A former college student relates his experiences at the end of the Civil War.
They have kept their oath. One-third lie sleeping beneath the soil they loved so well; one-third, with limbs missing, are hobbling along the highways of life hopeless, well-nigh helpless; and one-third, famine-stricken, almost naked, have grounded their arms before their conquerors, …
The Curtain Falls.
I LEFT Petersburg and reached Richmond by noon. Oh, what a change! The proudest of the proud Confederate cities! The Empress of the South! The Queen City of the New Nation! with the matchless legions of Lee as her body-guard, now fallen, her throne overturned, her diadem of priceless jewels in the mire and trodden beneath the victor’s heel.
Where are the incomparable infantry who swore to die before the majesty of her presence should be profaned by so much as a hostile touch? They have kept their oath. One-third lie sleeping beneath the soil they loved so well; one-third, with limbs missing, are hobbling along the highways of life hopeless, well-nigh helpless; and one-third, famine-stricken, almost naked, have grounded their arms before their conquerors, who, God be thanked! raised no cheers, uttered no taunt to the men whose gleaming steel they had seen so often in the battle smoke.
I walked up Franklin Street to see General Lee, and found him alone in the double parlor of his house, walking up and down lost in deep thought. As I looked at him I felt what General Wolseley wrote: and be it said that Wolseley, who was commander-in-chief of the English Army, had met in his varied career every sovereign, monarch and ruler in Europe, and every sultan, rajah and potentate in Asia:
“I have met,” said he, “with many of the great men of my time, but Lee alone impressed me with the feeling that I was in the presence of a man who was cast in a grander mold, and made of different and finer metal than all other men.”
It is a transcendental tribute, but it is true. I have met General Lee many times; first when as a boy I visited Arlington, with Parke Custis, showing me his paintings on the wall; I have seen General Lee as he was taking his daily walk unattended by staff officer or orderly, and have been at his headquarters many times, and always with the same feeling of homage. It was not the difference of rank, for as we stood in that room, all title, power and rank had vanquished; we were two Virginia gentlemen of the same walk; his princely heritage, Arlington, was confiscated; mine, equally as fine, a few miles distant, had shared the same fate, and still the same reverent love and profound respect made my heart beat and my cheeks flush as I greeted the Virginia gentleman, Robert E. Lee, as when I saluted the commander of the Confederate Army, with sixty thousand soldiers at his back.
In every large army there are many rough, ribald wretches who hold nothing sacred and have no reverence, and who hate all in authority, yet those very men were devoted heart and soul to Lee. What magic was that which attracted the undying affection of all who came in contact with him? What power that so awoke adoration in women’s breasts that they put gloves on their right hands when meeting him, only to take them off and lay them away as a most priceless souvenir to be handed down to their children and their children’s children with the tradition that the hand of General Lee once clasped the glove?
Every tongue was tied, and malice was dumb when his name was mentioned.
Thiers cites an incident of the idolatrous love which the veterans of the Old Guard felt for Napoleon: “At Borodino a shell fell near Napoleon with the fuse burning, and two of his guards jumped between him and the sputtering bomb.”
I do not believe there was a soldier in our army that would not have done the same for Lee, and without a thought that he was giving his life to shield him from harm. A man who inspires such love is as immortal as any being born of woman can be.
When I grasped his hand and looked in his face it was as much as I could do to keep from breaking down. The last time I saw him was at the head of his legions, advancing against Meade near Bristow Station, and now—solitary and alone he stood. Jupiter divested of his bolt, Neptune bereft of his trident, Mars robbed of his buckler and javelin—yet how he stood, unmatched among all men. I could never analyze the feeling that General Lee inspired in me. I had visited at his home at Arlington before the war, his son being a schoolmate of mine, and I had seen him there, and he was my boyish hero, but afterwards, when a reckless, careless soldier, with not one atom of reverence in my make-up, he subdued me by his very presence. It was not fear, it was a mixed feeling of homage, adoration and awe. His was not an obtrusive personality, but there enveloped him a nameless grandeur, a simple yet immaculate dignity, a kingly presence that made one unconsciously take off his hat and stand bareheaded in his presence. I have met some of the greatest men of the times, but I merely felt a profound respect for their genius of talent, nothing more. I can understand how men stand, diffident, respectful, subdued before an Oriental despot, a Latin king, but to have those feelings before a conquered soldier is an enigma that is simply beyond solution.
