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April, 1865

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

A CONFEDERATE soldier, John Wise, speaks of the General-in-Chief. "I have seen many pictures of General Lee, but never one that conveyed a correct impression of his appearance. Above the ordinary size, his proportions were perfect. His form had fullness, without any appearance of superfluous flesh, and was as erect as that of a cadet, without the slightest apparent constraint. No representation that I have ever seen properly conveys the light and softness of his eye, the tenderness and intellectuality of his mouth, or the indescribable refinement of his face.

"There was nothing of the pomp or panoply of war about the head-quarters, or the military government, or the bearing of General Lee. . . . Persons having business with his headquarters were treated like human beings, and courtesy, considerateness, and even deference were shown to the humblest. He had no gilded retinue, but a devoted band of simple scouts and couriers who, in their quietness and simplicity, modelled themselves after him. . . . The sight of him upon the roadside or in the trenches was as common as that of any subordinate in the army. When he approached or disappeared, it was with no blare of trumpets or clank of equipments. ... He came as unostentatiously as if he had been the head of a plantation riding over his fields to enquire and give directions about ploughing or seeding. He appeared to have no mighty secrets concealed from his subordinates. He assumed no airs of superior authority.... His bearing was that of a friend having a common interest in a common venture with the person addressed, and as if he assumed that his subordinate was as deeply concerned as himself in its success. Whatever greatness was accorded to him was not of his own seeking.... But the impression which he made by his presence, and by his leadership, upon all that came in contact with him, can be described by no other term than that of grandeur... . The man who could so stamp his impress upon his nation . . . and yet die without an enemy; the soldier who could make love for his person a substitute for pay and clothing and food, and could, by the constraint of that love, hold together a naked, starving band, and transform it into a fighting army; the heart which, after the failure of its great endeavour, could break in silence, and die without the utterance of one word of bitterness — such a man, such a soldier, such a heart, must have been great indeed — great beyond the power of eulogy."

He had fifty thousand men to his opponents' hundred and odd thousand. His men were very weary, very hungry, very worn. He had a thirty-mile line to keep, and behind him the capital of his government of which he was the sole defence. For months there had come upon his ears, resoundingly, the noise of disaster, disaster in every ward of the one-time grey fortress of the South. For all victories elsewhere his opponent fired salutes, thundering across the winter air into the grey lines, listened to grimly, answered defiantly by the grey trenches. The victories in Georgia — Winchester and Cedar Creek — Franklin and Nashville — Fort Fisher — Savannah — Columbia Charleston — the blue salvoes and huzzahs came with frequency, with frequency! And ever thinner and thinner grew the grey ranks.

There was but one last hope untried, and that was slight indeed, slight as gossamer. Break away from these lines, cover somehow and quickly a hundred and forty southward-stretching miles, unite with Johnston, strike Sherman, turn and combat with Grant! How slight was the hope Lee perhaps knew better than any man. But he had accepted a trust, and hand and head served his cause to the last.

To strike aside Grant's left wing, with a last deadly blow, and so pass out —

Fourteen thousand men, under Gordon, were given the attack upon Fort Stedman and the three forts on lifted ground beyond. On the twenty-fifth of March, at dawn, the assault was made — desperately made, and desperately repulsed. When the bitter day was over the blue had lost two thousand men, but the grey had lost twice as many.

A. P. Hill held the grey right from Hatcher's Run to Battery Gregg. Gordon had the centre. Longstreet held from the Appomattox to the White Oak Rbad. Now on the twenty-ninth of March, Grant planned a general attack. Sheridan was here from the Valley, to come in on the grey rear with thirteen thousand horse. Every corps of the Army of the Potomac had its appointed place and task in a great movement to the right. Lee, divining, drew from his threadbare, extended lines what troops he might and placed them at Five Forks, confronting the Second and Fifth blue Corps,—Fitz Lee's and W. H. F. Lee's cavalry, say four thousand horse, Pickett's division, thirty-five hundred muskets, Anderson with as many more. All the night of the twenty-ninth, troops were moving in a heavy rain.

Through the dripping day of the thirtieth sounded, now and again, a sullen firing. On the thirty-first the grey attacked — at-tacked with all their old ιlan and fury - and drove Sheridan back in disorder on Dinwiddie Court House. Night came down and made the battle cease. There dawned, grey and still, the first of April. All day there was fighting, but in the dim evening came the catastrophe. Like a great river that has broken its banks, the blue, advancing in force, overflowed Pickett's division. . . . The grey loss at Five Forks was five thousand.

With the morning light Grant began his general advance upon Petersburg. The grey trenches fought him back, the grey trenches that were now no more than a picket line, the grey trenches with men five yards apart. They gave him pause — that was all that they could do. All the South was an iron bell that was swinging — swinging —

General Lee telegraphed Breckinridge, Secretary of War. "It is absolutely necessary that we abandon our position to-night or run the risk of being cut off in the morning. I have given all the orders to officers on both sides of the river, and have taken every precaution I can to make the movement successful. Please give all orders that you find necessary in and about Richmond. The troops will all be directed to Amelia Court House."

