Tension stirred the blue-clad regiments stretched along Lynchburg Stage Road in mid-morning on Wednesday, April 12, 1865.
“The Johnnies are coming,” a 20th Maine lad whispered within earshot of Pvt. Theodore Gerrish.
“There they are,” a comrade said, chin-pointing to his right.
Not far away, Brig. Gen. Joshua Chamberlain sat on his horse amidst a few mounted staff officers. Guidon bearers held aloft various flags; one horseman held a flag displaying “the red Maltese cross on a field of white,” the official 5th Corps flag. “The momentous meaning of this occasion impressed me deeply,” thought Chamberlain, who for the next few hours commanded the 1st Division, 5th Corps, Army of the Potomac.
After dark the previous Sunday, Maj. Gen. Charles Griffin had summoned Chamberlain to the 5th Corps’s headquarters tent, set up in the Union camps adjacent to Appomattox Court House. Griffin told Chamberlain, a brigade commander in the 1st Division, that Confederate generals “had begged hard” to let their men “stack their arms” in the Army of Northern Virginia camps east of the village.
With astonishing chutzpah, the same generals said that Union soldiers could retrieve the abandoned weapons after the Confederate soldiers headed for home.
Ulysses Simpson Grant demurred. The Confederate proposal was not “quite respectful to anybody, including the United States of America”; he “insisted that the surrendering army … should march out in due order, and lay down all tokens of Confederate authority and organized hostility to the United States,” Chamberlain learned.
And the defeated Confederates would do so as Union troops watched.
According to Griffin, Grant had tapped Chamberlain to command the Union soldiers attending the April 12 surrender “parade,” a term used by Chamberlain. Thinking about those blue-clad veterans, Chamberlain asked Griffin for “my old Third Brigade … with which I had been closely associated in the great battles of the first two years. Because this was going to be a crowning incident of history … these veterans deserved this recognition.”
With Griffin’s approval, Chamberlain took over the 3rd Brigade, comprising Maine and Michigan sharpshooters and eight infantry regiments: the 20th Maine, the 32nd Massachusetts, the 1st and 16th Michigans, and the 83rd, 91st, 118th, and 155th Pennsylvanias.
Only 21 months ago, Chamberlain and the 20th Maine boys had made charged into history at Little Round Top. Now they would salute together the history passing them outside Appomattox Court House.
On Monday, April 10, many Union soldiers awakened to find curious Confederate soldiers standing over them; “our camp was full of callers before we were up,” Chamberlain duly noted. Soldiers who would have shot each other dead 24 hours earlier now traded knives, pipes, tobacco, and money; the Southern lads especially wanted greenbacks, now the unofficial currency in many places south of the Potomac River.
Visitation got out of hand; the Union camps “looked like a country fair, including the cattle-show,” Chamberlain acerbically commented, and Union generals ordered the camps cleared of Confederates.
On Monday and Tuesday, mobile printing presses churned out paroles that Confederates must sign and carry with them after leaving the Appomattox camps.
Confusion surrounded just how many men still lingered in the Confederate camps. To expedite the parole process, company and regimental officers signed parole lists containing the names of men in their respective commands.
Officers awakened the 3rd Brigade soldiers early on Wednesday. “The morning dawned clear and warm,” said Gerrish, and “at an early hour the regiments were prepared to fall into line.”
Sentimentality saw the entire 1st Division turn out. The division’s remaining brigades “deserved to share with me now as they had so faithfully done” during the Appomattox campaign, Chamberlain explained.
He aligned the 3rd Brigade regiments along the southern verge of the Lynchburg Stage Road “from the bluff bank of the stream (Appomattox River)” westward to a point east of the village. The stately brick-built Appomattox County courthouse stood “on the left,” a short distance from the westernmost Union regiment.
The 1st Brigade formed “in line a little to our rear,” and the 2nd Brigade spread along the north side of the Lynchburg Stage Road, Chamberlain detailed his deployments.
The Union soldiers looked across the river to the Confederate camps, where hardened veterans in tattered uniforms folded their shelter tents and slowly formed ranks. “Soon we saw a gray column of troops advancing through the valley at our right,” Gerrish said.
“And now they move,” said Chamberlain, relaxing in the saddle as he realized that the surrender would take place as scheduled. “The dusky swarms forge forward into gray columns of march.”
Union boys experienced goose bumps as their former enemies approached “with the old swinging route step and swaying battle-flags,” Chamberlain shivered. Leading was a color guard displaying “the proud Confederate ensign — the great field of white with canton of star-strewn cross of blue on a field of red.”
Miniscule compared to the numbers of men who had reported for duty just a year earlier, the shot-to-pieces Confederate regiments clustered so closely on the stage road that Chamberlain thought “the whole column seemed crowned with red” regimental flags.
