Joshua Chamberlain Receives the Surrender of John Gordon at Appomattox
Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
It has been a difficult, tiring, and yet extraordinary week. I have had little sleep, and did all that I could do to be with and among the people I serve. Of course I always wear a high quality face mask when outside the confines of my very isolated cubicle so I can be out and among them. Unfortunately, technology, the unpreparedness of our nation and military for the novel Coronavirus pandemic, and my own medical needs made yesterday very exhausting and frustrating. I haven’t published anything here since 7 April, which is unusual for me, as I seldom miss a day without writing something. Over the past couple of days I have been working on a different article which will be later today or early tomorrow. I just thought that this was more timely.
So now I am publishing a highly edited and revised post about the surrender of General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia to the Armies commanded by Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox.
That event is something that all Americans should still celebrate today, because it was a moral and patriotic act of surrendering individual agendas for the sake of the Union, reconciliation, and equality. I hope that we can learn from it today.
Until tomorrow or whenever,
One hundred and fifty-five years ago on the 9th and 10th of April 1865, four men, Ulysses S Grant, Robert E. Lee, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and Ely Parker, taught succeeding generations of Americans the value of mutual respect and reconciliation.
The four men were all very different. The very thought that they would do so after a bitter and bloody war that had cost the lives of close to three quarters of a million Americans which had left hundreds of thousands others maimed, shattered or without a place to live, and who had seen vast swaths of the country ravaged by war and its attendant plagues is quite remarkable.
The differences in the men, their upbringing, and their views about life seemed to be insurmountable. The Confederate commander, General Robert E. Lee was the epitome of a Southern aristocrat and career army officer.
Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, like Lee was a West Point graduate and veteran of the War with Mexico, but there the similarities ended. Grant was an officer of humble means who had struggled with alcoholism and failed in his civilian life after he left the army, before returning to it as a volunteer when war began.
Major General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain had been a professor of rhetoric and natural and revealed religion from Bowdoin College until 1862 when he volunteered to serve in the Army against the wishes of his wife. He was one of the heroes of Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg, who helped exemplify the importance of citizen soldiers, and military professionals in peace and war.
Finally there was Colonel Ely Parker, a full-blooded Seneca Indian. Parker was professional engineer by trade, but was barred from being an attorney because as a Native American he was never considered an American citizen. At the beginning of the war Parker was rejected from serving in the army for the same reason, but his friend Grant obtained him an officer’s commission and kept him on his staff for the entirety of the war.
General Ulysses S. Grant
On 5 April 1865 the Confederate line around the fortress of Petersburg was shattered at the battle of Five Forks. To save the last vestiges of his army Lee attempted to withdraw to the west. Within a few days the once magnificent Army of Northern Virginia was trapped near the town of Appomattox. On the morning of April 9th 1865 Lee replied to an entreaty of Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant requesting that he and his Army of Northern Virginia be allowed to surrender. Lee wrote to Grant:
HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA, APRIL 9, 1865
Lieut. Gen. U.S. GRANT:
I received your note of this morning on the picket-line, whither I had come to meet you and ascertain definitely 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.
The once mighty Army of Northern Virginia, which had won many victories, but more defeats, and in almost every battle except Fredericksburg and Cold Harbor, lost as a higher percentage of casualties that they could not replace, as compared to their foes in the Army of the Potomac. At its peak strength during the Gettysburg campaign, Lee’s Army numbered nearly 80,000 men, but less than two years later it was now a haggard and emaciated, but still proud force of about 15,000 soldiers. For Lee to continue the war now would mean that they would have to face even more hopeless odds against a vastly superior enemy. Grant recognized this and wrote Lee:
I am equally anxious 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 will 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 set-tied without the loss of another life, I subscribe myself, &c.,
Since the high water mark at Gettysburg, Lee’s army had been on the defensive. Lee’s ill-fated offensive into Pennsylvania was one of the two climactic events that sealed the doom of the Confederacy. The other was Grant’s victory at Vicksburg, Mississippi, which surrendered to him a day after Pickett’s Charge. That day became known as The Most Glorious Fourth, because the dual defeats coincided with the 87th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. But it was Grant’s victory which cut the Confederacy in half, and was the true beginning of the end of the Confederacy.
