Saturday, December 26, 2015

To Appomattox by Burke Davis

Appomattox refers to Appomattox Court House, the small Virginia town where Robert E. Lee surrendered the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant, commander of all Union forces, rapidly drawing the American Civil War to an end. The book is a detailed history of the nine days in April from the fall of Petersburg to the surrender at Appomattox, told from multiple perspectives, both blue and gray.

Like a lot of Civil War history I’ve read, it is full of minor tragedies that could easily be expanded into full narratives--historical or, even more alluring to my sensibilities, fictional. The saddest of many I have come across deals with the death and funeral of Confederate General Ambrose Powell (A. P.) Hill. Here’s how Davis introduces us to the general, on Saturday, April 1, one day before the fall of Petersburg.

General Ambrose Powell Hill’s sector of the line lay south of Petersburg, near the city, facing the massed strength of the enemy. Danger seemed greater than ever today, and the general was out at daybreak with his staff and a handful of couriers. Though Hill looked frail, and had been called from sick leave, he was in the saddle all day. Men in his ranks seemed to take heart at sight of his long pale face; they could remember his red battle shirt at Sharpsburg, so long ago, when The Light Division had saved the army. General Hill’s decline had matched that of the Confederacy.

This is an interesting parallel--Hill’s notoriously failing health and the final failing of the Confederacy.

A vague illness had plagued him through the winter--perhaps psychosomatic, perhaps only a vestige of a case of malaria from his early manhood. Officers recalled that Hill had often been sickly, sluggish and eaten by anxieties in moments when battle action was pending, as at Gettysburg and The Wilderness. Now, in any event, emergency had called Hill from his wife and two baby girls. It was perhaps was well, even for his health, for in Richmond when citizens asked him if the city might fall, Hill was visibly shaken, and was given to shouting, “I don’t want to survive the fall of the city!”

And now we get the foreshadowing of his own death. Davis goes on to cite sources attesting to Hill’s sullenness and gloom during this time--torn, probably by this duty to his country and the love of his family, who remained so painfully close to the hostilities. But when the right of Lee’s line--commanded by Hill--begins to collapse, Hill is spurred into vigorous action.

Hill strode into General Lee’s room without being announced. The generals were talking about the darkening situation when Colonel Charles Venable of Lee’s staff flung open the door. He shouted, “Wagons are flying down the road toward Petersburg and Union skirmishers are behind Hill’s right.”

Hill tore from the house like an excited boy and vaulted into his saddle so recklessly that Lee sent Venable after him to urge caution. When he had been halted, Hill told Venable patiently that his lines were cut into two, and that he must save them. He promised that he would be careful and spurred away, followed by Venable, Tucker and Jenkins.

But Hill is not careful--at least not careful enough--and winds up being shot dead by two Union infantrymen in the process of trying to force their surrender. Here Lee’s famous reaction when he learns the news.

The party met Sergeant Tucker leading General Hill’s gray horse. The artillery courier, Percy Hawes, stood nearby. “I will never forget the expression on General Lee’s face,” he wrote.

Lee asked Tucker for details of the general’s death, and heard them somberly. His voice was almost drowned by gunfire, “Those of us who are left behind are the ones to suffer.”

They were clearly nearing the end of a long, painful fight. And Lee understood that nothing but more death (and probably surrender--more on that later) were in store for those who remained. More poignant, I think, is the much less famous reaction of Hill’s wife.

[Lee] sent Colonel Palmer and Tucker to tell the widow of their loss: “Colonel, break the news to her as gently as you can.”

Palmer and Tucker evaded Federals pouring through the lines and were soon at the Venable house. As they dismounted they heard Mrs. Hill inside, singing loudly at her work. Palmer hesitated, and did not knock on the door. He walked quietly into the hall, but the sound of his boots stopped Mrs. Hill’s singing. Tucker heard her voice from where he stood on the porch:

“The General’s dead. You wouldn’t be here unless he was dead.”

It doesn’t end there. A. P. Hill was killed in the middle of absolute chaos. The Confederate entrenchments that had helped create the seven-month siege of Petersburg had fallen. Now Federals were streaming into the city and Confederates were streaming out of it. To the north in Richmond, the citizens themselves are rioting.

