, for the last year, cast their shadows before? Had he not within less than twenty-four hours told his old friend of West Point days, Pendleton, that from the beginning he had doubted the ultimate success of the South if the Confederacy were not recognized by the powerful foreign governments? And had he not replied that very morning to the same old friend’s good-natured remark on his spick-and-span uniform (Lee had always hitherto appeared in undress), that he might have to meet Grant before the day closed? Nelson on the day of Trafalgar put on all the medals, orders, and rich decorations he had won. César, as he felt the stabs of Brutus and Cassius, arranged his toga that he might fall gracefully. It does not seem that the pain he felt could have come from the suddenness of surprise. It must have had some other source.
Rather die a thousand deaths than to go and see Grant! Whence came the arrow, and what keenly sensitive point in this truly great nature had it pierced? Was a natural pride rebellious and mad at the thought that, after all those brilliant battles, — Gaines’s Mill, Manassas, Antietam, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, Spottsylvania, and Cold Harbor, — he should have to go and ask on what terms that valiant army might lay down its arms, as the armies of Buckner and Pemberton before him had done? If it were a dread of humiliation, had he a right to harbor such a thought? Had not Grant said to him in the note received the evening before: ‘Peace being my great desire, there is but one condition I would insist upon, namely, that the men and officers surrendered shall be disqualified from taking up arms against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged ’?
In view of the fact that his going would bring peace to the land, whence came the pang? Had he not said in his reply to Grant’s note quoted above that, ‘The restoration of peace should be the sole object of all’? Why should he prefer a thousand deaths, then, rather than go to see the man whom Fate had put at the head of an army which, through its multitude of men, had overcome the Army of Northern Virginia? Venable was an honorable man; but, in the light of the fact that it was an hour when greatness called for greatness, I wonder and I wonder if Lee ever made just that remark. If he did, it only tells me this, — that beneath all glamour and earthly glory lies the common clay of our natures.
Well, he at once sent for Longstreet, whose forces during the night had moved up till the trains at New Hope Church impeded their further progress, and were then throwing up a line of intrenchments, breast-high, with an abatis in front across the road, the left of the works resting on the headwaters of Devil’s Creek, flowing north into the James, the right on those of Wolf Creek that soon finds its way through dense, wild-turkey-haunted woods to the Appomattox.
Longstreet rode forward. In his Memoirs he says that Lee ‘was dressed in a suit of new uniform, sword and sash, a handsomely embroidered belt, boots, and a pair of gold spurs’; but adds that ‘the handsome apparel and brave bearing failed to conceal his profound depression.’ Lee, after gracefully saluting Longstreet, — this old hero still had his right arm in a sling from the almost fatal wound he received in the Wilderness, — told him that Gordon’s men had met with a formidable force through which he could not break, and sought his views as to what should be done. Longstreet, with his inflexible resolution, asked if the bloody sacrifice of his army could in any way help the cause in other quarters. Lee said he thought not. ‘Then,’ replied Longstreet, ‘your situation speaks for itself.’
They were standing near an almost burned-out fire; Lee called Mahone, and put the same question to him, and the brave little blue-eyed man, before answering, kicked some of the embers together, and then affirmed Longstreet’s judgment.
These interviews must have taken place not later than seven o’clock. Lee in his note of the night before had appointed 10 A.M. as the hour when he would like to meet Grant on the road beyond New Hope Church, and while waiting for the hour to come, and expecting every minute an answer from Grant, he had a talk with Alexander.
The latter says that soon after sunrise he came upon Lee and his staff. They were by the roadside, and Lee called to him, and after peeling off the bark took a seat on a felled oak. He then produced a field-map and said, ‘Well, we have come to the Junction, and they seem to be here ahead of us. What have we got to do to-day?’
A long and interesting interview followed that can be found in Alexander’s most admirable military memoirs, which, like those of Sikes and Sorrel, breathe sincerity.
Alexander was glad of the chance to talk with Lee for, ever since the afternoon before, when Pendleton told him, as they rode side by side, of his going to Lee with the self-appointed council’s suggestion, he had been mulling over the matter, and had thought out a plan of his own to save Lee and them all from the ignominy of surrender. I know just how he felt, for he was a man of deep feeling, and I shall never forget its manifestation during an interview I had with him in Richmond at the time of the undraping of Jefferson Davis’s monument. We were at the Jefferson Hotel, and that stately and capacious hostelry was thronged with ex-Confederates, all proudly dressed in their gray, and cheering to the echo every time the orchestra struck up one of their favorite Southern airs.