General Robert E. Lee
However, those disastrous defeats did not end the war. Lee conducted a bloody and ultimately doomed defensive struggle that lasted through 1864 as Grant bled the Confederates dry during the Overland Campaign, leading to the long siege of Petersburg. Likewise the armies of William Tecumseh Sherman cut a swath through the Deep South, captured Atlanta, the true industrial and economic hub of the Confederacy. Grant forced Lee into a protracted siege at Petersburg, while Sherman cut a swath across Georgia and the Carolinas, capturing Charleston, South Carolina, the ideological heart of the Confederate cause, South Carolina’s Capital of Columbia, and Wilmington, North Carolina, the last of the major Confederate seaports.
With each battle that followed Gettysburg, the Army of Northern Virginia became weaker, and finally after the nine month long siege of Petersburg ended with a Union victory there was little else to do. Lee wanted to continue the war but his beloved shatter shell of an Army was trapped. On the morning of April 9th a final attempt to break through the Union lines by Major General John Gordon’s division was turned back by vastly superior Union forces.
But, two days before, on April 7th Grant wrote a letter to Lee, which began the process of ending the war in Virginia. He wrote:
General R. E. LEE:
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 C. S. Army known as the Army of Northern Virginia.
U.S. GRANT, Lieutenant-General
Lee was hesitant to surrender knowing Grant’s reputation for insisting on unconditional surrender, terms that Lee could not yet bring himself to accept. Lee replied to Grant’s offer with this message:
HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA, APRIL 7, 1865 Lieut. Gen. U.S. GRANT:
I have received your note of this date. Though not entertaining the opinion you express on 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.
The correspondence continued over the next day even as the Confederates hoped to fight their way out of the trap that they were in. But now Robert E. Lee, who had through his efforts extended the war for at least six months, knew that he could no longer continue. Even so, some of Lee’s younger subordinates wanted to continue the fight. When his artillery chief Porter Alexander recommended that the Army be released he recommended that the soldiers of the Army, “take to the woods and report to their state governors.”
Lee knew that such action would bring about even more death and destruction.
“We have simply now to face the fact that the Confederacy has failed. And as Christian men, Gen. Alexander, you & I have no right to think for one moment of our personal feelings or affairs. We must consider only the effect which our action will have upon the country at large.”
“Already [the country] is demoralized by the four years of war. If I took your advice, the men would be without rations and under no control of their officers. They would be compelled to rob and steal in order to live…. We would bring on a state of affairs it would take the country years to recover from… You young fellows might go bushwhacking, but the only dignified course for me would be to go to General Grant and surrender myself and take the consequences of my acts.”
Alexander was so humbled at Lee’s reply he later wrote “I was so ashamed of having proposed such a foolish and wild cat scheme that I felt like begging him to forget he had ever heard it.” When Alexander saw the gracious terms of the surrender he was particularly impressed with how non-vindictive the terms were, especially in terms of parole and amnesty for the surrendered soldiers.
Abraham Lincoln had already set the tone for the surrender in his Second Inaugural Address given just over a month before the surrender of Lee’s army. Lincoln closed that speech with these words of reconciliation.
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Lee met Grant at the house of Wilmer McLean, who had moved to Appomattox in 1861 after his home near Manassas had been used as a Confederate headquarters and was damaged by artillery fire. Lee was dressed in his finest uniform complete with sash, while Grant was dressed in a mud splattered uniform and overcoat only distinguished from his soldiers by the three stars on his shoulder boards. Grant’s dress uniforms were far to the rear in the baggage trains, and Grant was afraid that his slovenly appearance would insult Lee, but it did not. It was a friendly meeting. Before getting down to business the two reminisced about the Mexican War in which they had both served and first met. At that time Lee was one of the rising stars of the Army, and Grant a mere Lieutenant.
