Lee’s Last Retreat

This book by William Marvel covers Lee’s retreat from the Richmond/Petersburg trenches to Appomattox.

Near the very end, the confederacy, in its desperation, tried to entice African-Americans to enlist. “All but the most dull-witted of slaves comprehended the absurdity of fighting for their own bondage, and only the direst necessity could induce any black man, slave or free, to enlist; two condemned burglars became the first volunteers, offering their services on the day they were to have been hanged.” [p. 5]

Marvel also talks about the problems the confederates had with desertions. “Union deserters came the other way, too, but the mass of disloyal traffic flowed toward Federal lines. Shots punctuated the darkness every night as Confederate pickets fired on their deserters, but the strictest precautions failed to stanch the flow. The discouraged Rebels knew that if they made it past their own and the enemy’s pickets unscathed there would be hot coffee and a train ticket waiting for them, or a job if they wanted one; if they brought their weapons, or smuggled over some horses or mules, they could collect some cash as well. With such incentives they came by the dozens daily, especially in the cold weather. The second half of February seemed particularly productive: on the night of February 21 thirty-two came over along a half-mile stretch of trenches below Petersburg, and two nights later fifty-six more of them slipped into the lines of a single Federal division. Cold and snow continued into March, further wearing Confederate will, and Union morale soared commensurately at the volume and variety of Confederate deserters. Groups of neighbors or relatives frequently decamped together, including heretofore reliable veterans whose comrades considered them substantial citizens at home, and sometimes now their company officers joined them: in the closing days of March the adjutant general’s office in Richmond received an alarming number of letters from regimental and brigade commanders asking to have captains and lieutenants dropped from their rolls for desertion. One Mississippi captain was suspected of having assumed the identity of a returned prisoner in order to reach home on that man’s furlough papers.” [pp. 5-6]

Contrary to popular belief, the Army of Northern Virginia was able to get some reinforcements during this time. “James Edward Hall, from the mountains of what the Yankees now called West Virginia, had just returned to his regiment from a lengthy sojourn in a Federal prison: exchanged prisoners had offered General Lee his greatest single source of reinforcements during March.” [p. 24] Now that the confederates agreed to exchange soldiers without regard to race, the exchanges were back on, and most returning confederates were in such good shape they were able to go right back into the ranks. “After nine months in Union prison camps, [Captain John] Gorman had returned to duty only a few weeks before, resuming command of a company of the 2nd North Carolina that he had led since Antietam.” [p. 32]

Marvel discusses numbers of troops on several occasions, such as here: “A dozen years after the fact, Colonel [Walter] Taylor [Lee’s chief of staff], who had begun his retreat with a wedding, would calculate that Lee’s army amounted to no more than 25,000 men ‘of all arms’ when it fell back on Amelia Court House and that it faced a blue host more than six times that number. His ciphering complied with a popular Southern romance of the postwar era that blamed the ultimate defeat on overwhelming Union numbers, but Taylor underestimated Confederate strength by half while substantially exaggerating the numbers of the enemy. On the night of April 3 more than 50,000 soldiers remained at least nominally under Lee’s immediate control. That represented a larger army than he had carried into Maryland in 1862, and it slightly exceeded the number of sound men he had brought back from Pennsylvania in 1863. Many of them carried no arms–mostly, at first, because their duties did not require it, and sometimes because they had abandoned them in flight–but such men had been reorganized and rearmed before. The hour for utter despair seemed not yet to have come, or at least so thought a sizable portion of the army. Another faction evidently disagreed, though, and thousands of those discouraged Southrons took this opportunity to slip away from their comrades. Confederate soldiers had availed themselves of unauthorized absences throughout the war, but most of those who absconded during this final crisis had no intention of coming back. The chief difference between earlier retreats and this one lay in the number of men who so resolutely drifted away from the army, and nowhere was the phenomenon more obvious than in the demoralized southernmost column under Richard Anderson. The two largest divisions in the entire army, George Pickett’s and Bushrod Johnson’s, had fairly melted away in the rout of April 1 and in the subsequent pursuit. On the last day of February these two generals had mustered nearly 16,000 men within their camps, more than 13,000 of whom had stood present for duty. By the morning of April 4 not half of those soldiers remained within the sound of a Confederate bugle, and barely half of those who clung to the colors could be relied upon in a fight.” [p. 41]

