A LIFE OF GEN. ROBERT E. LEE.
BY JOHN ESTEN COOKE.
"Duty is the sublimest word in our language."
"Human virtue should be equal to human calamity." LEE. 1876
LEE'S LAST CAMPAIGNS AND LAST DAYS.
XVI. The Retreat and Surrender
On the morning of the 3d of April, General Lee, after allowing his column a brief period of rest, continued his march up the north bank of the Appomattox.
The aspect of affairs at this time was threatening, and there seemed little ground to hope that the small force would be able to make good its retreat to North Carolina. General Grant had a short and direct route to the Danville Railroad--a considerable portion of his army was already as far west as Dinwiddie Court-House--and it was obvious that he had only to use ordinary diligence to completely cut General Lee off in the vicinity of Burkesville Junction. A glance at the map will indicate the advantages possessed by the Federal commander. He could move over the chord, while Lee was compelled to follow the arc of the circle. Unless good fortune assisted Lee and ill fortune impeded his opponent, the event seemed certain; and it will be seen that these conditions were completely reversed.
Under the circumstances here stated, it appeared reasonable to expect in Lee and his army some depression of spirits. The fact was strikingly the reverse. The army was in excellent spirits, probably from the highly-agreeable contrast of the budding April woods with the squalid trenches, and the long-unfelt joy of an unfettered march through the fields of spring. General Lee shared this hopeful feeling in a very remarkable degree. His expression was animated and buoyant, his seat in the saddle erect and commanding, and he seemed to look forward to assured success in the critical movement which he had undertaken.
"I have got my army safe out of its breastworks," he said, on the morning of this day, "and, in order to follow me, the enemy must abandon his lines, and can derive no further benefit from his railroads or James River."
The design of the Confederate commander has been already stated, but an important condition upon which he depended for success has not been mentioned. This was a supply of food for his army. The troops, during the whole winter, had lived, from day to day, on quarter-rations, doled out to them with a sparing hand; and, in moving now from Petersburg, Lee saw that he must look to supplies somewhere upon his line of retreat. These he had directed to be brought from the south and deposited at Amelia Court-House; and the expectation of finding at that point full subsistence for his men, had doubtless a great effect in buoying up his spirits. An evil chance, however, reversed all the hopes based on this anticipation. From fault or misapprehension, the train loaded with supplies proceeded to Richmond without depositing the rations at Amelia Court-House; there was no time to obtain other subsistence, and when, after unforeseen delay, in consequence of high water in the Appomattox, Lee, at the head of his half-starved soldiers, reached Amelia Court-House, it was only to find that there was nothing there for the support of his army, and to realize that a successful retreat, under the circumstances, was wellnigh hopeless.
Those who accompanied the Southern army on this arduous march will recall the dismayed expression of the emaciated faces at this unlooked-for calamity; and no face wore a heavier shadow than that of General Lee. The failure of the supply of rations completely paralyzed him. He had intended, and was confident of his ability, to cut his way through the enemy; but an army cannot march and fight without food. It was now necessary to halt and send out foraging parties into the impoverished region around. Meanwhile General Grant, with his great force, was rapidly moving to bar his adversary's further advance; the want of a few thousand pounds of bread and meat had virtually terminated the war.
An anxious and haggard expression came to General Lee's face when he was informed of this great misfortune; and, at once abandoning his design of cutting his way through to North Carolina, he turned westward, and shaped his march toward Lynchburg. This movement began on the night of the 5th of April, and it would seem that General Grant had had it in his power to arrest it by an attack on Lee at Amelia Court-House.
General Sheridan was in the immediate vicinity, with a force of about eighteen thousand well-mounted cavalry, and, although it was not probable that this command could effect any thing against Lee's army of about the same number of infantry, it might still have delayed him by constructing breastworks in his way, and thus giving the Federal infantry time to come up and attack.
LEE AT THE SURRENDER.]
The opportunity of crushing his adversary at Amelia Court-House was thus allowed to pass, and General Grant now pressed forward his infantry, to bring Lee to bay, if possible, before he reached Lynchburg. From this moment began the struggle between the adversaries which was to continue, day and night, without intermission, for the next four days. The phenomenon was here presented of an army, reduced to less than twenty thousand men, holding at arm's-length an enemy numbering about one hundred and fifty thousand, and very nearly defeating every effort of the larger force to arrest their march. It would not interest the reader, probably, to follow in minute detail the circumstances of this melancholy retreat. From the importance of the transactions, and the natural attention directed to them, both North and South, they are doubtless familiar to all who will read these pages. We shall only speak of one or two incidents of the retreat, wherein General Lee appeared prominent personally, leaving to the imagination of the reader the remainder of the long and tragic struggle whose result decided the fate of the Confederacy.