Grant provided his vanquished foe very generous surrender terms:
“In accordance with the substance of my letter to you of the 8th inst., I propose to receive the surrender of the Army of N. Va. 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 officer or officers as you may designate. The officers to give their individual paroles not to take up arms against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged, and each company or regimental commander 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 officer 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 paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.”
When Lee left the building Federal troops began cheering in jubilation, but Grant ordered them to stop. He did not want to personally humiliate Lee anymore than the reality of defeat and surrender already done. Afterward, Grant felt a sense of melancholy and wrote “I felt…sad and depressed, at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people has fought.” He later noted: “The Confederates were now our countrymen, and we did not want to exult over their downfall.”
In the hours before and after the signing of the surrender documents old friends and West Point classmates, separated by four long years of war gathered on the porch or around the house. Grant and others were gracious to their now defeated friends and the bitterness of war began to melt away. Some Union officers offered money to help their Confederate friends get through the coming months. It was an emotional reunion, especially for the former West Point classmates gathered there.
“It had never been in their hearts to hate the classmates they were fighting. Their lives and affections for one another had been indelibly framed and inextricably intertwined in their academy days. No adversity, war, killing, or political estrangement could undo that. Now, meeting together when the guns were quiet, they yearned to know that they would never hear their thunder or be ordered to take up arms against one another again.”
Grant also ordered that 25,000 rations be transported to the starving Confederate army waiting to surrender. The gesture meant much to the defeated Confederate soldiers who had had little to eat ever since the retreat from Petersburg began.
The surrender itself was accomplished with a recognition that only soldiers who have given the full measure of devotion can know when confronting a defeated and humiliated enemy who before had been their countrymen. Major General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the heroic victor of Little Round Top was directed by Grant to receive the final surrender of the defeated Confederate infantry divisions on the morning of April 12th 1865.
The morning dawned rainy and the beaten Confederates marched to the surrender grounds. As first division in the column, that of John Gordon passed, Chamberlain was so moved by emotion he ordered his soldiers to salute the defeated enemy for whose cause he had no sympathy. Chamberlain honored the defeated Rebel army by bringing his division to present arms.
Gordon, was “riding with heavy spirit and downcast face,” looked up, surveyed the scene, wheeled about on his horse, and “with profound salutation returned the gesture by lowering his saber to the toe of his boot. The Georgian then ordered each following brigade to carry arms as they passed third brigade, “honor answering honor.”
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain
Chamberlain was not just a soldier, but before the war had been Professor of Natural and Revealed Religions at Bowdoin College, and a student of theology before the war. Chamberlain, a citizen soldier could not help to see the significance of the occasion. He understood that some people would criticize him for saluting the surrendered enemy.
However, Chamberlain, unlike others, understood the value of reconciliation, and at his heart was a Christian, and theologian, as well a staunch abolitionist and Unionist, who had nearly died on more than one occasion fighting the defeated Confederate Army. However, unlike many hardline politicians and ideologues, Chamberlain understood that the achievement of equality for all, the freedom, enfranchisement, and integration of African Americans into society, and true Union could be achieved unless the enemies became reconciled to one another. At that point the men of the Army of Northern Virginia knew that they were defeated and at the mercy of those who vanquished them.
Chamberlain noted that his reasons for doing what he did afterward.
“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!”
The next day Robert E Lee addressed his soldiers for the last time. Lee’s final order to his loyal troops was published the day after the surrender. It was a gracious letter of thanks to men that had served their beloved commander well in the course of the three years since he assumed command of them outside Richmond in 1862.
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. — R. E. Lee, General
Sadly, Lee failed to acknowledge his role in bringing the Confederacy to complete destruction by not telling his Commander in Chief, President Jefferson Davis that the war was lost when Atlanta fell. For all his virtues, he could not overcome his innate racism, and lack of moral courage to confront an arrogant superior that the war could not be won and the Confederacy surrender. Only Lee could have done so, Davis would not listen to anyone else, as no one had Lee’s stature and respect among Southerners. But he did not do that until his army was for all intents and purposes destroyed. If effect he continued to fight when there was no human, or Christian purpose to do so. With the fall of Atlanta he knew that there was no political, economic, diplomatic, or military reason to continue the war, but he did so anyway.