At Alexander’s suggestion we had withdrawn to an alcove under the stairway and were talking over West Point days; and he told me of a row he had had there with a classmate just before graduation, a row so bitter that neither spoke to the other on parting from the Academy. Now it so happened that this classmate was the senior aide to the Chief of Artillery of the Army of the Potomac, to whom, at Appomattox, the Confederate batteries under Alexander had to be turned over after the surrender. On first going to headquarters officially in regard to details, Alexander said that he made it a point not to notice his classmate, whose face wore a look of friendly greeting. The next day he had to go there again, and his classmate standing at his tent-door beckoned to him. Alexander, after a struggle with his West Point hate, turned his steps toward him, wondering what he wanted.
To his surprise, his old-time enemy drew a large roll of bills from his pocket, stripped off a goodly number, and held them out, saying, ‘Aleck, you are welcome to this; I have more than I want, and you may need it.'
‘Do you know, Morris,’ said Alexander, his soft voice trembling with emotion, ‘I declined the money although I had hardly a cent in the world.
I felt so badly and ugly over surrendering; but I see now that I did myself and him a great wrong.'
He paused. I glanced at his face, and his eyes were swimming with tears. My only excuse for allowing this episode to delay the narrative is that the reader may get some idea of the man who was talking with Lee, and what surrender meant to him and the Southern army.
Well, Alexander developed his plans warmly, and finally, with the desperation of youth, urged that the men should take to the woods, with the understanding that they were to rally on Johnston or report armed to the governors of their respective states. Lee listened quietly, and then replied to this obviously impracticable scheme that he had not over fifteen thousand muskets, and that even if all should report for duty their numbers would be too small to accomplish anything, and it would end in nothing but a destructive, malignant, guerrilla warfare. He then added, ‘General, you and I as Christian men have no right to consider only how this would affect us; we must consider its effect on the country as a whole; if I took your advice we would bring on a state of affairs it would take the country years to recover from. . . . I am going to meet Grant at 10 A.M. and surrender the army on the condition of not fighting again until exchanged, and take the consequences of my act.'
Now we have the Lee of Venable and Alexander, but it is only fair to the former to complete his account of what was said after Lee’s exclamation about dying a thousand deaths. ‘Convulsed with passionate grief,’ goes on Venable, ‘many were the wild words which we spoke, as we stood round him. Said one, “Oh, general, what will history say of the surrender of the army in the field.”
‘He replied, “Yes, I know they will say hard things of us.” (No, no, General Lee, you were mistaken: no one ever has said or will say hard things of you or your gallant army for surrendering in the field.) “They will not understand how we were overwhelmed with numbers.” (Yes, the world thoroughly understands that we had five men to your one.) “But that is not the question, colonel [Venable was a colonel], the question is: Is it right to surrender the army? If it is right, then I will take all the responsibility.”’
In these portraitures by Venable and Alexander, what living examples we have of how enthusiasm and love build up and festoon this world’s heroes. But I find no fault. Climb on, blooming glory, round the pureminded and dignified Lee! climb on, and ever climb on, around the modest, peace-bringing, and magnanimous Grant.
Lee finally mounted Traveller and, without notifying either Longstreet or Gordon, set off to meet Grant. His course was toward the rear, that is, along the road toward New Hope Church. He soon met a battalion of artillery withdrawing from its bivouac by the side of Rocky Run, and one of its officers says that it was about nine o’clock, and that Traveller was finely groomed, his bridle and bit polished until they shone like silver. Lee was accompanied by a courier and Colonels Marshall and Taylor of his staff.
Up the leaning ridge that faces the midday sun and pours its summer showers and melting snow down into the little murmuringrun, went Lee. The officers of the Eleventh North Carolina saw him, and from his unusual dress concluded that he was on his way to surrender, and that in that case the hour had come to carry out their resolution of two nights before, namely, to commit their colors to the flames; and soon, up among the fresh green leaves of spring went the smoke of their destruction. On went Lee and soon came to Longstreet’s line of intrenchments; and as he passed through them that loyal, intrepid corps gave him cheer upon cheer. Go ask the field of Manassas, Gettysburg, far-away Chickamauga, and the Wilderness, and they will tell you with pride where every one of its colors flew.