“The Johnnies are coming,” Gerrish heard a 20th Maine lad whisper.
“There they are,” a comrade said, pointing his chin to the right.
Chamberlain had passed the order to regimental commanders, they in turn to company officers, they in turn to their sergeants, and they finally to the privates: stand at attention as the Confederates came by — and shut up.
Woe to the Union soldier who taunted, mocked, or insulted the defeated enemy!
As if stone-etched, impassive faces now stared across the Lynchburg Stage Road. “Every man was in his proper position,” Gerrish said. “We stood like a blue wall … as they marched in our front.”
Their gaunt frames displaying the Petersburg-siege hunger that had plagued them for 11 months, the oncoming Confederates stood “thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with [their] eyes looking level into ours.” Chamberlain noticed.
“As a rule they were tall, thin, spare men, with long hair and beard of a tawny red color,” Gerrish observed. “They were all clad in the uniform of Southern gray,” and “their broad-brimmed, slouching gray hats gave them anything but a soldierly appearance.”
He remembered most passing Confederates as “very ragged and dirty”; on the run since late April 2, the enemy soldiers had no opportunity to wash their clothing or themselves.
Like Chamberlain, Gerrish noticed the regimental flags, “many of them … torn to shreds” and “all stained by storm.” Some flags “were elegantly mounted upon richly ornamented staffs, while others were fastened to rough poles.”
The negotiated surrender ceremony called for the vanquished foe to march past by divisions, turn to face the victors, stack firearms, and discard all military equipment, including the flags. Chamberlain and his entourage waited “at the right of our line,” at the point where the approaching Confederates first encountered their former foes.
Chamberlain had decided to honor “the embodiment of [Confederate] manhood,” soldiers who like the Union lads awaiting them had proved that “neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve.
“Was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured?” he thought.
A mounted Gen. John B. Gordon led his shot-to-pieces, fought-out Confederate 2nd Corps across the Appomattox River. Chamberlain saw Gordon “riding with heavy spirit and downcast eyes.”
Suddenly the bugler assigned to Chamberlain’s temporary staff trebled a familiar call. “Instantly our whole line from right to left, regiment by regiment in succession, gives the soldier’s salutation, from the ‘order arms’ to the old ‘carry’ — the marching salute,” Chamberlain said.
“We thus saluted our fallen enemies,” said Gerrish, who with his 20th Maine comrades watched as the Confederates passed by with “a space of some four rods (60-65 feet) between us.”
Hearing the noise as the Union soldiers snapped to “shoulder arms,” Gordon looked at his enemies, then wheeled his mount, “making with himself and his horse one uplifted figure,” Chamberlain said. Gordon touched his sword’s point “to the boot toe,” then ordered “his successive brigades to pass us with the same position of the manual,—honor answering honor.”
Each Confederate division stopped on the road and turned left to face the victors “only twelve feet away,” Chamberlain described a distance considerably less than Gerrish’s estimate. Formed one last time in their neat lines, the “worn and half starved” Confederates then fixed bayonets to their rifles, stacked their arms, and hung their cartridge boxes from the upright rifle muzzles.
“Reluctantly, with agony of expression” the Confederates “tenderly” folded their “battle-worn and torn, blood-stained” flags, Chamberlain emotionally described what happened next. Some soldiers “frenziedly” rushed “from the ranks” and knelt by the flags, “pressing them to their lips with burning tears.”
Gerrish watched members of “various color guards” stop “and tear small pieces” from their flags “and hastily put them in their pockets” as keepsakes.
While forbidden to speak to their former foes, the Union lads “occasionally” exchanged “a pleasant word,” he noticed.
A particular Confederate division “halted in our front” to stack arms, Gerrish said. Realizing he had encountered the 1st Division on several battlefields, a Confederate joked aloud, “Well, old fellows, we have met you again.”
Chamberlain and his men watched for some hours as enemy divisions approached and surrendered. “Here comes Cobb’s Georgia Legion” and “Gordon’s Georgians and Hoke’s North Carolinians,” as well as “the men of McGowan, Hunton, and Scales,” Chamberlain identified his former enemies.
As he rode past Chamberlain, one Confederate officer said, “General, this is deeply humiliating, but I console myself with the thought that the whole country will rejoice at this day’s business.”
After stacking their arms, the Confederates “marched to our headquarters,” signed their paroles, “and then rapidly departed to their homes,” Gerrish said. “And thus the day passed until they all had surrendered.”
By day’s end “there was scarcely a rebel soldier to be found upon that historic field,” he said.
Next week: Appomattox Road: Maine troops react to Lincoln’s assassination
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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