But Appomattox was the beginning of the end of the end. The war had really been lost at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July 1863, and was certainly lost when Sherman captured Atlanta and began his march across Georgia, which ensured that the Confederates would have to deal with Abraham Lincoln and not the Northern Peace Democrats or Copperheads, who were willing to let the Confederacy live than to continue a war that was being won on all fronts. Other Confederate forces continued to resist for several weeks, but with the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, led by the man that nearly all Southerners saw as the embodiment of their nation the war was effectively over.
Lee had fought hard and after the war was still under the charge of treason, but he understood the significance of defeat and the necessity of moving forward as one nation. In August 1865 Lee wrote to the trustees of Washington College of which he was now President:
“I think it is the duty of every citizen, in the present condition of the Country, to do all in his power to aid the restoration of peace and harmony… It is particularly incumbent upon those charged with the instruction of the young to set them an example of submission to authority.”
Unfortunately, by that time, despite his remaining prejudice and failure to acknowledge the evil of the cause for which he had fought, offered words which should have been heeded by every man and woman in the former Confederacy.
Brigadier General Ely Parker
Lee’s words, do offer a lesson for all of us in our terribly divided land need to learn regardless of or political affiliation or ideology in the midst of a global pandemic that pays no respect to the lives of anyone, that knows no border, race, creed, nation, or religion.
After he had signed the surrender document, Lee learned that Grant’s Aide-de-Camp Colonel Ely Parker, was a full-blooded Seneca Indian. He stared at Parker’s dark features and said: “It is good to have one real American here.”
Parker, a man whose people had known the brutality of the White man, as well as a man who was not considered a citizen and would never gain the right to vote in his lifetime, replied, “Sir, we are all Americans.”
That afternoon Parker would receive a commission as a Brevet Brigadier General of Volunteers, making him the first Native American to hold that rank in the United States Army. He would later be made a Brigadier General in the Regular Army.
I don’t know what Lee thought of that. His reaction is not recorded and he never wrote about it after the war, but it might have been in some way led to Lee’s letter to the trustees of Washington College. I think with our land so divided, ands that is time again that we learn the lessons so evidenced in the actions and words of Ely Parker, Ulysses Grant, Robert E. Lee and Joshua Chamberlain, for we are all Americans.
Sadly, I think that there is a portion of the American population who will not heed these words and will continue to agitate for policies and laws similar to those that led to the Civil War, and which those that could not reconcile defeat, and almost immediately put into place laws that made newly freed slaves, into slaves by another name again during the Post-Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras. For me such behavior and attitudes are incompressible, but they are all too real, and all too present in our divided nation.
But I still maintain hope that in spite of everything that divides us, in spite of the intolerance and hatred of some, that we can overcome. I think that the magnanimity of Grant in victory, the humility of Lee in defeat, the graciousness of Chamberlain in honoring the defeated foe, and the stark bluntness of Parker, the Native American, in reminding Lee, that “we are all Americans,” is something that is worth remembering, and yes, even emulating today.
But even more so we need to remember the words of the only man whose DNA and genealogy did not make him a European transplant, the man who Lee refereed to as the only true American at Appomattox, General Ely Parker, the Native American who fought for a nation that not acknowledge him as a citizen until long after he was dead.
In the perverted, unrequited racist age of President Donald Trump we have to stop the bullshit, and take to heart the words of Ely Parker. “We are all Americans.” If we don’t get that there is no hope for our country. No amount of military or economic might can save us if we cannot understand Parker’s words, or the words of the Declaration: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal…” Really, it does not matter if our relatives were second sons of European Gentry, religious dissidents, refugees of repressive regimes, African Slaves, Asians seeking a new life in a new country, or Mexican citizens who turned on their own country to become citizens of a new Republic, men like Mariano Vallejo, the Mexican governor of El Norte and one of the First U.S. Senators from California.
Let us never forget Ely Parker’ words at Appomattox, “We are all Americans.”
Sadly, there are not just more than a few Americans, and many with no familial or other connection to the Confederacy and the South than deeply held racism who would rather see another bloody civil war because they hate the equality of Blacks, Women, immigrants, and LGBTQ Americans more than they love the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.
