April 10, 1865: Lee’s Farewell to the Army of Northern Virginia

Starving army,
Who, after your best was spent and your Spring lay dead,

Yet held the intolerable lines of Petersburg
With deadly courage.
                    You too are a legend now
And the legend has made your fame and has dimmed that fame,
–The victor strikes and the beaten man goes down
But the years pass and the legend covers them both,
The beaten cause turns into the magic cause,
The victor has his victory for his pains–
So with you–and the legend has made a stainless host
Out of the dusty columns of footsore men
Who found life sweet and didn’t want to be killed,
Grumbled at officers, grumbled at Governments.
That stainless host you were not.  You had your cowards,
Your bullies, your fakers, your sneaks, your savages.
You got tired of marching.  You cursed the cold and the rain.
You cursed the war and the food–and went on till the end.
And yet, there was something in you that matched your fable.

Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body

 

It was fitting that one of the great armies of American history would go out of that history with a salute from its commander, Robert E. Lee.

Against high odds Lee and his army had come close to creating a new nation.  Always outnumbered, with troops often dressed in rags, ill-fed, ill-supplied, he led his men to magnificent victories in the Seven Days, Second Manassas, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.  Fighting another great general, Grant, he achieved a stalemate in 1864 against an army that had more than a two-to-one advantage, and prolonged the life of his country by almost a year.  A fighting general with a propensity for taking huge risks, he was also a humane man with unfailing courtesy for both friend and foe.  In this final order he told the men who loved him, how much he loved them:

 

 

Headquarters, Army of Northern Virginia, 10th April 1865.

General Order
No. 9

After four years of arduous service marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources.

I need not tell the survivors of so many hard fought battles, who have remained steadfast to the last, that I have consented to the result from no distrust of them.

But feeling that valour and devotion could accomplish nothing that could compensate for the loss that must have attended the continuance of the contest, I have determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen.

By the terms of the agreement, officers and men can return to their homes and remain until exchanged. You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from the consciousness of duty faithfully performed, and I earnestly pray that a merciful God will extend to you his blessing and protection.

With an unceasing admiration of your constancy and devotion to your Country, and a grateful remembrance of your kind and generous consideration for myself, I bid you an affectionate farewell.

 

 

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7 Comments

  1. From ” Appomattox, The Passing of the Armies”, by Joshua Chamberlain who ” . . . sought no authority nor asked forgiveness.”
    .

    “The momentous meaning of this occasion impressed me deeply. I resolved to mark it by some token of recognition, which could be no other than a salute of arms. Well aware of the responsibility assumed, and of the criticisms that would follow, as the sequel proved, nothing of that kind could move me in the least. The act could be defended, if needful, by the suggestion that such a salute was not to the cause for which the flag of the Confederacy stood, but to its going down before the flag of the Union. My main reason, however, was one for which I sought no authority nor asked forgiveness. Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood: men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond;—was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured?
    .

    “Instructions had been given; and when the head of each division column comes opposite our group, our bugle sounds the signal and instantly our whole line from right to left, regiment by regiment in succession, gives the soldier’s salutation, from the “order arms” to the old “carry”—the marching salute. Gordon at the head of the column, riding with heavy spirit and downcast face, catches the sound of shifting arms, looks up, and, taking the meaning, wheels superbly, making with himself and his horse one uplifted figure, with profound salutation as he drops the point of his sword to the boot toe; then facing to his own command, gives word for his successive brigades to pass us with the same position of the manual,—honor answering honor. On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glorying, nor motion of man standing again at the order, but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead!”

  2. T Shaw- i may have read a similar excerpt in J.L.C’ s book- the 20th Maine-and i believe it is in Gordon’s reminiscences of the civil war pg 444-445 too – it impressed me then as now as perhaps one of the most magnificent moments in all of depicted history – to envision Gordon’s horse rearing up and descending, he with his sabre extended to the boot toe, returning the unexpected grand gesture /salute from Brevet Gen’l Chamberlain – these two armies salute one another!! it is finished. silently…. not a murmur but perhaps some weeping. on both sides. [ny times, may 4,1901

  3. I recall the beginning of one of the Civil War episodes, the one about Gettysburg. The Confederates marched into south central Pennsylvania, which was not far from Virginia, with the goal to take Harrisburg and seize the rail lines there. Confederate troops seized free blacks and sent them South into slavery.

    It was not bad enough to secede from the Unites States and set up a government that permanently preserved slavery within its own borders. Kidnapping free American men from their homes and selling them as slaves is a special kind of evil. General Lee led that campaign. While he showed considerable wisdom in refusing to fight a guerrella war, his refusal – and that of his subordinates – to see that the Confederate cause was a lost one cost countless lives on both sides.

    The South never had any real chance to win. All they could do was make the North tired of war and want to quit. Instead they fought on to a crushing defeat and left much of the South in ruins and in depression for generations, with the enactment of Jim Crow laws that institutionalized segregation for 100 years.

  4. “The South never had any real chance to win. All they could do was make the North tired of war and want to quit. Instead they fought on to a crushing defeat and left much of the South in ruins and in depression for generations, with the enactment of Jim Crow laws that institutionalized segregation for 100 years.”

    What you have said is, of course, true; but history, because it is the chronicle of the lives of poor sinners, is inherently messy. This is my problem with the way history is generally written and taught. For all his faults, and they were many, Lee had freed his own slaves years before Appomatox. Grant kept his former slaves “by indenture” and had “house darkies” in his home in NYC long after the war ended.

    Until the day she died, our family did not publicly celebrate July 4, because my granny’s father was killed that day in the Fall of Vicksburg. With your allusion to the South’s former segregationism and Jim Crow laws, may I remind you that the 2 largest klaverns of the KKK were in New Jersey and Indiana? Where I live, we Catholics had it far worse than many African-Americans simply because most of them were at least protestants. Black Catholics had it especially hard, even here in Cajun Catholic South Louisiana. After his land was taken from him during Reconstruction, my great-grandfather became a share cropper on what had formerly been his own farm. My dad’s godparents were the black foreman of that same farm and his wife — my grandparents’ next door neighbors, French-speaking Black Catholics. This was in 1932. History is so much more complicated when you consider that it was lived by real people with real lives. God bless!

  5. “Grant kept his former slaves “by indenture” and had “house darkies” in his home in NYC long after the war ended.”

    Grant freed the only slave he ever owned in 1859. This was a slave he purchased from his brother-in-law Frederick Dent in 1858. This was at a time when he could ill-afford the financial loss that emancipating William Jones entailed. (Jones would have fetched a 1000-1500 dollars. During the Civil War privates earned $14.00 per month.) Painting Grant as a friend of slavery is ahistoric rubbish.

  6. Fr. Frank, the Klan was never limited to the South. My grandmother, who died two years ago, remembered the Klan marching through the streets of her Greene County, Pennsylvania home town as a child. The Klan hated Catholics and Jews as much as blacks.

  7. Bury the bygone South.
    Bury the minstrel with the honey-mouth,
    Bury the broadsword virtues of the clan,
    Bury the unmachined, the planters’ pride,
    The courtesy and the bitter arrogance,
    The pistol-hearted horsemen who could ride
    Like jolly centaurs under the hot stars.
    Bury the whip, bury the branding-bars,
    Bury the unjust thing
    That some tamed into mercy, being wise,
    But could not starve the tiger from its eyes
    Or make it feed where beasts of mercy feed.
    Bury the fiddle-music and the dance,
    The sick magnolias of the false romance
    And all the chivalry that went to seed
    Before its ripening.

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