The popular imagination of the surrender ceremony has Joshua “Don’t Call Me” Lawrence Chamberlain chosen, due to his bravery and gallantry, to command the Union troops at the ceremony where he commanded the troops to salute the confederate troops, “honor answering honor.” Marvel casts a little rain on that parade. First of all, he tells us Maj. Gen. John Gibbon was in charge of the surrender [p. 190]. Also, things didn’t go as smoothly as the popular version would have it. “It seemed that General Gordon had taken matters into his own hands, deciding to hold a unilateral surrender ceremony on the other side of the river, beyond the gloating gaze of the hated Yankees. Longstreet’s divisions had stacked their arms in fields along the roadside the day before, and Gordon apparently reasoned that he had only to do the same thing for the Federals to give the Confederate infantry their paroles, as they had the cavalry and artillery. Late that misty Tuesday afternoon Gordon marched his corps once more into one of the expansive fields that bounded the stage road, where he took the opportunity to deliver another dramatic exhortation. No one appears to have noted what he had to say this time, but his defiant divergence from the prescribed ritual demonstrated that he clearly meant to preserve Southern pride; he probably polished that strange new version of surrender-without-defeat with which so many already seemed infected, cultivating the Confederate spirit in a manner that Union observers would never have tolerated.” [pp. 191-192] Congressman Elihu Washburne was present at the time. “For him, the symbolic stacking of arms mattered most, and he seemed little concerned that while the ragged brigades marched away one of Gordon’s bands struck up ‘Dixie.’ Other bands of Gordon’s, perhaps including the one that accompanied this last march, had encouraged Southern belligerence on this same ground just three nights previously, and the moisture-muted notes seemed to suggest that little had changed since the fighting ended.” [p. 192]

This would have consequences, though. “Union authorities wished to impress upon Lee’s army that something had very significantly changed. It may have been through Washburne’s own rendition of the event that John Gibbon learned of Gordon’s recalcitrance, and Gibbon wasted no time letting the Confederate know that his more palatable version of the drama would not satisfy the side that still held the parole certificates. Gibbon very likely reconvened the surrender commission, or those commission members who had not yet departed, and he managed to convey to Gordon that before they could go home those 20,000 infantrymen were going to have to march across the Appomattox River, enter the village, and stack their arms between the assembled witnesses of the United States government. Gibbon’s fellow commissioner, General Griffin, must have sat in on the discussion, for word quickly spread through his Fifth Corps staff that Gordon had objected strenuously, though in vain.” [p. 192] This is what led to Chamberlain’s presence, not as the commander of the Union troops. That was Gibbon. Griffin was also in the chain above Chamberlain, as was the division commander, Joseph Bartlett. The next day, “Bartlett’s division marched back into position along the stage road. Three ranks of dark uniforms lined up in the grey shadows all the way through the village, from the ridge near the Peers house to the McLean house. To the northeast the Confederates were stirring as well, and in Gordon’s camps the brigades began forming early, marching back to the previous evening’s parade ground to retrieve their rifles and equipment, only to surrender them all over again.” [p. 193]

