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HOME > Classical Novels > The Tree of Appomattox or A Story of the Civil War's End > CHAPTER XVII APPOMATTOX
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 The morning after Lee's retreat the Winchester regiment rode into Petersburg and looked curiously at the smoldering fires and what was left of the town. They had been before it so long it seemed almost incredible to Dick Mason that they were in it now. But the Southern leader and his army were not yet taken. They were gone, and they still existed as a fighting power.  
"We have Petersburg at last," he said, "but it's only a scorched and empty shell."
"We've more than that," said Warner.
"What do you mean?"
"We've Richmond, too. The capital of the Confederacy, inviolate for four years, has fallen, and our troops have entered it. Jefferson Davis, his government and its garrison have fled, burning the army buildings and stores as they went. A part of the city was burned also, but our troops helped to put out the fires and saved the rest. Dick, do you realize it? Do you understand that we have captured the city over which we have fought for four years, and which has cost more than a half million lives?"
Dick was silent, because he had no answer to make. Neither he nor Warner nor Pennington could yet comprehend it fully. They had talked often of the end of the war, they had looked forward to the great event, they had hoped for the taking of Richmond, but now that it was taken it scarcely seemed real.
"Tell it over, George," he said, "was it Richmond you were speaking of, and did you say that it was taken?"
"Yes, Dick, and it's the truth. Of course it doesn't look like it to you or to me or to Frank, but it's a fact. Today or tomorrow we may go there and see it with our own eyes, and then if we don't believe the sight we can read an account of it in the newspapers."
It was a process of saturation, but in the next hour or two they believed it and understood it fully. On the following day they rode into the desolate and partly burned capital, now garrisoned heavily by the North, and looked with curiosity at the little city for which such torrents of blood had been shed. But as at Winchester and Petersburg, they gazed upon blind doors and windows. Nor did they expect anything else. It was only natural, and they refrained carefully from any outward show of exultation.
Richmond was to hold them only a few hours, as Grant and Sheridan continued hot on the trail of Lee. They knew that he was marching along the Appomattox, intending to concentrate at Amelia Court House, and they were resolved that he should not escape. Sheridan's cavalry, with the Winchester regiment in the van, advanced swiftly and began to press hard upon the retreating army. The firing was almost continuous. Many prisoners and five guns were taken, but at the crossing of a creek near nightfall the men in gray, still resolute, turned and beat off their assailants for the time.
The pursuit was resumed before the next daylight, and both Grant and Sheridan pressed it with the utmost severity. In the next few days Dick felt both pity and sympathy for the little army that was defending itself so valiantly against extermination or capture. It was almost like the chase of a fox now, and the hounds were always growing in number and power.
The Northern cavalry spread out and formed a great net. The Southern communications were cut off, their scouts were taken, and all the provision trains intended for Lee were captured. The prisoners reported that the Southern army was starving, and the condition of their own bodies proved the truth of their words. As Dick looked upon these ragged and famished men his feeling of pity increased, and he sincerely hoped that the hour of Lee's surrender would be hastened.
During these days and most of the nights too Dick lived in the saddle. Once more he and his comrades were clothed in the Virginia mud, and all the time the Winchester regiment brought in prisoners or wagons. They knew now that Lee was seeking to turn toward the South and effect a junction with Johnston in North Carolina, but Dick, his thoughts being his own, did not see how it was possible. When the Confederacy began to fall it fell fast. It was only after they passed through Richmond that he saw how frail the structure had become, and how its supporting timbers had been shot away. It was great cause of wonder to him that Lee should still be able to hold out, and to fight off cavalry raids, as he was doing.
And the Army of Northern Virginia, although but a fragment, was dangerous. In these its last hours, reduced almost to starvation and pitiful in numbers, it fought with a courage and tenacity worthy of its greatest days. It gave to Lee a devotion that would have melted a heart of stone. Whenever he commanded, it turned fiercely upon its remorseless pursuers, and compelled them to give ground for a time. But when it sought to march on again the cavalry of Sheridan and the infantry of Grant followed closely once more, continually cutting off the fringe of the dwindling army.
Dick saw Lee himself on a hill near Sailor's Creek, as Sheridan pressed forward against him. The gray leader had turned. The troops of Ewell and Anderson were gathered at the edge of a forest, and other infantry masses stood near. Lee on Traveler sat just in front of them, and was surveying the enemy through his glasses. Dick used his own glasses, and he looked long, and with the most intense curiosity, mingled with admiration, at the Lion of the South, whom they were about to bring to the ground. The sun was just setting, and Lee was defined sharply against the red blaze. Dick saw his features, his gray hair, and he could imagine the defiant blaze of his eyes. It was an unforgettable picture, the one drawn there by circumstances at the closing of an era.
Then he took notice of a figure, also on horseback, not far behind Lee, a youthful figure, the face thin and worn, none other than his cousin, Harry Kenton. Dick's heart took a glad leap. Harry still rode with his chief, and Dick's belief that he would survive the war was almost justified.
