English: Poster with reprint of General Robert E. Lee’s Farewell Address to the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, April 10, 1865. The Library of Congress, Washington, D. C. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
We left General Lee yesterday as he watched General Pickett’s Charge reel back from the Union line. The first two parts of this story are here and here. This was the bloodiest battle in American history with about 50,000 casualties.
A word is in order about weapons and tactics here because it is crucial to understand what is happening here.
The small arms carried by both sides were very similar and the Federals were more consistent so I’ll describe them. The standard weapon was the Model 1861 Springfield rifled musket, it had a percussion lock and fired a 58 caliber lead projectile, which was referred to as a Minié ball. it was an elongated (bullet shaped) and hollow which was to make it expand into the rifling of the musket. The effective fire range for this weapon was approximately 500 yards. (what the military sometimes refers to as “the beaten zone”. This weapon made catastrophic wounds, it tended to shatter the long bones in arms and legs which meant being wounded carried a high risk of losing an arm or leg.
This was the first general issue rifled weapon used in combat, during the Mexican War US troops had used the Model 1842 Springfield which was a .69 caliber smoothbore percussion musket, which had an effective range of about 100 yards at best. This is why in the Civil War, the traditional close order infantry assault, like Pickett’s Charge so rarely worked, they were usually shot to pieces long before bayonet range. British experience in the Napoleonic Wars, using the somewhat slower flintlock Brown Bess indicated that the defenders could only get off one volley before the assault closed to bayonet range but this was no longer even close to true.
But the tactics manuals and the high commands’ experience took time to catch up with this, all through the war both armies suffered from needless casualties from close order assaults across open ground. Lee was an offensive minded officer and was not immune to this. In fact some of his corp commanders at Gettysburg wanted to fight on the tactical defense and let the Federals do the assaulting. While not as glorious, this could have been a battle winner, remember Lee was North of the Union troops and threatening both Harrisburg and Philadelphia.
Anyway, as Lee was leading his shattered army away from Gettysburg followed by G.G. Meade with the nearly as badly beaten up Army of the Potomac back to Virginia word came in that on 4 July General Pemberton had surrendered Vicksburg to General Grant, thus prompting the telegram to Lincoln “The Father of Waters rolls unvexed to the sea”. Now the trans-Mississippi part of the Confederacy was cut off forever.
Soon General Grant would be promoted Lieutenant General and as such would command the entire US Army, he would co-locate with the Army of the Potomac because he believed that Lee had the eastern army overawed. General Sherman would replace Grant in the West and Sheridan would command in the Shenandoah. It was time for the moderns to take over and the rest of the war would foreshadow quite clearly what the wars of the twentieth century would look like.
The battles are interesting but not really for the strategic value. The main takeaway is that when Grant advanced in the spring of 1864 he met Lee in the Wilderness on the same ground as Chancellorsville was fought over. A hard battle was fought amongst the unburied skeleton, and fires licked through the underbrush burning some of the wounded to death. But after the battle the Federals marched to the fork of the road that went back to their camp or on to the southeast. Always before they had gone back to camp, no longer. Never again would the Army of the Potomac or the Army of Northern Virginia have a day without battle casualties. Horrid names lay ahead: Cold Harbor, the Mule shoe, and may others, and finally there would be the Siege of Petersburg, and still Grant kept sidestepping to the left flank until he cut the last railroad to Richmond from the south.
In the meantime the President had been reelected, a large share of his vote came from those serving in the army, even though he was running against McClellan. Sherman had taken Atlanta, which formed the basis for that major book and movie, “Gone with the Wind”. and then gone marching through Georgia tearing a 60 mile wide swath out of the breadbasket of the Confederacy and then up through the Carolinas.
Lincoln came down to the camp to confer with Grant and Sherman and gave them the advice to “let ’em up easy”. which both generals would do. While Lincoln was there Alexander Stephans, the Confederate Vice-President came out to parley for the end of the war. Since it still called for the survival of the Confederacy nothing came of it. It did give the troops on both sides a break from the siege though. Apparently a group of ladies followed the Vice President out and were sightseeing on the walls during the truce. A rebel soldier jumped out of the trenches and led the Confederates in three cheers for the Yankee Army, after which a Yankee picket jumped up and led the Union army in three cheers for the Rebels, after which both armies joined in three cheers for the ladies of Richmond.
And that was a characteristic of the war as well, the armies fought their hearts out, doing everything possible to win, but between battles they were nearly friends, often trading Yankee coffee for Rebel tobacco, and in general doing little to hurt each other when it wouldn’t help the war effort. They understood each other, and knew perfectly well that when the war ended they would have to get along together, and acted accordingly.