“Hundreds crowded the main government warehouse where whisky was being destroyed. A Richmond Times man watched:

“They contrived to catch most of the liquor in pitchers, bottles and basins. This liquor was not slow in manifesting itself. The crowd became a mob and began to howl. Soon other crowds had collected in front of other warehouses. … So frenzied had the mob become that officers in charge … had to flee for their lives. …

Crowds of men, women and children traversed the streets, rushing from one storehouse to another, loading themselves with all kinds of supplies. … After midnight … straggling soldiers made their appearance on the streets and immediately set about robbing the principal stores on Main Street. … Soldiers roamed from store to store, followed by a reckless crowd, drunk as they.”

And in the midst of this, the family of A. P. Hill seemingly work like mice in a burning church to find peace and dignity for their fallen relative.

Through this melee, at 1 A.M., the hearse of A. P. Hill rolled into town, jouncing uphill at last to Capitol Square. It had been almost all day on the road from the battlefield, and the general’s aide and nephew, Captain Frank Hill, had gone back to the fighting. His brother, Henry Hill, Jr., had guided the body into Richmond, aided by the courier, Jenkins.

The wagon had been delayed for hours near the bridge of the James in the afternoon, and it was only in the early morning darkness that Henry found his cousin, G. Powell Hill, packing papers of the Paymaster General’s office as clerks and Negroes ran in and out with bundles. Henry led Powell to the wagon.

The official stared into the ambulance in bewilderment.

“I thought you’d have a coffin,” he said.

The Hills left the wagon with Jenkins and ran along Twelfth Street through bands of looters into Belvin’s Furniture Store, whose door, like others in the block, had been torn open. They yelled; there were only echoes in the empty building.

They found a coffin and carried it through the streets into an abandoned office, brought the general’s body in from the wagon, and by candlelight washed his face and removed his gloves.

This, I think, is the most affecting moment of all. Brother and cousin, likely by candlelight, in the back of a looted furniture store, washing the dead body, and trying to arrange it respectfully in a stolen coffin.

The fatal shot had blown off the thumb of the left hand and passed through the heart, emerging from his back. They stuffed the body into the coffin, which was a bit small even for the slight figure, and left the city by Fourteenth Street, over Mayo’s Bridge to the south side of the river and upstream toward the farmhouse where G. Powell Hill’s parents were refugees. It was slow going in the stream of vehicles and walking people. They were most of the night on the way.

G. Powell Hill rode ahead and found his mother and father at breakfast, unaware of the general’s death or the collapse of the army.

They debated what was to be done with the body, since it was out of the question to carry it to distant Culpeper, and at last buried the general on the farm, in the graveyard of the Winston family. G. Powell Hill and a Negro butler made a rough case for the coffin while others dug a pit in the clay.

Imagine the scene. Of course, this sorrowful drama, captured in Burke’s historian voice, is only preserved because of who A. P. Hill was--a figure worth studying and understanding in the long line of secondary actors who helped shape events in the American Civil War. But that war, like all wars, is filled with wretched dramas like this, affecting people whose names are never recorded in history books, but whose stories are just as universal and filled with pathos as those few that are preserved for our knowledge and understanding.

That’s one theme I want to pull out of this book. Here’s another.

Just outside the town, pushed by a heavy Federal force, was the 35th Virginia Cavalry Battalion, with Captain Frank Myers commanding the lead squadron. A bluecoat came up with a white flag.

“Letter from General Grant to General Lee,” he said.

“Nothing doing,” Myers said. “I won’t take it unless that line of infantry stops where it is.”

The Federal rider went back, and the troops were halted half a mile away. Myers sent a rider into Farmville with the dispatch.

It was good news for Robert Lee--Custis was a Federal prisoner, alive, unwounded and well.

There are also plenty of stories like this in the American Civil War. In this case, it is General Grant, sending a note to General Lee with news about Lee’s son, but there are many other examples of these courtesies and acts of human compassion amid the untold slaughter of so many others. In part, it is a kind of professionalism, educated soldiers being a kind of caste unto themselves in this and many other societies. But in part, it is also a kind of elitism, an entitlement that allows an otherwise civil society to engage in the savagery of war. Yes, please assure Marse Robert that his son is alive and well in Federal custody. We would hate for unsatiated worry to trouble the General’s mind as he plots the death and dismemberment of so many other people’s sons.