After clearing the rearguard, the orderly bearing the flag of truce was put in front and Lee proceeded slowly on his solemn journey; and I can imagine Traveller, with ears alert, looking down the red streak of road bordered on both sides by still woods. Great was the hour, and great was the man he bore, but who knows what was passing through his rider’s mind? Never had Traveller carried him on a mission like this. For the comfort of Lee I wish that, as he rode, the reality of the present had by some magic come and enveloped him, and then, instead of Sheridan’s and Gordon’s angry guns, he would have heard from Southland and Northland the mighty song of the triumphs of Peace.
Before long a staff officer from the front overtook them. Lee, after hearing what he had to say, asked him to go back and notify Longstreet and Gordon that he was on his way to see Grant, and rode on.
Meanwhile, Gordon had made repeated applications to Longstreet for the help which Longstreet could not give him; but as soon as Lee’s message was received, Longstreet sent it to Gordon by Captain Sims, who had been serving on his staff since the untimely death of his own commander, A. P. Hill, telling Sims to say to Gordon that, if he thought proper, he could ask Sheridan for a suspension of hostilities till they could hear the result of the conference between Lee and Grant.
Sims hurried toward Gordon, then threatened with immediate and complete overthrow. The battery at the Peet house was still firing rapidly, but the infantry and cavalry, save Munford and Rosser, who had escaped through a gap, had fallen back till their skirmish line, made up of the Fourth and Fourteenth North Carolina, lay within three hundred yards of the Court House. A stone marks the spot, and when last October I stood beside it, fog like a stranded cloud lay heavy and cold about the place, and the chilled crickets beneath the dun, matted grass at the foot of the stone were responding feebly to the silence of the fields.
In a small pasture not far from where Gordon stood at the edge of the village, a perfectly white cow was grazing peacefully, and beside her was a red one with a narrow white scarf across her left shoulder. The haggard apple trees close by them, the forlorn, blear-eyed, red-chimneyed old houses, — there are less than a dozen of them, — the hills and woods beyond the river, all loomed mysteriously in the mist. While I stood there gazing round, a puff of wind came by, and the mist began to steal away, and I thought that I was fortunate in seeing the field clothed as Gordon saw it that other early morning so long ago.
But to return to Gordon who, when Sims rode up to him, and by word of mouth gave him Longstreet’s message, was, as we all know, in a most trying position; for he expected complete disaster to break at any minute. He could see our infantry on the rising ground above him just ready like a shrieking hawk to swoop down upon him; batteries were going into position on every knoll, and he could see the flash of Sheridan’s sabres preparatory to a charge, and his down-hearted men drifting by him in shoals. What a contrast with that morning when, as captain of Georgia mountaineers wearing coon-skin caps, he marched through Atlanta at the breaking-out of the war and was asked: ‘What company is that, sir?’ Proudly he answered, ’This is the Mountain Rifles’; but one of his men, a tall mountaineer, exclaimed, ‘Mountain hell! We ain’t no Mountain Rifles, we’re the Raccoon Roughs.’
Yes, it was a contrast; gone was his smile at the answer; Atlanta lay in ashes; gone were the hopes of the crowd that had cheered him at the head of the Mountain Rifles; and now he was about to close the eyes of the dying Confederacy.
On receiving Longstreet’s message, all of his aides being away on duty, he begged Sims to go at once to Sheridan and ask him to suspend hostilities.
Off dashed Captain Sims toward Custer’s command, and as soon as he had passed Gary’s small Confederate brigade, for want of a flag of truce, or even a handkerchief to display, he tied a new white crash towel to the tip of his sword and proceeded on his way. A piece of that towel, and of the drawer of the table on which Lee signed the terms of surrender, Mrs. Custer has kindly given me, and they, with a piece of the flowing red flannel neck-tie which her husband wore that morning, hang framed on my wall.
It took only a few strides of Sims’s horse to bring him to a group of the Seventh Michigan Cavalry, near whom, dismounted, stood Colonel Whitaker of Custer’s staff. ’Where is your commanding officer, General Sheridan ?' asked Sims impetuously; ’I have a message for him.’ ’He is not here,’ replied Whitaker, ‘but Custer is, and you had better see him.’
