- Historic Sites
This Hallowed Ground
AN EXCERPT FROM A NEW BOOK WHICH TELLS HOW THE CIVIL WAR CAME TO ITS TERRIBLE, HAUNTING CONCLUSION
October 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 6
There was an American aristocracy, and it had had a great day. It came from the past and it looked to the past; it had brought the country to its birth and had provided many of its beliefs; it had given courage and leadership, a sense of order and learning, and if there had been any way by which the Eighteenth Century could possibly have been carried forward into the future this class would have provided the perfect vehicle. Of all the things that went to make up the war, none had more importance than the desperate fight to preserve these disappearing values. The fight had been made and it had been lost, and everything that had been dreamed and tried and fought for was personified in the gray man who sat at the little table in the parlor at Appomattox and waited for the other man to start writing out the terms of surrender.
The other man was wholly representative, too. Behind him there was a new society, not dreamed of by the Founding Fathers: a society with the lid taken off, western man standing up to assert that what lay back of a person mattered nothing in comparison to what lay ahead of him. It was the land of the mudsills, the temporarily dispossessed, the people who had nothing to lose but the future; behind it were hard times, humiliation, and failure, and ahead of it was all the world and a chance to lift one’s self by one’s bootStraps. It was rough and uncultivated, and it came to important meetings wearing muddy boots and no sword, and it had to be listened to.
Grant seems to have been almost embarrassed when he and Lee came together in this parlor; yet it was definitely not the embarrassment of an underling, ill at ease in a superior’s presence. Rather, it was simply the diffidence of a sensitive man who had another man in his power and wished to hurt him as little as possible. Perhaps the oddest thing about this meeting at Appomattox was that it was Grant, the nobody from nowhere, who played the part of gracious host, trying to put the aristocrat at his ease and, as far as might be, to soften the weight of the blow that was about to come down.
At last, Grant opened his orderly book and wrote out the terms. Lee’s army was to be surrendered, from commanding general down to humblest private. All public property would be turned over to the United States Army—battle flags, guns, muskets, wagons, everything. Officers might keep their side arms and their horses, but the army and everything it owned was to go out of existence.
It was not, however, to go off to a prison camp. Officers and men, having disarmed themselves, would simply give their paroles. Then they could go to their homes … and here Grant wrote one of the greatest sentences in American history, the sentence that, more than any other thing, would finally make it impossible for any vengeful government in Washington to proceed against Confederate veterans as traitors. Having gone home, he wrote, officers and men could stay there, “not to be disturbed by the United States authorities so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.” When the powerful signature, “U. S. Grant,” was signed under that sentence, the chance that Confederate soldiers might be hanged or imprisoned for treason went out the window.
The business was finally signed and settled. Lee went out on the porch, looked off over the hills, and smote his hands together absently while Traveller was being bridled, and then mounted and started to ride away. Grant and his officers saluted, Lee returned the salute, and there was a little silence while the man in gray rode off to join the pathetic remnant of an army which had just gone out of existence—rode off into mist and legend, to take his place at last in the folklore and the cherished memories of the nation which had been too big for him.
Grant stayed in character. He heard a banging of guns; Union artillerists were firing salutes to celebrate the victory, and Grant sent word to have all that racket stopped—those men in gray were enemies no longer but simply fellow countrymen (which, as Grant saw it, was what the war had all been about) and nothing would be done to humiliate them. Instead, wagonloads of Federal hardtack and bacon would start moving at once for the Confederate camp, so that Lee’s hungry men might have a square meal. Meanwhile, the Army of the Potomac was alerted to be ready to move on, if necessary. It was just possible it might have to march down into North Carolina and help Sherman take care of Joe Johnston.
But this would not be needed. Lee was the keystone of the arch, and when he was removed the long process of collapse moved swiftly to its end. Johnston himself had no illusions. Now he was ready to do as Lee had done. What remained of the Confederate government—Jefferson Davis and his iron determination, cabinet ministers, odds and ends of government papers and funds—was flitting south, looking in vain for some refuge where it could start all over again, but there was no place where it could go. Far down in Alabama General Wilson’s cavalry had taken Selma, the last remaining munitions center, and had gone on to occupy Montgomery. Mobile had been surrendered, and the Confederate troops in Mississippi and Alabama would lay down their arms as soon as the Federals could catch up with them. Beyond the Mississippi there still existed a Confederate army, but it might as well have been in Siberia. As an obvious matter of inescapable fact, the war was over.