Or is that too harsh?

Fact is, as much of a Civil War buff that I am, I’ve never been one to fall victim to the idol worship that seems to surround so many Civil War generals, north and south, and Robert E. Lee perhaps most of all. I have always been more swayed by the argument (made by someone I’ve lost track of) that it is often the noblest men who do the most evil in the world, cloaking (sometimes, I grant, without their conscious attention) the carnage they create in heartwarming wrappers of honor and fidelity.

But evidence of Lee’s caginess on this issue comes out loud and clear in his actions when negotiating the terms of surrender with General Grant. It begins, as before, with the passing of notes through the lines.

Longstreet’s infantry was moving westward again, when, at about nine thirty, Robert Lee opened the dispatch:

Headquarters Armies of the United States
April 7, 1865 -- 5 P.M.

General R. E. Lee,
Commanding C. S. Army:

General: The results 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 C. S. Army known as the Army of Northern Virginia.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
U. S. Grant,
Commanding Armies of the United States

Lee read the sheet and passed it to Longstreet without a word. Old Pete looked for a long moment and handed it back.

“Not yet,” he said.

Lee scratched out a reply by candlelight in the cottage:

7th Apl ‘65


I have recd your note of this date. Though not entertaining the opinion you express of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of N. Va.--I reciprocate your desire to avoid useless effusion of blood, & therefore before considering your proposition, ask the terms you will offer on condition of surrender.

Very respy your obt. Servt
R. E. Lee

Lt. Genl U. S. Grant
Commd Armies of the U States

By 10 P.M. General Seth Williams, waiting in the moonlight, had the reply, and was on his way back to Grant’s headquarters.

It is true that Lee, in this message, did not agree to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia. He did, clearly I think, ask for Grant’s terms of surrender, so that such a decision could be considered. But the next day, before Grant’s next message is received, when a group of subordinate generals, led by General Pendleton, approach Lee with the idea that perhaps he should surrender, Lee said this.

But of surrender Lee told Pendleton firmly, “I trust it has not come to that. We certainly have too many brave men to think of laying down our arms. They still fight with great spirit, whereas the enemy do not. And besides, if I were to intimate to General Grant that I would listen to terms, he would regard it such an evidence of weakness that he would demand unconditional surrender, and sooner than that I am resolved to die. We must all determine to die at our posts.”

And Pendleton’s response?

“We’re perfectly willing for you to decide,” Pendleton said. “Every man will cheerfully die with you.”

Okay. Two things.

First, this could be a fabrication. Recollections of Civil War generals, and this is described as Pendleton’s recollection, are somewhat notorious for retrofitting. When talking to posterity after the fact, they are often more concerned about their reputations than the unvarnished truth. And this, to me, reads suspiciously like a perpetuation of the myth of Robert E. Lee and the moral pinnacle of the Southern Confederacy. The bit about people cheerfully dying for the marble general is like icing on that cake.

And second, even if this is an accurate retelling, Lee could only be doing what many leaders do in times of doubt and strife--putting on a strong face in front of his subordinates.

Because, of course, according to the chronology presented, Lee has already done precisely what he has now told Pendleton he wouldn’t do--ask General Grant for the terms of his surrender. And if it isn’t a fabrication, and if Lee isn’t grandstanding, then perhaps it is a result of Lee’s own confusion, or his duplicity, or his inner turmoil.

I suspect the last. Here’s how the next pair of messages go.

A second message from Grant had come through Mahone’s lines, and Lee opened it in the early night, with Colonel Venable peering over his shoulder by the light of a candle.

April 8, 1865

General R. E. Lee
Commanding C. S. A.

Your note of last evening in reply to mine of same date, asking the condition on which I will accept the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia is received. In reply I would say that, peace being my great desire, there is but one condition I would insist upon, namely: that the men and officers surrendered shall be disqualified for taking up arms again against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged. I will meet you, or will designate officers to meet any officers you many 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 be received.

U. S. Grant
Lieutenant General

“How would you answer that?” Lee asked.