Then followed a scattering fire to which sunset and following darkness put an end, and once more the Southern leader retreated, with Sheridan and his cavalry forever at his heels, giving him no rest, keeping food from reaching him, and capturing more of his men. The wounded lion turned again, and, in a fierce attack drove back Sheridan and his men, but, when the battle closed, and Lee resumed his march, Sheridan was at his heels as before, seeking to pull him down, and refusing to be driven off.
Grant also dispatched Custer in a cavalry raid far around Lee, and the daring young leader not only seized the last wagon train that could possibly reach the Confederate commander, but also captured twenty-five of his guns that had been sent on ahead. Dick knew now that the end, protracted as it had been by desperate courage, was almost at hand, and that not even a miracle could prevent it.
The column with which he rode was almost continually in sight of the Army of Northern Virginia, and the field guns never ceased to pour shot and shell upon it. The sight was tragic to the last degree, as the worn men in gray retreated sullenly along the muddy roads, in rags, blackened with mire, stained with wounds, their horses falling dead of exhaustion, while the pursuing artillery cut down their ranks. Then the news of Custer's exploit came to Grant and Sheridan, and the circle of steel, now complete, closed in on the doomed army.
It was the seventh of April when the Winchester men rested their weary horses, not far from the headquarters of General Grant, and also gave their own aching bones and muscles a chance to recover their strength. Dick, after his food and coffee, watched the general, who was walking back and forth before his tent.
"He looks expectant," said Dick.
"He has the right to look so," said Warner. "He may have news of earth-shaking importance."
"What do you mean?"
"I know that he sent a messenger to Lee this morning, asking him to surrender in order to stop the further effusion of blood."
"I wish Lee would accept. The end is inevitable."
"Remember that they don't see with our eyes."
"I know it, George, but the war ought to stop. The Confederacy is gone forever."
"We shall see what we shall see."
They didn't see, but they heard, which was the same thing. To the polite request of Grant, Lee sent the polite reply that his means of resistance were not yet exhausted, and the union leader took another hitch in the steel girdle. The second morning afterward, Lee made a desperate effort to break through at Appomattox Court House, but crushing numbers drove him back, and when the short fierce combat ceased, the Army of Northern Virginia had fired its last shot.
The Winchester men had borne a gallant part in the struggle, and presently when the smoke cleared away Dick uttered a shout.
"What is it?" exclaimed Colonel Winchester.
"A white flag! A white flag!" cried Dick in excitement. "See it waving over the Southern lines."
"Yes, I see it!" shouted the colonel, Warner and Pennington all together. Then they stood breathless, and Dick uttered the words:
"The end!"
"Yes," said Colonel Winchester, more to himself than to the others. "The end! The end at last!"
Thousands now beheld the flag, and, after the first shouts and cheers, a deep intense silence followed. The soldiers felt the immensity of the event, but as at the taking of Richmond, they could not comprehend it all at once. It yet seemed incredible that the enemy, who for four terrible years had held them at bay, was about to lay down his arms. But it was true. The messenger, bearing the flag, was now coming toward the union lines.
The herald was received within the Northern ranks, bearing a request that hostilities be suspended in order that the commanders might have time to talk over terms of surrender, and, at the same time, General Grant, who was seven or eight miles from Appomattox Court House in a pine wood, received a note of a similar tenor, the nature of which he disclosed to his staff amid much cheering. The union chief at once wrote to General Lee:
Your note of this date is but at this moment (11:50 A. M.) received,
in consequence of my having passed from the Richmond and Lynchburg
road to the Farmville and Lynchburg road. I am at this writing
about four miles west of Walker's Church, and will push forward to
the front for the purpose of meeting you. Notice sent to me on
this road where you wish the interview to take place will meet me.
It was a characteristic and modest letter, and yet the heart under the plain blue blouse must have beat with elation at the knowledge that he had brought, what was then the greatest war of modern times, to a successful conclusion. The dispatch was given to Colonel Babcock of his staff, who was instructed to ride in haste to Lee and arrange the interview. The general and his staff followed, but missing the way, narrowly escaped capture by Confederate troops, who did not yet know of the proposal to suspend hostilities. But they at last reached Sheridan about a half mile west of Appomattox Court House.
Dick and his comrades meanwhile spent a momentous morning. It would have been impossible for him afterward to have described his own feelings, they were such an extraordinary compound of relief, elation, pity and sympathy. The two armies faced each other, and, for the first time, in absolute peace. The men in blue were already slipping food and tobacco to their brethren in gray whom they had fought so long and so hard, and at many points along the lines they were talking freely with one another. The officers made no effort to restrain them, all alike feeling sure that the bayonets would now be rusting.