General Grant doubtless saw now that every thing depended upon the celerity of his movements, and, sending in advance his large body of cavalry, he hastened forward as rapidly as possible with his infantry, bent on interposing, if possible, a heavy force in his adversary's front. Lee's movements were equally rapid. He seemed speedily to have regained his old calmness, after the trying disappointment at Amelia Court-House; and those who shared his counsels at this time can testify that the idea of surrender scarcely entered his mind for a moment--or, if it did so, was speedily banished. Under the pressure of circumstances so adverse that they seemed calculated to break down the most stubborn resolution. General Lee did not falter; and throughout the disheartening scenes of the retreat, from the moment when he left Amelia Court-House to the hour when his little column was drawing near Appomattox, still continued to believe that the situation was not desperate, and that he would be able to force his way through to Lynchburg.
On the evening of the 6th, when the army was near Farmville, a sudden attack was made by the Federal cavalry on the trains of the army moving on a parallel road; and the small force of infantry guarding them was broken and scattered. This occurrence took place while General Lee was confronting a body of Federal infantry near Sailor's Creek; and, taking a small brigade, he immediately repaired to the scene of danger. The spectacle which followed was a very striking and imposing one, and is thus described by one who witnessed it: "The scene was one of gloomy picturesqueness and tragic interest. On a plateau raised above the forest from which they had emerged, were the disorganized troops of Ewell and Anderson, gathered in groups, un-officered, and uttering tumultuous exclamations of rage and defiance. Rising above the weary groups which had thrown themselves upon the ground, were the grim barrels of cannon, in battery, ready to fire, as soon as the enemy appeared. In front of all was the still line of battle, just placed by Lee, and waiting calmly. General Lee had rushed his infantry over, just at sunset, leading it in person, his face animated, and his eye brilliant with the soldier's spirit of fight, but his bearing unflurried as before. An artist desiring to paint his picture, ought to have seen the old cavalier at this moment, sweeping on upon his large iron-gray, whose mane and tail floated in the wind; carrying his field-glass half-raised in his right hand; with head erect, gestures animated, and in the whole face and form the expression of the hunter close upon his game. The line once interposed, he rode in the twilight among the disordered groups above mentioned, and the sight of him aroused a tumult. Fierce cries resounded on all sides, and, with hands clinched violently and raised aloft, the men called on him to lead them against the enemy. 'It's General Lee!' 'Uncle Robert!' 'Where's the man who won't follow Uncle Robert?' I heard on all sides--the swarthy faces full of dirt and courage, lit up every instant by the glare of the burning wagons. Altogether, the scene was indescribable."
On the 7th the army pressed on beyond Farmville, still harassed as it advanced by the Federal infantry and cavalry; but, in some of these encounters, the pursuing force met with what was probably a very unexpected discomfiture. General Fitz Lee, bringing up the rear of the army with his force of about fifteen hundred cavalry on broken-down horses, succeeded not only in repulsing the attacks of the large and excellently-mounted force under General Sheridan, but achieved over them highly-honorable successes. One such incident took place on the 7th, when General Gregg attacked with about six thousand horse, but was met, defeated, and captured by General Fitz Lee, to the great satisfaction of General Lee, who said to his son, General W.H.F. Lee:
"Keep your command together and in good spirits, general--don't let them think of surrender--I will get you out of this."
On the 8th and 9th, however, this hope seemed unwarranted by the circumstances, and the commander-in-chief appeared to be almost the only human being who remained sanguine of the result. The hardships of the retreat, arising chiefly from want of food, began to seriously impair the resolution of the troops, and the scenes through which they advanced were not calculated to raise their spirits. "These scenes," declares one who witnessed them, "were of a nature which can be apprehended only by men who are thoroughly familiar with the harrowing details of war. Behind and on either flank, a ubiquitous and increasingly adventurous enemy--every mud-hole and every rise in the road choked with blazing wagons--the air filled with the deafening reports of ammunition exploding, and shells bursting when touched by the flames, dense columns of smoke ascending to heaven from the burning and exploding vehicles, exhausted men, worn-out mules and horses, lying down side by side--gaunt Famine glaring hopelessly from sunken, lack-lustre eyes--dead mules, dead horses, dead men everywhere--death many times welcomed as God's messenger in disguise--who can wonder if many hearts, tried in the fiery furnace of four unparalleled years, and never hitherto found wanting, should have quailed in presence of starvation, fatigue, sleeplessness, misery, unintermitted for five or six days, and culminating in hopelessness?" It cannot, however, be said with truth, that any considerable portion of the Southern forces were greatly demoralized, to use the military phrase, as the fighting of the last two days, when the suffering of the retreat culminated, will show. The men were almost entirely without food, and were glad to find a little corn to eat; but those who were not physically unable longer to carry their
muskets--and the number of these latter was large--still marched and fought with soldierly cheerfulness and resolution.