Chamberlain, a brigade commander, was by luck of the draw positioned closest to the confederate route of march. “On the right of Bartlett’s line, near the Peers house, stood the veteran brigade now commanded by Brigadier General Joshua L. Chamberlain, who had his men in place at 5:00 A.M. He had been reassigned to that brigade, which included his original regiment, the day after the surrender. Of all the men who fought heroically and well during the Civil War (and Chamberlain had done so), few promoted their own legends more actively and successfully than he did. A college professor from Maine just three years before this day, he saw the world as one grand romantic cavalcade in which he participated prominently, and if he did anything common, he seemed unable to remember it that way. His regiment had stood firm against the enemy on the second day at Gettysburg, but Chamberlain could not be satisfied unless his performance had saved the entire Union army. When a bullet nearly killed him at Petersburg, he begged to be promoted to brigadier general before he died, and a sympathetic recommendation raced its way to an accommodating General Grant. Later Chamberlain forgot his deathbed plea, remembering instead that Grant had offered the honor spontaneously–adding, inaccurately, that he had been the first recipient of such a battlefield promotion. Chamberlain could have passed for a hero with no exaggeration at all, yet he tended to recount his exploits in such towering grandiloquence that led even an old friend and comrade [Ellis Spear] to question his veracity. And so it would be with Appomattox. Because of his brigade’s position along the road, Chamberlain would stand amid the first cluster of Union officers the Confederates would see as they marched in, and he made the most of it. Henceforth he would have it that he commanded the receiving troops in that illustrious ceremony–even that Ulysses Grant had personally chosen him for that honor–and from that inflated perspective he would remember offering the defeated foe a salute that banished sectional antagonism and launched the spirit of national reunion.” [pp. 193-194] Chamberlain had the advantage of longevity. After General Bartlett died, in his retelling of the story he became the division commander, not just a brigade commander, at the ceremony. His story of the salute underwent changes as well. “With no better success he attempted to reconcile his purported salute with the manual of arms, but in the process he suggested instead that he had merely called his men to the period equivalent of ‘attention,’ with no real salute at all.” [p. 194]

John Brown Gordon corroborated a salute, apparently for his own reasons. “It did no harm to Chamberlain’s glorified version of events that the first Southern troops to march into the village that morning belonged to General Gordon, who owned a romantic imagination to match Chamberlain’s, and Gordon found the fable too appealing to refute. In the real era of reunion, thirty years hence, he clung to it as the surrender ceremony he, too, would have wished to see. The story grew incredibly confused in Gordon’s hands, and at least once he told an audience that Chamberlain had formally presented arms to an army led not by Gordon but by Robert E. Lee himself, incidentally insinuating that Chamberlain had not actually commanded that parade.” [p. 194]

There are very few accounts of the ceremony. Chamberlain and Gordon had several versions themselves. “Chamberlain himself wrote an account of the spectacle for his sister the next day, and although that narrative ran rank with the general’s enormous ego, he remarked on no salute, telling her only that his troops stood ‘at a shoulder & in silence’ as the Confederates passed. No Confederates mentioned a salute, either, although some of them noted the quiet courtesy of the assembled victors and the orderly conduct on both sides.” [pp. 194-195] None of the Union soldiers who left accounts mentioned a salute either. Marvel has a possible explanation for the type of movement ordered, though. “General Grant had expressly wished to avoid unpleasant encounters that might mar the surrender: bringing the troops to a rigid position demanding stillness and silence would have been the customary means of preventing disruptive exchanges. The sun had not long risen when the first of Gordon’s corps passed Chamberlain’s brigade flag. Chamberlain called out the order, his men lifted their rifle barrels against their right shoulders, and–probably–Gordon snapped his men from route step to formal marching order for their final appearance as an army. They slogged through the mud over the top of the rise and into the village, halted, and faced to the left. As their officers barked the old commands, they strode forward, fixed what bayonets remained to them, and reconstructed the stacks of muskets they had dismantled across the river an hour before.” [p. 195]

The book has some flaws. In writing about Richard S. Ewell, he claims, “His first and best opportunity to shine had come at Gettysburg, and he had not improved the moment.” [p. 39] Marvel apparently forgets Second Winchester, which had folks declaring Ewell the next Stonewall Jackson. He also ignores that Ewell may very well have been right in his decision not to try to take Cemetery Hill on July 1. Marvel likes to play the curmudgeon, and this is quite evident from the tone of his writing. Skepticism of the accepted view is a good thing, but the curmudgeonly tone taken too far tends to grate a bit.

Still, overall the account is well done and I can highly recommend it for those who are looking for a good, generally accurate account of what happened in the closing days of the Army of Northern Virginia.



  1. I like your characterization of Marvel as a curmudgeon—it fits.

    1. Thanks, Jim. I think he is actively cultivating that impression.

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