They soon overtook Custer. ’Who are you and what do you wish: ’ he demanded, checking his horse, that was at a gallop. Sims replied, in tones as defiant as Custer’s, who he was, and the nature of his mission.
I can imagine Custer’s radiant face as the mighty news broke on him. He told Whitaker to go back with Sims, and gave another aide a message for Sheridan, which its bearer shouted exultingly as, with horse at full flight and hat in hand, he approached: ’Lee has surrendered; don’t charge; the white flag is up!’
Whitaker having reached Gordon with Sims, Gordon asked him to go with two other aides, Jones of Alabama and Brown of Georgia, carrying the same towel to our infantry, still on the move. Fast they galloped, and as they passed Wells’s brigade of cavalry in line of battle, Whitaker cried out, ‘Lower your carbines, men, lower your carbines; you will never have to raise them again in this war.’
Striking Chamberlain’s line, Whitaker cried out, ’This is unconditional surrender; this is the end! And then on.
One of his Confederate companions reined up, and drawing near Chamberlain, said, ‘I am just from Gordon and Longstreet, and Gordon says for God’s sake stop that infantry or hell will be to pay.’
Chamberlain had to tell him that he had no authority to stop the movement, that Sheridan was in command. ’Then I’ll go to him,’ said the officer; and off he went, and the humane Chamberlain ceased pushing his division.
Gordon, on Sims’s return, sent orders by Major Parker of Huger’s battalion to the battery at the Peet house to cease firing.
Let us pause a moment. The last shot has been fired (the section is under the command of Lieutenant Wright of Clutter’s battery); the gun is still smoking, and its fated projectile goes muttering madly over Whitaker and the bearers of the flag of truce, on toward our lines, who with bated breath and in joy of heavenly expectancy are awaiting the oncoming flags. Blind to everything but Fate’s deadly purpose, on past the heralds of peace, rushes that doomed projectile, on and plunges through the breast of Lieutenant Clark of the One Hundred and Eighty-fifth New York. Inscrutable Destiny, you and I have faced each other, and, as the blood spurted from that youthful heart, I hope that you were satisfied.
At about that very same moment, too, when not another life need have been sacrificed, a musket-ball sped from the Confederate lines past the flag-bearers and mortally wounded William Montgomery of the One Hundred and Fifty-fifth Pennsylvania. Fate’s victim in this case was less than sixteen years old, and out of his photograph, now before me, gazes a boy with a pure, sweet, hauntingly earnest face.
All firing ceased; but the men did not stop moving forward till they had gained a position from which they could overlook the Court House and the remnants of Gordon’s troops falling back in utter and hopeless confusion beyond the river. With this scene before them the ranks halted, guns were brought to an order, colors were planted, and all stood looking, wrapped in flooding joy. It meant the end of the war, and a gray-haired officer exclaimed, ‘Glory to God!’ and Chamberlain replied, ‘Yes, and on earth peace and good-will toward men.’
Hardly had Sims left him before Custer set out rapidly to see Gordon himself, and on approaching, with his usual assurance, demanded in the name of General Sheridan the unconditional surrender of all his troops. To this abrupt demand Gordon replied with unquestioned resolution that he would not pledge himself to any such terms, and that if Sheridan in the face of the flag of truce insisted on fighting, the responsibility for bloodshed would be on Sheridan and not on Gordon. Custer then asked to see Longstreet, and Major Hunter, a fine type of the Virginia gentleman, a member of Gordon’s staff, escorted him to the old hero.
On Longstreet Custer made the same peremptory demand for uncontional surrender. Longstreet told him that he was not in command of the Army of Northern Virginia and, annoyed by Custer’s brusque manner, — the old fellow naturally was in no humor that morning to stand impertinence, and especially that of a brassy, yellow-haired boy, — gave him to understand that he was entirely out of his place, and finally let fly some English that was quite vigorous. Custer was acute enough to see that his boyish game of bluff would not work, and I can fancy his laughing, contagious smile as he parted with the indignant old general, who assigned Major Wade Hampton Gibbs, one of Custer’s West Point friends, to show him out of his lines.