But that railroad was cut, and Lee sent word to President Davis that he would have to abandon Richmond. That April of 1865, and the Rebels marched out and the Federals marched in, and helped put out the fires that had spread from the army warehouses that had been torched. And soon here came Abraham Lincoln, nearly alone just looking around.
And so the storied Army of Northern Virginia attempted to escape the noose and march to unite with the rest of the army, but they ran headlong into Sheridan’s troops and everybody knew it was over. One of Lee’s staff officers suggested that they disband and go bushwacking as they termed guerrilla war but Lee vetoed the idea saying was too old and he would have to go see General Grant. And so it was arranged. These two men who had known each other slightly in Mexico, met in Wilmer McLean’s front parlor.
The McLean’s had moved here to Appomattox Court House in 1861 to get away from the war, their former home was on the battlefield at Bull Run clean back in 1861.
And so the Generals met, Lee in his best uniform, and Grant in a private’s fatigue blouse with the stars of the Lieutenant General on his shoulder straps. Grant made small talk about the campaign in Mexico (he was bad at it) in an attempt to put Lee at his ease until Lee brought them back to business. Asking the general known as Unconditional Surrender Grant what terms he would offer.
He was surprised at their generosity but mentioned that in his army the horses and mules were not government property, and Grant said they should keep them then, they would be needed for the spring plowing.
And so the proud battle flags were cased as that army, the fabled Army of Northern Virginia surrendered, and soon the bolder spirits of the Army of the Potomac filtered down to visit and then the armies mingled and chatted about the places they’d been and what they’d done, and soon the commissary wagons came in from the Union depots and fed everybody, the Confederates had been living on acorns and marching barefoot for a while. And so it ended.
And there were only a few hangings, people who had it coming, like the commandant of the Andersonville prisoner of war camp, not that the Union ones were much better, really. And the Army of Northern Virginia disappeared into legend, never forgotten North or South, one of the greatest and without doubt the most romantic of American armies.
What they did was remarkable, two of the greatest armies in the history of the world, maneuvering and fighting for 4 years, neither able to finally defeat each other. Why?
There are two predominant strains in American warmaking, both came from Winfield Scott and were perfected in the Civil War.
The first is overwhelming firepower, especially in artillery, the artillery came into its own in the Civil war as rifled guns, aerial spotting and Fitz-Hugh Porters Rebel corps artillery, but other things as well, the machine gun made its début, in the form of the Gatling Gun, as we mentioned breechloading magazine fed rifles had their combat début as well. They were mostly Henries, the father of the Winchester of western fame. This was the Army of the Potomac’s specialty.
The second strain was brilliant and daring leadership, this was epitomized by General Lee but there many others both North and South. Their legacy is the Pattons, the MacArthurs, the Swartzkopfs, and all the others. This war is when America’s Army entered the modern world, years before even the Prussians, who used some of the lessons against the French, especially in railroad mobility. And the Germans, who studied British Captain Sir Basil Liddel-Hart’s study of Jackson and Sherman while planning how their Blitzkrieg would work.
Lee was a reluctant warrior (from Wikipedia)
Lee privately ridiculed the Confederacy in letters in early 1861, denouncing secession as “revolution” and a betrayal of the efforts of the founders. Writing to his son William Fitzhugh, Lee stated, “I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union.” While he was not opposed in principle to secession, Lee wanted all peaceful ways of resolving the differences between North and South—such as the Crittenden Compromise—to be tried first, and was one of the few to foresee a long and difficult war.
After the war he was not arrested or punished although he did lose his right to vote, to attempt any more would have violated Grant’s word, and that was not going to happen.
After the armies had surrendered there was a great celebration in the streets of Washington. President Lincoln came out on the balcony, and the crowd asked him to speak. Instead he asked the band to play this song.
Saying that now it belonged to the nation.
Lincoln was of course, assassinated, with him the South lost the last man who could have made it an easy peace. But Johnson couldn’t control the Radicals (he did try) and the South went through the horrors and corruption of Reconstruction.
Lee became the President of Washington College, now Washington and Lee College, where he was much-loved and idolized. He also lost the home he loved, across from Washington in Virginia, a vengeful government used its lawn as a cemetery, first for black soldiers in his wife’s pride, her rose garden. The house is still there, it is Arlington House and overlooks Arlington National Cemetery. I like to think that General Lee would approve of his home being the resting place of the nations bravest soldiers.
He died of a stroke in 1870, and was mourned both North and South.
Above all his legacy to us is one of Duty and Honor, many of you know my favorite quote of the General
Duty then is the sublimest word in the English language. You should do your duty in all things.
You can never do more. You should never wish to do less.