‘I bid you an affectionate farewell’ – General Lee to His Troops

April 10, 1865 (Monday)

Postcard of McLean House

Postcard of McLean House

There came then soft rains, falling only slightly thicker than mist upon the blue and gray soldiers bivouacked in and around Appomattox Court House. Though General Lee had surrendered, the Union picket lines still held their formation, and mixing between the two armies, save higher ranking officers, had not yet come to be. The Confederates, arms stacked, held weak vigil over their camps, but for them the heavy war was at an end, though peace seemed foreign and incomprehensible.

General George Meade, who had battled Lee since the terrible summer of 1863, was not at the surrender. Through the rains, he rode now to meet with his adversary.

“Passing our picket line,” wrote Theodore Lyman of Meade’s staff, “and continuing on the main stage road we came among groups of rebel soldiers, standing listlessly about.” As they reached the Southern tents, Meade sent Lyman forward to find General Lee. There, he found General Charles Field, commanding Hood’s old division. This sullen gentleman escorted him to Lee’s headquarters in a nearby woods.

On the way, Lyman saw the condition of his former enemies. “They rebel infantry was camped, or rather bivouacked, along the road,” he wrote that night, “with their muskets stacked and the regimental colors planted. They appeared to have very little to eat and very few shelter tents. The number of men actually organized seemed small, their bivouacs did not appear larger than those of a weak corps.”

Lee was not at his headquarters, and was perhaps meeting with General Grant at this time. Fields and Lyman rode on, meeting up with Meade and shortly coming upon Lee.

“He looked in a brown study,” Lyman observed, “and gazed vacantly when Meade saluted him. But he recovered himself and said ‘What are you doing with all that gray in your beard?’ ‘That you have a good deal to do with!’ said our General promptly.”

New York Times, April 10, 1865.

New York Times, April 10, 1865.

As the two generals talked, Lyman took in all he could of this legend of Virginia. “Lee is a tall, strongly made man,” he penned, “With a florid but not fat face. His thick hair and beard, now nearly white, are somewhat closely trimmed. His head is large and high; the eye dark, clear, and unusually deep. His expression is not that of genius, or dash; but of wisdom, coolness, and real determination. His manners are courtly and reserved (now unusually so, of course). Though proud and manly to the last, he seemed deeply dejected.”

Earlier, General Grant had also met with Lee. E. Porter Alexander referred to it as “a friendly conference.” Grant asked Lee if he believed that the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia would lead as an example for the remaining armies of the Confederacy, inducing them to surrender “without additional bloodshed.” Still in the field was the army under Joe Johnston in North Carolina, as well as Richard Taylor’s forces in Alabama, and Kirby Smith’s troops of the Trans-Mississippi.

Lee considered this and figured that it would. “Grant suggested that Lee should go to North Carolina and confer with President Davis,” remembered Alexander, “and endeavor to promote the prompt advent of peace.” Lee, however, thought that it would be overstepping his authority as a military commander to attempt to influence the political. “I think there is no doubt that Mr. Davis would have considered it a great intrusion,” Alexander concluded.

By the time that Grant returned to the McLean house, “officers of both armies came in great numbers, and seemed to enjoy the meeting as much as though they had been friends separated for a long time while fighting battles under the same flag. For the time being it looked very much as if all thought the war had escaped their minds.”

Grant left shortly for Washington, but Theodore Lyman also found himself at the McLean house. There he saw James Longstreet and John Gordon mingling with old friends. And suddenly from behind, Lyman heard “How are you Ted?” When he turned, he saw his comrade from before the war, Roonie Lee. They had been classmates together at Harvard, and even joined the rowing team together.

“Poor Roonie!” lamented Lyman. “You lost that boat-race in college by careless training, and now you have lost a four-year race, and with it everything!”

That late morning, General Lee wrote a sort of farewell to his beloved army.

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.

— R. E. Lee, General, General Order No. 9

.((Sources: Meade’s Army by Theodore Lyman; Fighting for the Confederacy by E. Porter Alexander; Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant.))