Meanwhile Sheridan, who was about three quarters of a mile from the Court House, saw a large group of officers about it, and supposing that Custer was among them, started at a gallop to join them. He had his headquarters flag behind him, and as soon as he drew near Gordon’s lines, was fired on. He halted, and taking off his hat called to them that they were violating the flag of truce; but the firing did not stop, and boiling mad, he took refuge in a ravine. Later he sent the sergeant back with his flag and an aide to the group, demanding what their conduct meant.
Gordon rode forward to meet him, and says that Sheridan was mounted on a very handsome horse — yes, we know about Rienzi. The interview was not very pleasant , for Sheridan did not have a gracious manner. But after explaining the situation and reaching a mutual understanding, they dismounted and sat together on the ground. The silence that had begun to reign was broken suddenly by a roll of musketry. Sheridan jumped to his feet, glaring fiercely at Gordon, and asked, ‘What does that mean, sir?' ‘It’s my fault,’ replied Gordon. ‘I have forgotten to notify that command.’
As none of his staff were available, Vanderbilt Allen, of Sheridan’s staff, one of my fellow West Point cadets, was sent, directing them to cease firing. And do you know that the officer to whom he bore Gordon’s message actually insisted on ‘Van’s’ surrender, and when he learned that the army was about to lay down its arms, took off his sword and slipped away, away from his colors and comrades, and from sharing the greatest event in the history of the Army of Northern Virginia, for it was its transfiguration.
Well, I will not cumber the narrative with all that happened in the next hour and a half at the Court House; let it suffice that Longstreet, Wilcox, and others joined Gordon, Ord, and Sheridan, and agreed to wait till Grant and Lee had met. But Longstreet could not rest easy till word of the situation was sent to Humphreys, who, he feared, would attack his lines at New Hope Church; and Sheridan sent his chief of staff, ‘Tony’ Forsythe, escorted by Colonel Fairfax of Longstreet’s staff, back through the Confederate lines with a message to Meade of the agreement they had reached.
‘Tony,’ for so everybody called him, was a tall, statuesque man of light complexion, very companionable, dignified, but with an undercurrent of natural gayety. I wish now that I had asked him all about this ride when, with boon companions, I sat till late hours in the City Club of Columbus, Ohio, with Governor Powell, John Taylor, Galloway, and Dennison, and heard him talk of Arizona jack-rabbits, as we sipped some fragrant old Scotch.
And now the troops about the Court House are resting on their arms; those of the Army of the Potomac, to their manhood and honor, showing no wild or barbaric elation, and the privates of Lee’s army, heavy at heart, speculating wistfully on what is to be their fate. One of their number has written that there was an indescribable sadness over them all, but that they, feeling their common misfortune, were very gentle in their words to each other, sharing liberally the little food that remained.
And now while West Point men, young and old, were meeting with the cloudless friendship of their cadet days, let us return to Lee.
Having gained a mile or so beyond Longstreet’s lines be halted and dismounted, and sent Colonel Taylor, accompanied by the courier, forward, who soon met my friend, Colonel Whittier of Humphreys’s staff, bearing a flag of truce. Whittier was an uncommonly fine-looking and prepossessing young fellow, with charming manners; and somewhere on the campaign from the Wilderness to Petersburg he shared my tent one night, and by its lone candle we talked long, and when he rode away in the morning he carried my heart with him.
The courier asked him if he had a letter for General Lee, and if so, offered to deliver it; but Whittier told him he must deliver it in person. They soon came up with Marshall, who led the way to Lee, standing a little off, beside the road. The letter read as follows: —
April 9, 1865.
GENERAL: Your note of yesterday is received. I have no authority to treat on the subject of peace. The meeting proposed for 10 A.M. to-day could lead to no good. I will state, however, that I am equally desirous for peace with yourself, and the whole North entertains the same feeling. The terms upon which peace can be had are well understood. By the South laying down their arms, they would hasten that most desirable event, save thousands of human lives, and hundreds of millions of property not yet destroyed. Seriously hoping that all our difficulties may be settled without the loss of another life, I subscribe myself, etc.,
U. S. GRANT, Lieutenant-General.
General R. E. LEE.
