On this, the 150th anniversary of the surrender at Appomattox, it seems appropriate to present the reminiscences of two officers, one Union, one Confederate, regarding the days leading up to and immediately following the surrender.
General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (1828-1914) had been a professor of rhetoric and languages at Bowdoin College in Maine before the war. He had distinguished himself as the commander of the 20th Maine Infantry and was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism during the Battle of Gettysburg. Eventually, he was promoted to Major General and the command of a brigade. He was wounded six times, the last of which (through the side and left arm) took place just a week before the events of Appomattox.
General John Brown Gordon (1832-1904) practiced law in Georgia before the war. Leading a Confederate brigade during the Battle of Antietam, he held the crucial position of the “Bloody Lane” for nearly the entire battle. During this action he was wounded five times–serious injuries which would require months of recuperation. He eventually rose to the command of the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia.
The two men would find their lives intersecting during this closing episode of the war in a deeply meaningful and symbolic way. Describing the same events from two different perspectives, their memoirs offer a striking counterpoint to one another. Taken together, they read almost like a dialogue.
With this in mind, I here offer interwoven excerpts from Chamberlain’s and Gordon’s memoirs describing their pivotal moments at Appomattox.
Chamberlain: We had had a brisk week’s work of it since the White Oak Road and Five Forks—rushing and pushing night and day, fighting a little now and then for the sake of that variety which is the spice of life…After twenty-nine miles of this kind of marching, at the blackest hour of night, human nature called a halt. Dropping by the roadside, right and left, wet and dry, down went the men as in a swoon. Officers slid out of saddle, loosened the girth, slipped an arm through a loop of bridle-rein, and sank to sleep. Horses stood with drooping heads just above their masters’ faces. All dreaming—one knows not what, of past or coming, possible or fated.
Gordon: To bring up the rear and adequately protect the retreating army was an impossible task. With characteristic vigor General Grant pressed the pursuit. Soon began the continuous and final battle. Fighting all day, marching all night, with exhaustion and hunger claiming their victims at every mile of the march, with charges of infantry in rear and of cavalry on the flanks, it seemed the war god had turned loose all his furies to revel in havoc. On and on, hour after hour, from hilltop to hilltop, the lines were alternately forming, fighting, and retreating, making one almost continuous shifting battle…. the purpose of the Union commander to check at Appomattox our retrograde movement.
Chamberlain: The darkest hours before the dawn of April 9, 1865…six miles away from Appomattox Station…Scarcely is the first broken dream begun when a cavalryman comes splashing down the road and vigorously dismounts, pulling from his jacket-front a crumpled note. The sentinel standing watch by his commander, worn in body but alert in every sense, touches your shoulder. “Orders, sir, I think.” You rise on elbow, strike a match, and with smarting, streaming eyes read the brief, thrilling note, sent back by Sheridan to us infantry commanders…”I have cut across the enemy at Appomattox Station…If you can possibly push your infantry up here to-night, we will have great results in the morning.” Ah, sleep no more. The startling bugle notes ring…You eat and drink at a swallow; mount, and away to get to the head of the column before you sound the “Forward.” They are there—the men: shivering to their senses as if risen out of the earth, but something in them not of it. Now sounds the “Forward,” for the last time in our long-drawn strife. And they move…
Gordon: My troops were still fighting, furiously fighting in nearly every direction, when the final note from General Lee reached me. It notified me that there was a flag of truce between General Grant and himself, stopping hostilities, and that I could communicate that fact to the commander of the Union forces in my front…I called Colonel Green Peyton of my staff, and directed him to take a flag of truce and bear the message to…the Union infantry in my front…Colonel Peyton soon informed me that we had no flag of truce. I said: “Well, take your handkerchief and tie that on a stick, and go.” He felt in his pockets and said: “General, I have no handkerchief.” “Then tear your shirt, sir, and tie that to a stick.” He looked at his shirt, and then at mine, and said: “General, I have on a flannel shirt, and I see you have. I don’t believe there is a white shirt in the army.” “Get something, sir,” I ordered. “Get something and go!”
Chamberlain: We were advancing, tactically fighting, and I was somewhat uncertain as to how much more of the strenuous should be required or expected…Watching intently, my eye was caught by a…form, close in our own front—a soldierly young figure, a Confederate staff officer undoubtedly. Now I see the white flag earnestly borne, and its possible purport sweeps before my inner vision like a wraith of morning mist. He comes steadily on, the mysterious form in gray, my mood so whimsically sensitive that I could even smile at the material of the flag—wondering where in either army was found a towel, and one so white. But it bore a mighty message—that simple emblem of homely service, wafted hitherward above the dark and crimsoned streams that never can wash themselves away. The messenger draws near, dismounts; with graceful salutation and hardly suppressed emotion delivers his message: “Sir, I am from General Gordon. General Lee desires a cessation of hostilities until he can hear from General Grant as to the proposed surrender…” “Surrender?” It takes a moment to gather one’s speech…
Arrangements were made for a formal surrender ceremony to take place on April 12 during which 28,000 Confederate soldiers formed up and laid down their colors and weapons. General Grant selected General Joshua L. Chamberlain to take charge of this ceremony. He asked for his old brigade, the Third Brigade, First Division, V Corps (which included his old regiment, the 20th Maine) to have the honor of representing the Union Army during this ceremony.
Chamberlain: I was summoned to headquarters, where General Griffin informed me that I was to command the parade on the occasion of the formal surrender of the arms and colors of Lee’s army….Taking the assignment as I would any other, my feeling about it was more for the honor of the Fifth Corps and the Army of the Potomac than for myself.
Gordon: As my command, in worn-out shoes and ragged uniforms, but with proud mien, moved to the designated point to stack their arms and surrender their cherished battle-flags, they challenged the admiration of the brave victors.
Chamberlain: The dusky swarms forge forward into gray columns of march. On they come, with the old swinging route step and swaying battle-flags…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…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…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: One of the knightliest soldiers of the Federal army, General Joshua L. Chamberlain of Maine…called his troops into line, and as my men marched in front of them, the veterans in blue gave a soldierly salute to those vanquished heroes—a token of respect from Americans to Americans…
Chamberlain: 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.
Gordon: When the proud and sensitive sons of Dixie came to a full realization of the truth that the Confederacy was overthrown and their leader had been compelled to surrender his once invincible army, they could no longer control their emotions, and tears ran like water…
Chamberlain: On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper…but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead!…They fix bayonets, stack arms; then, hesitatingly, remove cartridge-boxes and lay them down. Lastly—reluctantly, with agony of expression—they tenderly fold their flags, battle-worn and torn, blood-stained, heart-holding colors, and lay them down…And only the Flag of the Union greets the sky!