Remembering Gen. Robert E. Lee’s final order to the Army of Northern Virginia.
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Robert E. Lee in 1863.
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The McLean house in Appomattox.
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The flag flown at Lee’s headquarters and the uniform he wore at the time of the Confederate surrender.
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The interior of the McLean house, where Lee and Grant met.
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One of the original copies of General Order No. 9.
Head Quarters Army of Northern Virginia
April 10th 1865
General Order No. 9
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. I need not tell the survivors of so many hard fought battles, who have remained steadfast to the last, that I have consented to this result from no distrust of them. But feeling that valor and devotion could accomplish nothing that would compensate for the loss that would have attended the continuation of the contest, I have determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen.
By the terms of the agreement, officers and men can return to their homes, and remain there until exchanged.
You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from the consciousness of duty faithfully preformed, and I earnestly pray that a merciful God will extend to you His blessing and protection.
With an unceasing admiration of your constancy and devotion to your country, and a grateful remembrance of your kind and generous consideration for myself, I bid you all an affectionate farewell.
R. E. Lee, Gen.
After hearing the lines, “Fourscore and seven years ago….” few well-informed Americans would not know they were from President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address.
Perhaps a few Virginians and fellow Southerners might also recognize the first line of the order above: “After four years of arduous service,” Gen. Robert E. Lee’s final order to his troops issued the day after the surrender at Appomattox Court House April 9, 1865.
“I think it was one of the most dignified responses and appreciation for services performed that a general could give,” says Dr. James “Bud” Robertson Jr., retired distinguished professor of history at Virginia Tech and author of dozens of books about the Civil War.
Lee’s reputation as a leader was recognized far and wide. With his precise mind, the sound military logician and distinguished strategist was noted for accurate reasoning. Says S. Waite Rawls III, co-chief executive officer of the American Civil War Museum (which merged with the Museum of the Confederacy in 2013), “Lee strove to lead his countrymen into an honorable peace at and after Appomattox, earning Winston Churchill’s praise for his ‘exalted character.’ He was, and in many respects still is, the symbol of the South; and his Appomattox advice to his men to ‘go home and cultivate our virtues’” still stands.
A journalist, commenting in the London Standard shortly after the close of hostilities on the retreat of Gen. Lee’s army and of the surrender of his 8,000 troops at Appomattox Court House, wrote: “Brilliant as were Gen. Lee’s earlier triumphs, we believe that he gave higher proofs of genius in his last campaign, and that hardly any of his victories were so honorable to himself and his army as that of his six-days’ retreat.”
A little more than two weeks prior to the issue of Order No. 9, Gen. Lee ordered a full-scale, desperate attack on the Federal stronghold at Fort Stedman. Three pistol shots punctured the crisp morning air, and as the last shot reverberated along the line of entrenchments guarding Petersburg, 5,000 men in tattered gray rose to their feet at the command, “Forward! Double-quick!”
The assault, having caught the Union troops off guard, was initially successful. However, it was to be the last time the “Rebel Yell” would rend the air to announce the capture of an enemy position. Four hours later, after absorbing a murderous artillery barrage and counterattack, the remnants of the Confederate force fell back to the earthworks from which they had sprung.
One week later, on April 1, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant sent approximately 50,000 infantry and cavalry—roughly 15,000 more troops than were left in the entire Army of Northern Virginia—into battle at Five Forks to disrupt Lee’s last supply line, the South Side Railroad, by turning Lee’s right flank. With their lines of communication severed, both Petersburg and Richmond had to be abandoned.
Lee’s position was critical. The remnant of his army fell back more than 100 miles. Trains bearing supplies were intercepted, and a starving army, harassed by incessant attacks on rear and flank, found itself completely hemmed in by overwhelming masses. Halting just outside of Appomattox Court House April 9, with fewer than 8,000 men with arms, he faced surrender to an army of 150,000. With little choice, Gen. Lee agreed to meet with Gen. Grant in the home of Wilmer McLean to draw up the capitulation documents.
Col. Charles Marshall had spent a dismal night under a stand of trees close by Appomattox Court House. His coat was draped about him, his head was resting on his saddle and his feet near a campfire. Gen. Lee and Gen. James Longstreet and their staff officers lay near him in the woodland, all without cots or tents or cover from the weather.
As one of Lee’s senior staff officers, Marshall, a Baltimore lawyer before the war, was responsible for many of the important papers and orders for the Army of Northern Virginia. Gen. Lee had given Marshall the assignment to write the order of farewell to the army; he delayed, telling a friend he worried about what he could say to the troops. At 10 o’clock in the morning, Lee discovered that the order had not been finished, and he sharply ordered Marshall to go into his ambulance and finish the writing. “Yes sir,” answered Marshall, adding, “General, there has been so much coming and going, so many have interrupted.”
Marshall quickly wrote two short pages in pencil. Lee read the order with care, striking out the original first paragraph saying, it “would tend to keep alive the hostile feeling between the North and South, Colonel.” He made one or two more minor changes and sent Marshall back to copy it into ink. (Marshall chose the McLean House as the site of the surrender meeting, and was the only Confederate present besides Gen. Lee.)
The morning after the surrender, Lee issued Gen. Order No. 9, his final order to the Army of Northern Virginia. In the next days, some 28,000 Confederate soldiers were paroled and began their journey home.
Astonishingly, on April 15, 1865, just six days after the surrender, President Lincoln was assassinated. U.S. Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, in his eulogy for the slain president, wrote: “That speech, uttered at the field of Gettysburg …. and now sanctified by the martyrdom of its author, is a monumental act. In the modesty of his nature, he [Lincoln] said, ‘The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; but it can never forget what they did here.’ He was mistaken. The world at once noted what he said and will never cease to remember it.”
Although Gen. Lee’s eloquent, 180-word farewell to his Army of Northern Virginia is not as well known as Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, it nevertheless stands as a deeply felt expression of Lee’s appreciation for his army’s service.
Copies of Gen. Order No. 9 were made and signed by Gen. Lee. Several may be seen at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond and upon request at the Virginia Historical Society, also in Richmond. MOC.org, VaHistorical.org