John Haley, the scrappy private from Saco, disbelieved the news that “an inveterate newsmonger” delivered to the 17th Maine Infantry Regiment around 10:30 a.m., Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865.
Heading ever westward, Haley and his Co. I comrades had tramped, tramped, tramped their weary way west across southern Virginia the previous day. Up and moving early after discovering “that our antagonists had taken French leave in the silent watches of the night,” the 17th Maine plodded along on Saturday with the 2nd Brigade (Brig. Gen. Byron R. Pierce), which belonged to the 3rd Division (Brig. Gen. Regis de Trobriand) of the 2nd Corps (Maj. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys).
The other regiments assigned to the 2nd Brigade included the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery (beaten up by veteran Confederates between the Wilderness and Spotsylvania the previous spring) and five infantry regiments: the 93rd New York, 57th Pennsylvania, 105th Pennsylvania, and 141st Pennsylvania.
Somewhere along Appomattox Road on Saturday afternoon, “a report reached us that Grant and Lee are carrying on a correspondence relative to a surrender,” Haley heard the latest scuttlebutt. “We gave but little heed; our credulity has been imposed upon too often to swallow such cock-and-bull stories.”
Similar rumors ran rampant through Union regiments and divisions that day. The battle-hardened veterans realized that their respected enemies were fleeing, only stopping long enough to buy time. “We came up with the Confederates at New Store” around 4 p.m., Saturday “and had a little tilt,” Haley described one such senseless shootout that left a few men dead, wounded, or dying.
At New Store the enemy “played a joke on us,” Haley recalled. Maine boys discovered a barrel of molasses “rolled out” and left by the Confederates, apparently as a departing gift. Digging out their metal dippers, several Maine lads sampled the molasses.
Cold tar! The Confederates had fooled the Yankees!
“Their dippers will be utterly useless forevermore,” Haley muttered.
Halting at New Store until their food rations caught up with them, the 17th Maine boys ate around midnight, then tramped on through the Virginia darkness until 3 a.m. Haley and Co. I then “went on picket until daylight.”
For most of the week, the 2nd Corps and the 6th Corps (in which other Maine regiments marched) had directly followed the disintegrating Army of Northern Virginia to pressure its starving soldiers and prevent them from resting. Like Georgia bloodhounds baying after Union prisoners frantically fleeing through the piney woods around Andersonville Prison, Haley and his comrades allowed the retreating Confederates no refuge, no topographically perfect site where to turn at bay and repulse a Union assault.
“Lee’s army is close at hand,” Haley noted early on Sunday. “Grant has ordered the rear to close up. We expected to come to a halt every minute, and this was all that kept us going this morning.”
About 6 a.m. “we heard firing in front,” he noticed. Fighting had begun outside Appomattox Court House as the Confederate veterans of Gen. John B. Gordon advanced west on the Lynchburg Stage Road. Ignoring the spiriting delaying action waged by dismounted Union cavalrymen (including the 1st Maine Cavalry), the Confederate infantry shoved the horse soldiers backwards.
The shooting “was quite sharp at first, but dwindled to an occasional shot” and “ceased altogether” about an hour later, Haley said. The 2nd Brigade already marched toward the sound of the guns; by 10 a.m. the seven regiments had “gone about seven miles,” he estimated.
The 17th Maine deployed into a field alongside the stage road east of Appomattox Court House and started cooking dinner “near a brick house where [Maj. Gen. George] Meade had his headquarters.”
Sometime likely between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. (Haley figured “a half hour or so after we came to a halt”), “the same fellow who reported the story of the correspondence between Grant and Lee” on Saturday “came down the line from [Meade’s] headquarters,” Haley said, watching the horseman — obviously a staff officer who fancied himself a Paul Revere knockoff — ride through the brigade.
“He said he had just heard one of General Meade’s staff say that terms of surrender were at that moment being drawn up, which is why we halted here,” Haley paraphrased the soldier’s message. “General Lee had requested a cessation of hostilities for the purpose of conferring with Grant.”
The uniformed town crier evidently drew cat calls, hoots, and likely lots of profanity.
“We at once charged him with lying,” Haley explained. The messenger was “always hatching up something marvelous to regale us with,” and he usually brought news “of the discouraging kind.”
