Robert E. Lee’s farewell to his troops


After he surrendered the remnants of his once-powerful military force to Union General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Va., the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia had the difficult job of taking leave from those who had fought with him for four blood-stained years.

On April 10, 1865, the day following the surrender, Gen. Robert E. Lee issued General Orders No. 9 to express gratitude to his troops for their loyalty, and sorrow for not being able to lead them to victory over the enemy forces.

His letter to the soldiers, as published in Volume 46 of the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, began: “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.”

The accuracy of this statement is reflected in the North’s 4:1 population advantage, and an industrialized economy vs. the agricultural South.

Lee explained his decision to surrender: “I need not tell the brave survivors of so many hard-fought battles, who remained steadfast to the last, that I have consented to the result from no distrust of them. But, feeling that valor and devotion could accomplish nothing that could compensate for the loss that may have attended the continuance of the contest, I determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen.”

In truth, overwhelming numbers of Union troops surrounded his army, and Lee could no longer access supplies to continue the fight. Therefore, he was left with no choice but to surrender.

Next, Lee informed the Southern troops what was in store for them as a result of the army’s surrender: “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.”

Grant devised generous terms in return for Lee’s capitulation. He allowed Rebel officers to retain their sidearms and their horses. The latter provision was essential for the livelihood of the men once they returned home, as they would use these horses to plow their farm fields. Otherwise, Grant instructed the Rebels to stack their arms, and park their artillery and public property.

Lee closed his final address to his faithful troops with these words: “With an unceasing admiration of your constancy and devotion to your country, and a grateful remembrance of your kind and generous considerations for myself, I bid you all an affectionate farewell.”

Later that same day, April 10, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade — who had fought against Lee and his army for the better part of two years, ever since Meade took command of the Union Army of the Potomac just prior to the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863 — called on Lee prior to his departure for his home in Richmond. During the conversation between these two long-time adversaries, Meade inquired about the strength of Lee’s army while Grant’s forces had it under siege at Petersburg and Richmond.

As recorded in “Recollections and Letters of Robert E. Lee,” compiled by his son, Capt. Robert E. Lee, Gen. Lee responded, “At no time did my force exceed 35,000 men; often it was less.” Meade, with an astounded look on his face, said, “General, you amaze me; we always estimated your force at about seventy thousand men.”

This was a compliment to Lee, whether Meade intended it that way or not, because it demonstrated the tenacity of this audacious military officer, who often overcame adversity with superior strategy and tactics.

An observer in the room said that Lee told Meade “years are telling on you; your hair is getting quite gray.” Without hesitation, Meade fired back, “Ah, General Lee, it is not the work of years; you are responsible for my gray hairs.”

The war had ended for Gen. Robert E. Lee and his famed Army of Northern Virginia. Yet, 154 years later, historians continue to examine the legacy of this talented American general, and the paradox of his choice to fight against his own country.

Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign,” available at Bethany Beach Books, at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth and at Cardsmart in Milford. His latest book, “Lee is Trapped, and Must Be Taken: Eleven Fateful Days after Gettysburg, July 4-14, 1863,” is due out in August 2019, and can be pre-ordered on Amazon.com. Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.

 

By Tom Ryan

Special to the Coastal Point