The Winchester men were dismounted, their horses being tethered in a grove, and Dick with the colonel, Warner and Pennington were at the front, eagerly watching the ragged little army that faced them. He saw soon a small band of soldiers, at the head of whom stood two elderly men in patched but neat uniforms, their figures very erect, and their faces bearing no trace of depression. Close by them were two tall youths whom Dick recognized at once as St. Clair and Langdon. He waved his hand to them repeatedly, and, at last, caught the eye of St. Clair, who at once waved back and then called Langdon's attention. Langdon not only waved also, but walked forward, as if to meet him, bringing St. Clair with him, and Dick, responding at once, advanced with Warner and Pennington.
They shook hands under the boughs of an old oak, and were unaffectedly glad to see one another, although the three youths in blue felt awkwardness at first, being on the triumphant side, and fearing lest some act or word of theirs might betray exultation over a conquered foe. But St. Clair, precise, smiling, and trim in his attire, put them at ease.
"General Lee will be here presently," he said, "and you, as well as we, know that the war is over. You are the victors and our cause is lost."
"But you have lost with honor," said Dick, won by his manner. "The odds were greatly against you. It's wonderful to me that you were able to fight so long and with so much success."
"It was a matter of mathematics, Captain St. Clair," said Warner. "The numbers, the big guns and the resources were on our side, If we held on we were bound to win, as anyone could demonstrate. It's certainly no fault of yours to have been defeated by mathematics, a science that governs the world."
St. Clair and Langdon smiled, and Langdon said lightly:
"It would perhaps be more just to say, Mr. Warner, that we have not been beaten, but that we've worn ourselves out, fighting. Besides, the spring is here, a lot of us are homesick, and it's time to put in the crops."
"I think that's a good way to leave it," said Dick. "Do you know where my cousin, Harry Kenton, is?"
"I saw him this morning," replied St. Clair, "and I can assure you that he's taken no harm. He's riding ahead of the commander-in-chief, and he should be here soon."
A trumpet sounded and they separated, returning respectively to their own lines. Standing on a low hill, Dick saw Harry Kenton and Dalton dismount and then stand on one side, as if in expectancy. Dick knew for whom they were waiting, and his own heart beat hard. A great hum and murmur arose, when the gray figure of an elderly man riding the famous war horse, Traveler, appeared.
It was Lee, and in this moment, when his heart must have bled, his bearing was proud and high. He was worn somewhat, and he had lost strength from the great privations and anxieties of the retreat, but he held himself erect. He was clothed in a fine new uniform, and he wore buckled at his side a splendid new sword, recently sent to him as a present.
Near by stood a farm house belonging to Wilmer McLean, but, Grant not yet having come, the Southern commander-in-chief dismounted, and, as the air was close and hot, he remained a little while under the shade of an apple tree, the famous apple tree of Appomattox, around which truth and legend have played so much.
Dick was fully conscious of everything now. He realized the greatness of the moment, and he would not miss any detail of any movement on the part of the principals. It was nearly three o'clock in the afternoon when Grant and his staff rode up, the union leader still wearing his plain blue blouse, no sword at his side, his shoulder straps alone signifying his rank.
The two generals who had faced each other with such resolution in that terrible conflict shook hands, and Dick saw them talking pleasantly as if they were chance acquaintances who had just met once more. Presently they went into the McLean house, several of General Grant's staff accompanying him, but Lee taking with him only Colonel Thomas Marshall.
Before the day was over Dick learned all that had occurred inside that unpretentious but celebrated farm house. The two great commanders, at first did not allude to the civil war, but spoke of the old war in Mexico, where Lee, the elder, had been General Winfield Scott's chief of staff, and the head of his engineer corps, with Grant, the younger, as a lieutenant and quartermaster. It never entered the wildest dreams of either then that they should lead the armies of a divided nation engaged in mortal combat. Now they had only pleasant recollections of each other, and they talked of the old days, of Contreras, Molino del Rey, and other battles in the Valley of Mexico.
They sat down at a plain table, and then came in the straightforward manner characteristic of both to the great business in hand. Colonel Marshall supplied the paper for the historic documents now about to be written and signed.
General Grant, humane, and never greater or more humane than in the hour of victory, made the terms easy. All the officers of the Army of Northern Virginia were to give their parole not to take up arms against the United States, until properly exchanged, and the company or regimental commanders were to sign a like parole for their men. The artillery, other arms and public property were to be turned over to the union army, although the officers were permitted to retain their side arms and their own horses and baggage. Then officers and men alike could go to their homes.
It was truly the supreme moment of Grant's greatness, of a humanity and greatness of soul the value of which to his nation can never be overestimated. Surrenders in Europe at the end of a civil war had always been followed by confiscations, executions and a reign of terror for the beaten. Here the man who had compelled the surrender merely told the defeated to go to their homes.
Lee looked at the terms and said:
"Many of the artillerymen and cavalrymen in our army own their horses, will the provisions allowing the officers to retain their horses apply to them also?"
"No, it will not as it is written," replied Grant, "but as I think this will be the last battle of the war, and as I suppose most of the men in the ranks are small farmers who without their horses would find it............
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