The Last Stand by Lee's Army
BY GEN. JOHN B. GORDON
On the evening of April 8th, this little army, with its ammunition nearly exhausted, was confronted by the forces of General Grant, which had been thrown across our line of retreat at Appomattox. Then came the last sad Confederate council of war. It was called by Lee to meet at night. It met in the woods at his headquarters and by a low-burning bivouac-fire. There was no tent there, no table, no chairs, and no camp-stools. On blankets spread upon the ground or on saddles at the roots of the trees we sat around the great commander. A painter's brush might transfer to canvas the physical features of that scene, but no tongue or pen will ever be able to describe the unutterable anguish of Lee's commanders as they looked into the clouded face of their beloved leader and sought to draw from it some ray of hope.
There were present at this final council the general-in-chief, the commander of his artillery,
General Pendleton; General Fitzhugh Lee, who in the absence of Wade Hampton commanded the cavalry, and General Longstreet and myself, commanding all that was left of his immortal infantry. These fragments of each arm of the service still represented the consecration and courage that had made Lee's army, at the meridian of its power, almost invincible.
The numbers and names of the staff officers who were present I can not now recall; and it would be as impossible to give the words that were spoken or the suggestions that were made as it would to photograph the thoughts and 'emotions of that soldier group gathered at Lees' last bivouac The letters of General Grant asking surrender, and the replies thereto, evoked a discussion as to the fate of the Southern people and the condition in which the failure of our cause would leave them. There was also some discussion as to the possibility of forcing a passage through Grant's lines and saving a small portion of the army, and continuing a desultory warfare until the Government at Washington should grow weary and grant to our people peace, and the safeguard of local selfgovernment. If all that was said and felt at that meeting could' be given it would make a volume of measureless pathos. In no hour of the great war did General Lee's masterful characteristics appear to me so conspicuous as they did in that last council. We knew by our own aching hearts that his was breaking. Yet he commanded himself, and stood calmly facing and discussing the long-dreaded and inevitable.
It was finally determined that with Fitz Lee's cavalry, my infantry, and Long's artillery, under Colonel Thomas H. Carter, we should attempt at daylight the next morning to cut through Grant's lines. Longstreet was to follow in support of the movement. The utmost that could be hoped for was that we might reach the mountains of Virginia and Tennessee with a remnant of the army, and ultimately join General Johnston.
The audacious movement of our troops was begun at dawn. The dashing cavalry leader, Fitzhngh Lee, swept through the Union left flank, while the infantry and artillery attacked the front. I take especial pride in recording the fact that this last charge of the war was made by the foot-sore and standing men of my command with a spirit worthy the best days of Lee's army. The Union breastworks were carried. Two pieces of artillery were captured. The Federals were driven from all that portion of the field, and the brave boys in tattered gray cheered as their battle-flags waved in triumph on that last morning.
The Confederate battle-lines were still advancing when I discovered a heavy column of Union infantry coming from the right and upon my rear. I gathered around me my sharpshooters, who were now held for such emergencies, and directed Colonel Thomas H. Carter, of the artillery, to turn all his guns upon the advancing column. It was held at bay by his shrapnel, grape, and canister. While the Confederate infantry and cavalry were thus fighting at the front, and the artillery was check ing the development of Federal forces around my right and rear, Longstreet was assailed by other portions of the Federal army. He was so hardly prest that he could not join, as contemplated, in the effort to break the cordon of men an metal around us. At this critical juncture a column of Union cavalry appeared on the hills to my left, headed for the broad space between Longstreet's command and mine. In a few minutes that body of Federal cavalry would not only have seized the trains but cut off all communication between the two wings of Lee's army and rendered its capture inevitable. I therefore detached a brigade to double-quick and intercept this Federal force.
Such was the situation, its phases rapidly shifting and growing more intensely thrilling at each moment, when I received a significant inquiry from General Lee. It was borne by Colonel Charles S. Venable, of his staff, afterward the chairman of the faculty of the University of Virginia. The commander wished me to report at once as to the conditions on my portion of the field, what progress I was making, and what encouragement I could give. I said: "Tell General Lee that my command has been fought to a frazzle, and unless Longstreet can unite in the movement, or prevent these forces from coming upon my rear, I can not long go forward." .
When General Lee received my message he said: "There is nothing left me but to go and see General Grant, and I had rather die a thousand deaths." My troops were still fighting, furiously fighting in nearly every direction, when the final note from General Lee reached me. It notified me that there was a flag of truce between General Grant and himself, stopping hostilities, and that I could communicate that fact to the commander of the Union forces in my front. .. Colonel Peyton soon informed me that we had no flag of truce. I said: "Well, take your handkerchief and tie that on a stick, and go." He felt in his pocket and said, "General, I have no handkerchief." "Then tear your shirt, sir, and tie that to a stick." He looked at his shirt, and then at mine, and said, "General, I have on a flannel shirt, and I see you have. I don't believe there is a white shirt in the army." "Get something, sir," I ordered. "Get something and go!"
He secured a rag of some sort, and rode rapidly away in search of General Ord. He did not find Ord, but he found Sheridan, and returned to me accompanied by an officer of strikingly picturesque appearance. This Union officer was slender and graceful, and a superb rider. He wore his hair very long, falling almost to his shoulders. Guided by my staff-officer, he galloped to where I was sitting on my horse, and, with faultless grace and courtesy, saluted me with his sabre and said:
"I am General Custer, and bear a message to you from General Sheridan. The General desires me to present to you his compliments, and to demand the immediate and unconditional surrender of all the troops under your command." I replied, "You will please, General, return my compliments to General Sheridan, and say to him that I shall not surrender my command." "He directs me to say to you, General, if there is any hesitation about your surrender, that he has you surrounded and can annihilate your command in an hour."
To this I answered that I was probably as well aware of my situation as was General Sheridan; that I had nothing to add to my message informing him of the contents of the note from General Lee; that if General Sheridan decided to continue the fighting in the face of the flag of truce, the responsibility for the blood shed would be his and not mine.
In a short time thereafter a white flag was seen approaching. Under it was Philip Sheridan, accompanied by a mounted escort almost as large as one of Fitz Lee's regiments. Sheridan was mounted on an enormous horse, a very handsome animal. The meeting of Lee and Grant, and the impressive formalities which followed, put an end to the interview, and we parted without the slightest breach of strict military courtesy.
When the proud and sensitive sons of Dixie came to a full realization of the truth that the Confederacy was overthrown and their leader had been compelled to surrender his once invincible army, they could no longer control their emotions, and tears ran like water down their shrunken faces. The flags which they still carried were objects of undisguised affection. These Southern banners had gone down before overwhelming numbers; and torn by shells, riddled by bullets, and laden with the powder and smoke of battle, they aroused intense emotion in the men who so often followed them to victory. Yielding to overpowering sentiment, these high-mettled men began to tear the flags from the staffs and hide them in their bosoms, as they wet them with burning tears.