General Lee's spirits do not seem at any time to have flagged, and up to a late period of the retreat he had not seriously contemplated surrender. The necessity for this painful course came home to his corps commanders first, and they requested General Pendleton, the efficient chief of artillery of the army, to inform General Lee that in their opinion further struggle was hopeless. General Pendleton informed General Lee of this opinion of his officers, and it seemed to communicate something like a shock to him.
"Surrender!" he exclaimed with a flash of the eye, "I have too many good fighting-men for that!"
Nevertheless, the necessity of seriously contemplating this result was soon forced upon him. Since the morning of the 7th, a correspondence had taken place between himself and General Grant; and, as these notes are interesting, we here present those which were exchanged up to the night of the 8th:
_April_ 7, 1865.
_General R.E. Lee, commanding C.S.A._:
GENERAL: The result of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia in this struggle. I feel that it is so, and regard it as my duty to shift from myself the responsibility of any further effusion of blood, by asking of you the surrender of that portion of the Confederate Southern Army known as the Army of Northern Virginia.
Your obedient servant,
_Lieutenant-General commanding Armies of the United States_.
_April_ 7, 1865.
GENERAL: I have received your note of this day. Though not entirely of the opinion you express of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia, I reciprocate your desire to avoid useless effusion of blood, and therefore, before considering your proposition, ask the terms you will offer on condition of its surrender.
R.E. LEE, _General_.
To LIEUTENANT-GENERAL U.S. GRANT,
_Commanding Armies of the United States_.
_April_ 8, 1865.
_To General R.E. Lee, commanding C.S.A_.:
GENERAL: Your note of last evening, in reply to mine of the same date, asking the conditions on which I will accept the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia is just received.
In reply, I would say, that peace being my first desire, there is but one condition that I insist upon, viz.:
That the men surrendered shall be disqualified for taking up arms again against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged.
I will meet you, or designate officers to meet any officers you may name for the same purpose, at any point agreeable to you, for the purpose of arranging definitely the terms upon which the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia will he received.
Your obedient servant,
U.S. GRANT, _Lieutenant-General, commanding Armies of the United States_.
_April_ 8, 1865.
GENERAL: I received, at a late hour, your note of to-day, in answer to mine of yesterday.
I did not intend to propose the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, but to ask the terms of your proposition. To be frank, I do not think the emergency has arisen to call for the surrender.
But as the restoration of peace should be the sole object of all, I desire to know whether your proposals would tend to that end.
I cannot, therefore, meet you with a view to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia; but so far as your proposition may affect the
Confederate States forces under my command and tend to the restoration of peace, I should be pleased to meet you at 10 A.M. to-morrow, on the old stage-road to Richmond, between the picket-lines of the two armies. Very respectfully,
Your obedient servant,
R.E. LEE, _General C.S.A._
To LIEUTENANT-GENERAL GRANT,
_Commanding Armies of the United States_.
[Illustration: Last Council of War.]
No reply was received to this last communication from General Lee, on the evening of the 8th, and that night there was held, around a bivouac-fire in the woods, the last council of war of the Army of Northern Virginia. The scene was a very picturesque one. The red glare from the bivouac-fire lit up the group, and brought out the details of each figure. None were present but General Lee and Generals
Gordon, and Fitz Lee, all corps commanders. Generals Gordon and Fitz Lee half reclined upon an army-blanket near the fire; Longstreet sat upon a log, smoking; and General Lee stood by the fire, holding in his hand the correspondence which had passed between himself and General Grant. The question what course it was advisable to pursue, was then presented, in a few calm words, by General Lee to his corps commanders, and an informal conversation ensued. It was finally agreed that the army should advance, on the next morning, beyond Appomattox Court-House, and, if only General Sheridan's cavalry were found in front, brush that force from its path, and proceed on its way to Lynchburg. If, however, the Federal infantry was discovered in large force beyond the Court-House, the attempt to break through was to be abandoned, and a flag dispatched to General Grant requested an interview for the arrangement of the terms of a capitulation of the Southern army.
With a heavy heart, General Lee acquiesced in this plan of proceeding, and soon afterward the council of war terminated--the corps commanders saluting the commander-in-chief, who returned their bows with grave courtesy, and separating to return to their own bivouacs.
In spite, however, of the discouraging and almost desperate condition of affairs, General Lee seems still to have clung to the hope that he might be able to cut his way through the force in his front. He woke from brief slumber beside his bivouac-fire at about three o'clock in the morning, and calling an officer of his staff, Colonel Venable, sent him to
General Gordon, commanding the front, to ascertain his opinion, at that moment, of the probable result of an attack upon the enemy. General Gordon's reply was, "Tell General Lee that my old corps is reduced to a frazzle, and, unless I am supported by Longstreet heavily, I do not think we can do any thing more."