This communication must have brought great disappointment to Lee, for I am sure he had been confident, if Grant would only meet him, of securing terms for a general peace that would save him and the army from the pain of surrender, and the South from a dismal remembrance of unqualified defeat. But this straightforward, kindly note completely terminated any such hopes; humiliation was inevitable; and to give it emphasis, Whittier says that, while Lee was reading the letter, Sheridan’s angry guns from the direction of the Court House could be distinctly heard.
Apparently, Lee, without reading Grant’s letter a second time, began to dictate to Marshall the following reply: —
GENERAL: I received your note of this morning on the picket-line, whither I had come to meet you and ascertain what terms were embraced in your proposal of yesterday with reference to the surrender of this army. I now ask an interview, in accordance with the offer contained in your letter of yesterday, for that purpose.
R. E. LEE, General.
Lieutenant-General U. S. GRANT.<BR/> April 9, 1865.
While the above was being written, an aide from Longstreet, Colonel Haskell, with a message to Lee, dashed by like the wind, not discovering Lee till he had passed him; and, having but one arm, the colonel was unable to check his horse at once. But as soon as he got control he reversed her course and, on nearing Lee, threw himself to the ground. The mare’s large pink nostrils were flaring wide, and she was panting fast as, with lowered head, she walked by his side.
Lee hastened toward him exclaiming, ‘What is it? What is it ? Oh, why did you do it? You have ruined your beautiful mare!’
The history of that mad ride is as follows: —
After Lee had left Longstreet, Fitz Lee sent in word that he had found a gap for the escape of the army, and Longstreet felt that that news was so important that he told Haskell to overtake Lee and bring him back before he saw Grant, if he had to kill his mare. This favorite blooded animal had been led all the way from Petersburg and, for the first time, had been saddled that very morning, Haskell intending to call on her to fly with him, if necessary, from the impending surrender.
I am truly glad to tell you, Reader, that the beautiful, high-bred, and highspirited creature soon recovered. What, break down under a single heat and carrying a message on a field like that, with perhaps the blood of Sir Henry in her veins! And had he not worn the colors of the South against American Eclipse? No, no! She was sold the following day to one of our officers for a good round sum in gold, but I have no doubt that visions of Traveller and the fields of Virginia passed before her as in her Northern stall she dreamed of that heat.
Lee did not credit Fitz Lee’s report, and his judgment was soon confirmed by the arrival of another aide from Longstreet, saying that it was a mistake. He finished his letter and Marshall handed it to Whittier, with the request from the general that he would ask Humphreys not to push his lines. Humphreys forwarded the letter to Meade, and Meade, thinking time and some good might result from so doing, opened it, and then sent it on to Grant, suggesting that it might be well for him to see Lee, and that he had granted a short truce.
The bearer of this dispatch was Lieutenant Pease, an aide to Seth Williams, and many were the pleasant days I passed with him. He was above middle height and firmly built, had darkbrown, earnest eyes and reddish hair.
Meanwhile, Humphreys, not hearing from Meade, moved on, sending Whittier ahead to notify Marshall that he had had no orders to suspend hostilities. Marshall again pleaded that he would not persevere, for it meant a useless sacrifice of life, but Humphreys, with his line of battle deployed, would not listen to any delay and actually was sending word to Lee, who was in plain sight, to get out of the way, when fortunately Forsythe appeared, directly from Sheridan. Lee sent Taylor with Forsythe to Meade who, having heard his story, agreed to an armistice until Lee could go and see Grant. It was this detached duty that accounts for Taylor’s not being with Lee at the McLean house, for I have no doubt that he would have asked this loyal and seasoned aide to go with him.
Lee thereupon rode back to within about three quarters of a mile of the Court House, where he dismounted, and sat down at the foot of an apple tree by the roadside. Alexander, who was near by, with thoughtfulness for Lee’s comfort, had some fence-rails laid or piled under the tree and covered them with red artillery blankets for him to rest upon.
When Pease overtook Grant, his party were breathing their horses near an open field, and he and Rawlins were sitting on a log. Pease gave him Lee’s letter. Grant tore off the end of the envelope and drew forth the note. After reading it, without a change of expression, he passed it to the pale and worn Rawlins at his side, one of the best friends that any man like Grant ever had in the world, saying, ‘Here, General Rawlins.’
When Rawlins had read it, Grant asked, ‘Well, how do you think that will do?’
Rawlins replied emphatically, ‘I think that will do.’