The future Thiers or Macaulay, in writing the history of the American Civil War, will find it difficult to detail the reason of the boundless love and faith that the soldiery had for Lee. Envy’s hiss or Folly’s bray never touched him. With all other generals of the army, slander and gossip were rife, but not even Detraction whispered one word against Lee. It was not his name or family prestige, for there was his eldest son, W. H. F. Lee, who commanded a brigade of cavalry; I have heard the ragged Rebs who served under him curse him up and down and all around.
Lee never used the arts of other great commanders to curry favor with the rank and file; he never caroused with them like Caesar did with the Legionaries, nor indulged in the song and dance business as Napoleon was wont to do with his grizzled veterans of the Old Guard; Lee treated all alike courteously, though he showed more tenderness toward the men in the ranks, for Lee loved his men and none appreciated more than he the unparalleled hardships they suffered (his youngest son among them) with such undaunted fortitude. If the unselfish, divine love of millions could compensate a man for the sting of defeat, Lee was fully recompensed.
I believed then, and I believe now, that no man born of woman ever stood so close to the Immortal as Robert E. Lee.
I asked him to give me his advice about going to Brazil. I will never forget his words.
“Your first duty,” he said, “is to go home and make your mother’s heart glad, and your next is to Virginia. She needs all her sons more now than ever.” He added, in substance, that we all must commence a new life and be good citizens. “Many of my soldiers have been to see me,” he continued, “who were resolved upon self-banishment, and in every instance I have urged them to stay and repair the fortunes of their State.”
While he was talking the sound of music came stealing through the open window; louder and louder it grew, until the windows rattled with the beat of the drum.
“What troops are those?” asked the General as he stepped to the window. As he stood there, bathed, in the bright spring sunshine, he was visible to the Union soldiery. The men cheered him heartily, and mounted officers of the staff and foot officers of the line saluted with their swords.
“They know you, General,” I said, “as well as your own men do.”
He bowed his head and resumed his walk up and down the room. I left the great commander to his thoughts, never loving him in his power as I did in his days of sorrow.
At the house of a friend I was introduced to a colonel of an Ohio regiment of Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee, and accepted his invitation to be his guest on my way home to Alexandria; so by a queer trick of fate, here I was riding at the head of a Union brigade in full uniform.
I may say here that no man ever received more chivalrous courtesy or delicate kindness. Every private soldier had a cheery word, and the Colonel and his military staff were to me as if I had been their own kith and kin.
While at Warrenton Junction, resting a day in camp, I took the Colonel and his staff on a tour through Mosby’s Confederacy. What magical change! not a scout lurked in the woods nor a trooper hid in the covert.
“Where are all of Mosby’s men?” asked the Colonel.
“There is one plowing, and that man hauling rocks was in my regiment, and his old horse cheated the buzzards and is pulling that cart as though he loved it.”
I bade farewell to my newly found blue-coated friends at Warrenton Junction and started to visit some of my friends a few miles away. I had not gone over a mile when I saw a squadron of cavalry coming from the direction of Warrenton. When I saw the yellow-striped jackets of my former foes I swung my mare around instinctively to take to the woods; but I had received so much kindness from my erstwhile foes that I advanced to meet them. It was a case of misplaced confidence. The war was over, it is true, but I had a fine mare, and a parole in my pocket. The mare was sired by the famous Chantilly, and she was a beauty. Old instincts were strong, and I swapped the brown filly for an old plug that should have been ground up into bone-dust long before the war commenced. My! this was “fat and lean” for sure, and I felt like saying with Bill Arp: “If this is peace it is of the biblical kind and ‘surpasseth all understanding.’”
I could imagine what Dick Martin would have said had he been in my situation. Dick is given to profanity when provoked; he would have said to the man who took the mare: “I hope she will throw you and break your damn neck.”
But “good can come out of Nazareth!” That night I heard of an incident pertaining to a Federal officer which deserves to be chronicled; it was an act that would have graced the most chivalrous knight of the crusaders. It happened near Salem in Mosby’s Confederacy. Miss Gertrude Ashby, a lovely girl in her teens, was visiting a neighbor, and walking along the broad road, lined on each side by a stone wall, she, to her dismay and horror, met a brigade of Federal cavalry. She was so overcome with fright that she had to hold on to the wall for support. The general commanding, seeing her terror, rode up to her, saluted, and then took his post beside her.
What a picture for an artist: the timid, shrinking girl; the passing soldiery, the figure on horseback as motionless as though cast in bronze; not until the last man had passed did he move, then lifting his hat he rode on and took his place at the head of his column.
If the war broke out suddenly, it ended just as abruptly; or as an old Reb said, “the Confederacy was like a candle—it did not flicker, but went right out.”
—Alexander Hunter, Johnny Reb and Billy Yank (1904).
Courtesy of Democratic Thinker