This war was not over yet, and the 17th Maine and 2nd Brigade boys knew it while halted east of Appomattox Court House this Sunday morning.
Farther to the west and slightly south of the village, the 20th Maine Infantry “halted in a field” and stacked arms at 9 a.m., said Pvt. Theodore Gerrish of Co. H. He ran off “with all possible speed” and dragged back “a huge oak rail, heavy enough for four men to carry.”
Dragging the fence rail a half mile back to camp, the perspiring Gerrish “threw down my load” so the rail could be cut into firewood for brewing the morning coffee.
“Fall in! Fall in!” a bugler suddenly sounded.
Gerrish’s friends “advised me to take the rail along with me,” he muttered.
Then “heavy firing was heard to our front, not over a half mile distant,” Gerrish said. On the run, the 20th Maine lads “dashed through a thick belt of woods” toward where Gordon’s infantry fought Union cavalry.
The Maine lads halted in a field where “a group of Union generals” clustered together, horses all but touching. Gerrish recognized Joshua Chamberlain, Charles Griffin, and Phil Sheridan.
Spotting the last general, a Co. H member “sank upon the ground with a comical groan of despair” and said, “‘The devil is to pay for sure!”’
“And over beyond the hill, at about the same time, I think General Lee was cherishing the same opinion,” Gerrish commented.
His brigade formed into two battle lines (with the 20th Maine in the front line), Byron Pierce led his men toward the fight. Union cavalrymen rode ahead as skirmishers; the infantrymen crossed the field “and climbed the hill,” Gerrish said.
Near its top, a Confederate artillery shell exploded inside a barn, which caught fire and disgorged “hens and chickens … in every direction,” he said. Inveterate foragers that they were, the hungry 20th Maine boys broke ranks and chased clucking and flapping chickens all over the hillside.
“Officers were shouting for the men to keep in the ranks,” Gerrish ignored the pleas. Stuffing neck-wrung hens into their haversacks, the 20th Maine lads rejoined their companies, crossed the hilltop, “and looked out in our front.”
There “our mirth quickly subsided.”
Below the 2nd Brigade spread Gordon’s veterans, who had been stopped by the infantry divisions that had relieved the dismounted Union cavalry. After digging rifle pits and throwing up breastworks, Confederate soldiers aimed their rifles at the approaching Yankee infantry.
Gerrish and his comrades swallowed hard; they knew what was coming. Down the hill and across another field the 20th Maine lads marched to attack “this desperate position, where nearly all must be slaughtered,” he said.
Suddenly “we saw a white object fluttering in an orchard” behind the Confederate lines, he noticed.
The white object and three riders drew nearer. “What could it mean?” Gerrish asked.
“It was a white flag,” he realized. “We could not believe our eyes.”
The riders soon turned away to find Sheridan in the nearby woods. “His spurs pressed hard against the smoking flanks of his noble horse,” a staff officer suddenly emerged from the trees.
“He was swinging his hat like a madman, and yelling, “Lee has surrendered! Lee has surrendered! Halt! Halt! Halt!”
Gerrish realized “the last charge was over” for the 20th Maine.
A few miles to the east, “more reliable sources” confirmed to the 17th Maine lads the good news brought by the distrusted messenger. The men “began to have some hope, way down in our boots, that something extraordinary was about to happen,” John Haley sensed.
Sometime after 3 p.m., a George Meade otherwise known for his irascibility suddenly rode along and through the 2nd Brigade’s line. “Thank God! Lee has surrendered!” he shouted, emotion etched in his smiling countenance.
Reaction was instantaneous. “We shouted, danced, sang, and wept,” Gerrish noted later. “Bands played, drums beat, flags were unfurled, guns fired, and cannon boomed.
“We flung our hats in the air and roared until we were out of wind,” he said.
Recalling years later the moment that he and his Co. H comrades heard about the surrender, Theodore Gerrish wrote that “the blood tingles in my finger tips now, as I think of it.
“Men laughed and shouted, shook hands and actually wept for joy,” he said. “The joy of that hour will never be forgotten.”
John Haley would always remember April 9, 1865 as “a day never to be forgotten by those who participated.
“This day is the climax of a four-year war that entailed much suffering and no benefit,” he said.
Next week: Appomattox Road — a joyful citizenry celebrates — April 10, 1865
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He would love to hear from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.