That is why Parker’s words to Lee still matter so much and why we must never give up the fight for equality for all Americans. Likewise, whether one likes it or not, Robert E. Lee broke his sacred oath to the Constitution as a commissioned officer, and refused to free the slaves entrusted to his care by his Father in Law in 1859, who also refused to support his Confederate President’s plan to emancipate and free African American slaves who were willing to fight for the Confederacy until February 1865.
Lee the Myth is still greater than Lee the man in much of this country. Lee the man is responsible for the deaths for more Americans than the leaders of Imperial Germany, Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, or any other foreign power. He even cast aside such loyalists as George Pickett, whose division he destroyed in a suicidal attack at Gettysburg on July 3rd 1863, and then continued to damn Pickett for mistakes which were his own until the end of the war.
Both sides of my family fought for the Confederacy as officers and members of the 8th Virginia Cavalry. Most reconciled, but others didn’t, including the patriarch of my paternal side of the family. His decision ended up costing the family millions of dollars in the following years. The maternal side was smart enough to reconcile after the war and to later engage in the profoundly libertarian practice of bootlegging until the end of prohibition. I don’t know if any members of either side of my family were KKK supporters, but if they were I wouldn’t be surprised. They lost almost all they had during the war by fighting on the wrong side and when their rebellion ended in defeat many refused to reconcile with the United States, or head the words of Robert E. Lee, and they deserved it.
But, despite his words Robert E. Lee refused to completely admit his crime of treason. He used the language of reconciliation without fully embracing it.
So for me April 9th is very personal. I have served my country for nearly 38 and a half years, and in the midst of a pandemic I continue to serve while wondering if the grim necessity of the times keep me from retiring.
That being said, I cannot abide men and women who treat the men and women that I have served with in the defense of this county as less than human or fully entitled to the rights that are mine, more to my birth and race than today than any of my inherent talents or abilities. That includes my ancestors who fought for the Confederacy on both sides of my family. Ancestors or not, they were traitors to everything that I believe in and hold dear.
As for me, principles and equality trump all forms of racism, racist ideology, and injustice, even when the President himself advocates for them. I am a Union man, despite my Southern ancestry, and I will support the rights of people my ancestors would never support, Blacks, Hispanics, Women, LTBTQ, and other racial, religious, or gender minorities.
So I am a Unionist and a continuing abolitionist when it comes to protecting and advancing the rights of those whose rights continue to be trumped by prejudice. So I am a supporter of Equal rights for African Americans, immigrants of all races, nationalities, and religions. Likewise, I am a women’s rights advocate, including their reproductive rights, and a supporter of LGBTQ people and their rights, most of which are opposed by the Evangelical Christians who I grew up with. I also will not hesitate to criticize the elected President of the United States when he pisses on the preface of the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and attacks the bedrock principles of the Bill of Rights.
How can I be silent? I know that I cannot be a bystander, Even when in the midst of a pandemic these same people are not only being victimized by the Coronavirus pandemic, but by the government that should be doing it can to protect and defend the lives and livelihoods of all of us, citizens, those on the way to citizenship, or those who simply hope and long to be free by leaving their homelands to become truly free.
So I will stand fast on this anniversary of Appomattox and echo the words of Eli Parker to all, no-matter their status or unforgiving ideology that stand against them: “Sir, we are all Americans.” Such people, who represent the most extreme and ideological pillars of the political Right and Left, may not understand this, but I certainly do.
The failure to work towards reconciliation and equality on both sides of the ideological spectrum will doom us all, and destroy the Republic and the ideals that were planted in the Declaration, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution, the XIII, XIV, XV, and XIX Amendments, the Civil Rights Act of 1965, the Voting Rights Act of 1964, the end of DOMA, and the yesterday to be ratified Women’s Rights Act. The reversal of any of these achievements places us on a trail that only leads to an imperfect and imagined past which is often overplayed with myth and ideology to create a nation where diversity is the enemy, where race and religion matter more than the simple understanding that “all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights…”