This day was killed A. P. Hill.

In Richmond, twenty miles away, the second of April was a day bright and mild, with the grass coming up like emerald, the fruit trees in bloom, white butterflies above the dandelions, the air all sheen and fragrance. It was Sunday. All the churches were filled with people. The President sat in his pew at Saint Paul's, grave and tall and grey, distinguished and quiet of aspect. Here and there in the church were members of the Government, here and there an officer of the Richmond defences. Dr. Minnegerode was in the pulpit. The sun came slantingly in at the open windows, — sunshine and a balmy air. It was very quiet — the black-clad women sitting motionless, the soldiers still as on parade, the marked man in the President's pew straight, quiet, and attentive, the white and black form in the pulpit with raised hands, speaking of a supper before Gethsemane — for it was the first Sunday in the month and communion was to follow. The sun came in, very golden, very quiet.

The sexton of Saint Paul's walked, on tiptoe, up the aisle. He was a large man, with blue clothes and brass buttons and a ruffled shirt. Often and often, in these four years, had he come with a whispered message or a bit of paper to this or that man in authority. He had come, too, with private trouble and woe. This man had risen and gone out for he had news that his son's body was being brought, into town; these women had moved gropingly down the aisle, be-cause the message said father or brother or son or husband .. . Saint Paul's was used to the sexton coming softly up the aisle. Saint Paul's only thought, "Is he coming for me?"—"Is he coming for me?"

But he was coming, it seemed, for the President. . . . Mr. Davis read the slip of paper, rose with a still face, and went softly down the aisle, erect and quiet. Eyes followed him; many eyes. For all it was so hushed in Saint Paul's there came a feeling as of swinging bells. . . . The sexton, who had gone out before Mr. Davis, returned. He whispered to General Anderson. The latter rose and went out. A sigh like a wind that begins to mount went through Saint Paul's. Indefinably it began to make itself known that these were not usual summons. The hearts of all began to beat, beat hard. Suddenly the sexton was back, summoning this one and that one and the other. — "Sit still, my people, sit still, my people!"

But the bells were ringing too loudly and the hearts were beating too hard. Men and women rose, hung panting a moment, then, swift or slow, they left Saint Paul's. Going, they heard that the lines at Petersburg had been broken and that General Lee said the Government must leave Richmond — leave at once.

Outside they stood, men and women, dazed for a moment in the great porch, in the gay light of the sun. The street was filling with people, people in the green, climbing Capitol Square. It climbed to the building Jefferson had planned, to the great white pillars, beyond and between which showed the azure spring sky. The eyes of the people sought their capitol. They rested, too, on the great bronze Washington, riding his horse against the blue sky, with Marshall and Henry and Jefferson and Mason and Lewis and Nelson about him. Across from the church was a public building in which there were Government offices. Before this building, out in the street, a great heap of papers was burning with a light, crackling flame. "Government papers," said some one, then raised his eyes to the stars and bars above the white capitol and took off his hat.

All day the fevered city watched the trains depart, all day wagons and horsemen passed through the streets, all day there was a saying farewell, farewell — farewell to many things! All day the sun shone, all day men and women were conscious of a strange shock and dizziness, as of a violent physical impact. There was not much, perhaps, of conscious thought. People acted instinctively, automatically. Now and then weeping was heard, but it was soon controlled and it was not frequent. This was shipwreck after four years of storm, after gulfs of despair and shining shores of hope. It was taken quietly, as are many shipwrecks.

Night came. Custis Lee's troops at Chaffin's Bluff, eight miles below the city, began to withdraw, crossing the river by pontoons. There was now between Richmond and Manchester only Mayo's Bridge, guarded by a company or two of the Local Brigade. People were down by the river, many people. It seemed to give them company, swollen like their own hearts, rushing between its rocky islets, on and down to the boundless sea. Others wandered through the streets, or sat silent in the Capitol Square. Between two and three o'clock began the ordered blowing-up of powder magazines and arsenals and of the gunboats down the river. Explosion after explosion shook the night, terrific to the ear, crushing the heart. Up rushed the smoke, the water reddened, the earth trembled, shells from the arsenals burst high in air, lighting the doomed city. They wrought a further horror, for falling fragments or brands set afire first this building and then that. In a short while the whole lower part of the city was burning, burning down. Smoke mounted, the river was lit from bank to bank, there was born with the mounting flames a terrible splendour. On Cary Street stood a great Commissary de-pot, holding stores that the Government could not remove. Here, in the flame-lit street, gathered a throng of famished men and women. They broke open the doors, they carried out food, while the fire roared toward them, and at last laid hold of this storehouse also. Loud and loud went on the explosions, the powder, the ranged shells and cart-ridges, and now came the sound of the blowing up of unfinished gun-boats. The smoke blew, red-bosomed, over the city. Through the murk, looking upward from the river, came a vision of the pillars of the Capitol, turned from white to coral — above, between smoke-wreaths, lit and splendid, the flag of the Confederacy... .