Grant at once wrote to Lee as follows : —
April 9, 1865.
GENERAL R. E. LEE,<BR/> Commanding C. S. Army:
Your note of this date is but this moment (11:50 A.M.) received, in consequence of my having passed from the Richmond and Lynchburg Road to the Farmville and Lynchburg Road. I am at this writing about four miles west of Walker’s Church, and will push forward to the front for the purpose of meeting you. Notice sent to me on this road where you wish the interview to take place will meet me.
U. S. GRANT, Lieutenant-General.
Grant gave his dispatch to Babcock, directing him to take the shortest road he could find to reach Lee.
That was a famous duty Grant put on his young and loyal aide, and there was something mysteriously fitting in the choice. For a youth with a gentler face or with more of the natural bloom of charity and good-will in it, or with less deprecatory blue eyes, could not have been found in the army. Grant at once set off for the Court House.
Meanwhile, Lee, joined by Longstreet, had expressed to the latter his anxiety lest Grant, on account of his first proposition not having been accepted, might now insist on harsher terms. Longstreet tried to reassure him. He knew Grant well enough to say that his terms would not be harsher than Lee might demand under like circumstances. But Lee’s concern as to how Grant would deal with him, for some reason, was not laid. Whence came his distrust of Grant? Was it because camp gossip of old associates had drifted to Lee, in substance not unlike that which I heard myself from old army officers at Fort Monroe, after Donaldson and Shiloh, that Grant was a rather common and offensive fellow? Would not the fact that Grant had piled up his dead, and apparently without mercy, before the works of Spottsylvania and Cold Harbor, tend to confirm in Lee’s mind the gossip as to his character? Might not the heart of that common fellow be vindictive as well as cold? Oh, the refined and hidden qualities in the clay of those called common! and the scornful indifference that has been shown them! In the most sublime of the Psalms, the nineteenth, we read, ‘Keep back thy servant from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me.’
Or was Lee’s concern as to the terms because he had caught the eye of that member of the inner court which sits in judgment, day and night, on the deeds of men — the judge who had argued silently, with benevolence yet with warmth, on the Farmville hills, that, defeat being inevitable, he ought to accept his fate without the loss of another life, — a responsibility which Grant had raised in his first note and repeated in his last?
Lee’s heart was tender and, on more than one occasion in his loneliness (for no head of any army ever led a more isolated life), we know it had bled secretly over the sorrowful state of his men and of the Southern people; yet it was not of the kind to torment itself over steps irrevocably taken and approved by his judgment and sense of duty. No, as he sat there on the bank by the roadside waiting to hear where he should meet Grant and lay down his arms, that was not the source of his mind’s unrest. The trail to it will be struck, as I believe, in the answer to a question of less subtlety. Why, after the fall of Petersburg, Richmond, and the overwhelming disaster at Sailor’s Creek, should his hope of ultimate success have lived or even flickered for a moment? Why did not that epitome of the manliness of his day yield at Farmville? What carried him on from there against the pitchy darkness and steep desperation of the situation, on, resolutely, after the heads of divisions and corps had virtually told him that, in their opinions, the end had come; and above all, when he knew that his army had wasted away to a mere shadow and the few who remained were worn out with hunger and fatigue? What qualities in his being were at the helm, blind to facts and deaf to reason?
Bound as he was by a sense of duty to effect a junction with Johnston, yet to me, as he appears leading on that fragment of the old Army of Northern Virginia, from whose heart hope had fled, leading it on in the face of that utterly dismal and starless situation, there is something so fraught with doom in his conduct that a shadow of brooding awe falls over this page, and lo! Æschylus, soldier of Marathon and Salamis, takes his place in the silent, hollow-eyed, famishing column; and as on through the darkness following Lee, he murmurs the preludes of his immortal tragedies, the spirits of Agamemnon, Orestes, Prometheus, and the pursuing, unappeasable Erinnyes hover over him.
And now let us draw near to Lee and give him a steady, kindly, searching look, unmindful of the showering stars of yellow, red, and green that are falling about him from exploding bombs of eulogy. Nor as to an idol or a marvel let us draw near, but as to a fellow mortal, genuinely true to the real in every, and the best, sense of the word; one who, though famous, was not honeycombed with ambition or tainted with cunning or cant; and though a soldier and wearing a soldier’s laurels, yet never craved or sought honors except as they bloomed on deeds done for the glory of his lawfully constituted and acknowledged civil authority. In short, he was a soldier to whom the sense of duty was a gospel, and a man of the world whose only rule of life was, that life should be upright and stainless. I cannot but think that Providence meant, through him, to prolong the ideal of the gentleman in this world.