General Lee received this announcement with an expression of great feeling, and after a moment's silence said: "There is nothing left but to go to General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths!"
His staff-officers had now gathered around him, and one of them said: "What will history say of our surrendering if there is any possibility of escape? Posterity will not understand it." To these words, General Lee replied: "Yes, yes, they will not understand our situation; but that is not the question. The question is, whether it is _right_; and, if it is right, I take the responsibility."
His expression of buoyant hopefulness had now changed to one of deep melancholy, and it was evident to those around him that the thought of surrender was worse to him than the bitterness of death. For the first time his courage seemed to give way, and he was nearly unmanned. Turning to an officer standing near him, he said, his deep voice filled with hopeless sadness: "How easily I could get rid of this, and be at rest! I have only to ride along the line and all will be over!"
He was silent for a short time after uttering these words, and then added, with a heavy sigh: "But it is our duty to live. What will become of the women and children of the South, if we are not here to protect them?"
The moment had now come when the fate of the retreat was to be decided. To General Gordon, who had proved himself, in the last operations of the war, a soldier of the first ability, had been intrusted the command of the advance force; and this was now moved forward against the enemy beyond Appomattox Court-House. Gordon attacked with his infantry, supported by Fitz Lee's cavalry, and the artillery battalion of Colonel Carter, and such was the impetuosity of his advance that he drove the Federal forces nearly a mile. But at that point he found himself in face of a body of infantry, stated afterward, by Federal officers, to number about eighty thousand. As his own force was less than five thousand muskets, he found it impossible to advance farther; and the Federal lines were already pressing forward to attack him, in overwhelming force, when the movement suddenly ceased. Seeing the hopelessness of further resistance. General Lee had sent a flag to General Grant, requesting an interview looking to the arrangement, if possible, of terms of surrender; and to this end the forward movement of the Federal forces was ordered to be discontinued.
The two armies then remained facing each other during the interview between the two commanders, which took place in a farm-house in Appomattox Court-House. General Lee was accompanied only by Colonel Marshall, of his staff, and on the Federal side only a few officers were present. General Grant's demeanor was courteous, and that of General Lee unmarked by emotion of any description. The hardships of the retreat had somewhat impaired his strength, and his countenance exhibited traces of fatigue; but no other change had taken place in his appearance. He was erect, calm, courteous, and confined his observations strictly to the disagreeable business before him. The interview was brief; and, seated at a plain table, the two commanders wrote and exchanged the accompanying papers:
APPOMATTOX COURT-HOUSE, _April_ 9, 1865.
_General R.E. Lee, commanding C.S.A._.:
In accordance with the substance of my letter to you of the 8th inst., I propose to receive the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia on the following terms, to wit:
Rolls of all the officers and men to be made in duplicate, one copy to be given to an officer designated by me, the other to be retained by such officers as you may designate.
The officers to give their individual parole not to take arms against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged; and each company or regimental commander to sign a like parole for the men of their commands.
The arms, artillery, and public property, to be parked and stacked, and turned over to the officers appointed by me to receive them. This will not embrace the side-arms of the officers, nor their private horses or baggage.
This done, each officer and man will be allowed to return to their homes, not to be disturbed by United States authority so long as they observe their parole and the laws in force where they may reside.
U.S. GRANT, _Lieutenant-General_.
HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA,
_Lieut.-General U.S. Grant, commanding U.S.A_.:
GENERAL: I have received your letter of this date, containing the terms of surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, as proposed by you. As they are substantially the same as those expressed in your letter of the 8th inst., they are accepted. I will proceed to designate the proper officers to carry the stipulations into effect.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
R.E. LEE, _General_.
The two generals then bowed to each other, and, leaving the house, General Lee mounted his gray, and rode back to his headquarters.
The scene as he passed through the army was affecting. The men gathered round him, wrung his hand, and in broken words called upon God to help him. This pathetic reception by his old soldiers profoundly affected Lee. The tears came to his eyes, and, looking at the men with a glance of proud feeling, he said, in suppressed tones, which trembled slightly: "We have fought through the war together. I have done the best I could for you. My heart is too full to say more!"
These few words seemed to be all he could utter. He rode on, and, reaching his headquarters in the woods, disappeared in his tent, whither we shall not follow him.
On the next day the Army of Northern Virginia, numbering about twenty-six thousand men, of whom but seven thousand eight hundred carried muskets, was formally surrendered, and the Confederate War was a thing of the past.