“I would answer no such letter,” Venable said.

“Ah, but it must be answered.”

Several ways to read that exchange--one being that Venable still believed surrender is out of the question, while Lee believes it must be accomplished, but in a way that preserves the pride and dignity of his officers and men.

The commander dictated a reply:

8th Apl ‘65


I recd at a late hour your note of today. In mine of yesterday I did not intend to propose the surrender of the Army of N. Va.--but to ask the terms of your proposition. To be frank, I do not think the emergency has arisen to call for the surrender of this army, but as the restoration of peace should be the sole object of all, I desired to know whether your proposals would lead to that and I cannot therefore meet you with a view to surrender the Army of N. Va.--but as far as your proposal may affect the C. S. forces under my command & tend to the restoration of peace, I shall be pleased to meet you at 10 A.M. tomorrow on the old stage road to Richmond between the two picket lines of the two armies.

Very respy your Obt. Servt.
R. E. Lee

Lt. Genl U. S. Grant
Commd Armies of the U. S.

I’ve got to admit, when I first read Lee’s reply, I had trouble making any sense of it. I asked for terms, but not because I want to surrender, just to see how serious about peace you are. I’m not near ready to surrender this army, but I’ll meet you anyway, as long as we only talk about peace and not the surrender of my army. What does any of that mean? How is peace going to be established without the surrender of Lee’s army? Does Lee think Grant is going to surrender to him?

As for what Grant thought of the message, here’s how Burke describes the scene at his headquarters when Lee’s message is received.

Rawlins read aloud the note from Lee to Grant, and as he read his voice rose and became angrier. At the end Rawlins cursed:

“He did not propose to surrender!” Rawlins shouted. “Diplomatic, but not true. He did propose, in his heart, to surrender. Now he’s trying to take advantage of a single word by you, to extend such easy terms. He wants to entrap you into making a peace treaty. You said nothing about that. You asked him to surrender.

“He asked your terms. You answered with the terms. Now he wants to arrange a peace--to take in the whole Confederacy. No, sir! You can’t do it. It’s a positive insult. It’s an underhanded way to change the whole correspondence.”

Grant’s quiet voice came down to the listeners:

“It amounts to the same thing, Rawlins. He’s only trying to get let down easy. I can meet him in the morning as he says, and settle the whole business in an hour.”

“No!” Rawlins said. “You can’t presume to teach Lee the use of the English language. He’s arranged this meeting to gain time, and get better terms. He deserves no reply whatever. ‘He don’t think the emergency has arisen!’ Now that’s cool--but a lie. It’s been staring him in the face for forty-eight hours. If he hasn’t seen it yet we’ll soon show it to him. He’ll surrender. He had to surrender. By God, it’ll be surrender and nothing else!”

Grant tried to calm him. “We’ve got to make some allowance for the trying place Lee is in. He’s got to obey orders of his government. It all means exactly the same thing, Rawlins. If I meet Lee, he’ll surrender before I leave.”

“You’ve no right to meet General Lee or anybody else to arrange peace terms,” Rawlins said. “That’s for the President, or the Senate. Your business is to capture or destroy his army.”

There was more of it, but Rawlins at last subsided and went back to bed. Grant stayed up.

Rawlins’s reaction, of course, explains Lee’s behavior perfectly, and helps make everything he has said, both in notes to General Grant and in discussion with General Pendleton and his subordinates, consistent. He will surrender his army, but only under terms that will preserve the pride and dignity of his men. And Grant understands this, reading even more intelligently between the lines that Rawlins is.

Does that make Lee a great leader? Probably. He was clearly skilled at keeping his cards close to his vest when the stakes were highest, knowing, as he surely did, that every hour that he delayed his intended surrender only meant more dead soldiers in blue and gray uniforms. And I probably shouldn’t blame him. After all, after killing so many thousands in the pursuit of Southern independence, should I expect him to be troubled over tens or maybe hundreds more that would be sacrificed for more favorable terms of surrender?

By this time, the scales of actual justice had been so weighted with military power and esprit de corps that I suppose the only outcomes possible where those mediated by the culture of the two professional soldiers that met that April day at Appomattox Court House.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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