And now to those high moral standards, warmest family affections, imperial qualities and characteristics, add wealth, station, an imposing stature, a noble countenance, and abilities of the first order, and, as the background of those notable attributes, a glowing series of rare victories in the cause of the Confederacy, with its appealingly tragic life and death, and it can easily be seen why, through the natural impulses of our nature, Lee has become the embodiment of one of the world’s ideals, that of the soldier, the Christian, and the gentleman. And from the bottom of my heart I thank Heaven, since the commercial spirit of our time has grown into a sordid, moneygorged, godless, snoring monster, for the comfort of having a character like Lee’s to look at, standing in burnished glory above the smoke of Mammon’s altars.
But we are not seeking the sublimation of his mortalness; rather we would see the ingrained qualities of his nature which carried this modern Prometheus, these last two days of the Confederacy, on to the storm-battered crags of Scythia.
In a manner and mood becoming his native gentleness of character and unsullied life, and above all, the tender and appealing associations of the morning (it was Palm Sunday and the church-bells of the land were calling from steeple to steeple), let us look at him as a fellow mortal, look at him and find, if we can, the reason why, as he sits there by that Virginia roadside amid the wreck of the Army of Northern Virginia, nothing Longstreet does or may say as to Grant’s magnanimity of character assuages his troubled mind. With this end in view then, and in order that our survey may be direct, true and substantial, let us detach him from his surroundings and deal with his personality, that marvelous compound the secrets of whose making are in the breast of Nature herself, and which she in her wisdom turns over from the cradle into the unfeeling hands of Destiny to direct to its end.
So, note, if you will, the stately angle at which he holds his head, and the peremptory silencing gaze of those potent eyes, studded with the light of conscious personal worth and a distinguished ancestry, which, as those of all men of parts and such aloofness and dignity, are ever quietly on their guard. And do not fail to note, also, how quickly his winning openness of address shelves into an unfathomable ocean of reserve; the open gate, the blooming meadow, so to speak, closing like a floe in a polar sea. This cold simile is not overdrawn: he greeted his fellow men with charming dignified kindliness, but that was the end of it, and there is no one among the living or dead, outside of his own family, who has ever claimed to have been on close confidential relations with him.
Under the habitually unruffled composure of that ocean of reserve, and dominated, as I believe, by two master spirits, lies the authentic Lee. And what were those master spirits, which, blind to facts and deaf to reason, drove him on from Farmville? Were they creations of his own? No, not at all. Nature herself had planted them. And what were they? One, an all-pervading unconscious pride, a pride not sordid or arrogant, but lofty; the other, diffused through his whole being and pulsing in every vein, a burning, even fierce, enthusiasm. These, in my judgment, were the ingrained, controlling temperamental qualities in Robert E. Lee, which determined his fate. The former could not stand the humiliation of being overthrown completely in a cause he believed right, the latter converted him, at Danger’s first challenge, as was again and again displayed in the field, into a prompt and inveterate fighter. As for instance, at Antietam, although he had met and stood off McClellan, yet with such carnage that it was in effect a defeat, still for a day after the battle he held his ground among his dead, resolutely challenging his adversary to come on if he dared. So, too, he stood for a day at Gettysburg, after his frightful repulses, inviting Meade to attack; and when with his bleeding army he reached the flooded Potomac with every bridge swept away, undismayed he turned his back on the raging stream and, planting his colors, defiantly bade the Army of the Potomac to strike. Who can forget, either, how quickly he accepted Hooker’s gage of battle in the Wilderness, and how a year later (the violets were just in bloom again for the first time on the blood-stained ground of Gettysburg) he plunged at Grant. No eagle that ever flew, no tiger that ever sprang, had more natural courage; and I will guarantee that every field he was on, if you ask them about him, will speak of the unquailing battle-spirit of his mien. Be not deceived: Lee, notwithstanding his poise, was naturally the most belligerent man at the head of any army in the war.
(To be concluded.)