Dawn broke. The last grey troops passed over Mayo's Bridge, firing it behind them. There came a halt between tides, then, through the murk and roar of the burning city, in from the Varina and New Market roads a growing sound, a sound of marching men, of hurrahing voices, of bands that played now " Yankee Doodle" and now " The Star Spangled Banner."

Through the April country, miles and miles of springing verdure, miles and miles of rain-softened, narrow roads, marched the Army of Northern Virginia. It must guard its trains of subsistence. But so wet was the country where every streamlet had become a brook, and every brook a river, so deep were the hollows and sloughs of the unutterable road that many a wheel refused to budge. Supply and ammunition wagons, gun wheel and ambulance wheel must be dragged and pushed, dragged and pushed, over and over again. O weariness — weariness — weariness of gaunt, hardly-fed and over-worked horses, weariness of gaunt, hardly-fed, over-worked men! The sun shone with a mocking light, but never dried the roads. Down upon the trains dashed Sheridan's cavalry — fifteen thou-sand horsemen, thrice the force of the grey cavalry. Grey rear guard formed, brought guns into action, pushed back the assault, let the trains move on —and then in an hour, da capo ! Horses fell in harness, wagons had to be abandoned, others, whirled against by the blue cavalry, were burned, there was no time that a stand could be made and rations issued — even had there been any rations to issue.

Amelia — There would be stores found at Amelia Court House. That had been arranged for. . . . But when on the fourth Long-street reached Amelia, and after him Gordon and Ewell there were no stores found. Some one had blundered, something had miscarried. There were no stores.

On the fifth of April, Lee left Amelia Court House and struck westward, with a hope, perhaps, of Lynchburg and then Danville. Behind him was Grant in strength, Sheridan and Grant.... And still the bottomless roads, and still no rations for his soldiers. The Army of Northern Virginia was weak from hunger. The wounded were many, the sick and exhausted were more. There was now a great, helpless throng in and about the wagons, men stretched upon the boards, wounded and ill, stifling their groans, men limping and swaying alongside, trying to keep up. . . . And then, again and again, great cavalry dashes, a haggard resistance, a scattering, over-turning, hewing-down and burning. . . . And still the Army of Northern Virginia drew its wounded length westward.

Sleep seemed to have fled the earth. Day was lighter and some-thing warmer than night, and night was darker and more cold than day, and there seemed no other especial difference. The monotony of attack, monotonously to be repelled, held whether it were light or dark, day or night. Marching held. Hunger held. There held a ghastly, a monstrous fatigue. And always there were present the fallen by the road, the gestures of farewell and despair, the covered eyes, the outstretched forms upon the earth. And always the dwindling held, and the cry, Close up! Close up! Close up, men!

"Mighty cold April!" said the men. "Even the pear trees and the peach trees and the cherry trees look cold and misty and wavering — No, there is n't any wind, but they look wavering, wavering ..." —" Dreamed a while back — sleeping on my feet. Dreamed the trees were all filled with red cherries, and the corn was up, and we had a heap of roasting ears . . ." — "Don't talk that-a-way! Don't tell about dreams! 'T'is n't lucky! Roasting ears and cherries — O God! O God! " — "Talking about corn ? I heard tell about a lady in the country. All the horses were taken and the plantation couldn't be ploughed, and she wanted it ploughed. And so a battle happened along right there, and when it was over and everybody that could had marched away, she sent out and gathered two of the horses that were just roaming around loose. So she had plough-horses, but they were so hungry they were wicked, and she did n't have any fodder at all to give them. Not any at all. But women are awful resourceful. There were a lot of shuck beds in the quarter. She had the ticks ripped open and she took the shucks and soaked them in hot water and sprinkled them with a little salt and fed her plough-horses. If anybody stumbles on a shuck bed in this march I speak for it!" — Close up! Close up ! Close up, men !

"Maxwelton braes are bonny,
Where early fa's the dew,
And 't was there that Annie Laurie
Gaed me her promise, true —' "

And on they went and on they went toward Appomattox.

In every company there was the Controversialist. Not cold nor hunger nor battle could kill the Controversialist. The Controversialist of Company A — the column being halted before a black and cold and swollen stream—appealed to Allan Gold. "I?" said Allan. "What do I think? I think that we were both right and both wrong, and that, in the beginning, each side might have been more patient and much wiser. Life and history, and right and wrong and minds of men look out of more windows than we used to think! Did you never hear of the shield that had two sides and both were precious metal? The traveller who said, `This is a gold shield,' was right— half right. And the traveller who said, ` This is a silver shield,' was right — half right. The trouble was neither took the trouble to walk round the shield. So it is, I reckon, in most wars — this one not excepted! Of course, being in, we've done good fighting — "

On moved the Army of Northern Virginia, through the cold river and up upon the farther side. Column forward! Column forward! Flowering fruit trees and April verdure and a clearing sky. On and on down a long, long vista. . . . Tramp, tramp, tramp, tramp !

" ` Way down South in the land ob cotton,
'Simmon seed and sandy bottom —' "

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