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Southern Bivouac, September 1882—August 1883, Volume 1: Lee's Retreat


Southern Bivouac, September 1882—August 1883, Volume 1

Lee’s Retreat

Incidents of the Retreat of the Confederate Army to Appomattox—Mahone's Division and its Personal Reminiscences of the March—the Memorable Surrender—a Description by an Officer of the Division—Capt. M'Donald s Narrative.

Following is the interesting paper of Capt. W. N. McDonald, read at the May meeting of the Southern Historical Society. 

It is my purpose this evening to give, from memory, some account of Lee's retreat to Appomattox. No description of the military movements of the different commands will be attempted, but the rambling narrative will deal chiefly in incidents which illustrate the vexations and trials, the hopes and fears, of the masses on that memorable retreat. The command to which I then belonged, Mahone's division, was, at the time of the defeat at Petersburg, stationed along the line of defense from that city to Drury's Bluff, on the James. It may be said, at the outset, that for weeks at least before Grant broke our line the impression prevailed that nothing short of a miracle could keep Grant back. His army daily increased while Lee's daily grew smaller. Constant losses by desertion, besides exhausting our strength seriously, affected the morale of the troops. Famine and disease did us more harm than the bullets of the enemy, for the savage warfare made by Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley had brought Lee's army to the brink of starvation. Every morning there were official reports of desertion. I remember once an officer reporting that nearly one whole company had deserted during the night while on picket. "Arrest the captain," said Mahone. "He has gone, too," was the reply. "Arrest the officer of the day, then." "He has deserted also," responded the lieutenant.

On the 2d of April Grant pierced Lee's center at Petersburg. The distant roar of cannon had already informed us that a terrible battle was going on at Petersburg, but it was not until after nightfall that the disaster was known. There was now mounting in hot haste and all the confusion of a sudden departure. I am bound to say that I did not realize the stunning nature of the calamity till I went to order my horse. No amount of banging at the door of my servant's cabin received any attention from within. A hasty search revealed the fact that he had vanished. As he was a steady negro, of a pious turn, and withal timid to a degree, I knew that nothing but an overwhelming disaster to our arms could have led him to try the perils of desertion. So that it was not till I began to saddle my horse that I truly felt that the Confederacy was on its last legs.

For a while black darkness enveloped every thing as we groped our way through the woods. All at once the heavens were lit up with a blaze of light. Then followed a crash that shook the earth. It was the blowing up of the fort at Drury's Bluff, the Gibralter of the James. This was followed at intervals by other explosions, so numerous and terrific that it seemed as if they were blowing up the whole Confederacy. About midnight there appeared toward Richmond a bright light in the sky. Gradually it increased in brightness and extent until, though eight or ten miles away, we could distinctly see the landscape around us. This, as we afterward learned, was caused by the burning of the supply depots at Richmond, though at the time we thought the whole city was being burned.

When day dawned we were still in full retreat and the Federals were not far behind. About noon we were joined by the troops from Richmond, who were accompanied by as picturesque a mob of fugitives as it was ever my fortune to look upon. There were department clerks with their nice clothes bespattered with mud and faces pale with fatigue; post commissaries puffing under the weight of their own fat, and larding the lean earth as they walked along; marines from the gunboats, groaning and cursing at every step, and a promiscuous crowd of nondescripts. Many of them had taken advantage of the abandonment of the government stores to carry off some precious object of plunder. One man, with ragged pants, wore a general's coat and a cocked hat and plume; another rough looking fellow had a splendid looking sword strapped around his waist. One man I remember distinctly. He was an Irishman and barefooted, with a greasy hat on his head and a pipe in his mouth; but he stepped with a proud air, for he was arrayed in a gorgeous new naval suit that must have been intended for a commodore.

On the morning of the 4th, I think, many wagons were burned, and on the mornings of the 5th and 6th Lee seemed to be burning his whole baggage-train. That is, what was left of it, for Sheridan's cavalry continually harassed our flanks, coming in at all the crossroads and burning or carrying off the wagons. At the same time a strong force pressed upon our rear, and every hour almost we heard of heavy losses by capture. Many gave up all hope and fell an easy prey, but many, even when the bulk of their commands was taken, marched on, following the fortunes of Lee. As our number of fighting men diminished, the enemy became more and more daring. I remember that on the 7th we could see Sheridan's cavalry on the hills to our right, while on the left we were fiercely attacked. To show the vigor of Sheridan's pursuit, the following incident is added: I had been invited to breakfast on the roadside on the morning of the 7th. As it was the only "square" meal taken on that retreat, it is well remembered. The cook was slow in preparing the meal, and, while waiting, my command passed out of sight. This was enough to make one impatient, especially as no man felt safe then unless he, was guarded by at least a division. But there was another source of uneasiness. Near the spot the road forked; an examination of the one leading to the right revealed the fact that no trains or troops had passed that way. A moment's reflection convinced me that Sheridan's men would come down that road in less than twenty minutes. My forebodings were communicated to the party. I made a short but solid meal and went off without any formal leave-taking. In less than twenty minutes Sheridan did come down that road, and laid hands on most of the breakfast party. This information was gotten from a negro who managed to escape, and whose master could have gotten away too, but he took advantage of the occasion to desert to the enemy. The noble son of Africa, upon being asked why he had not deserted, proudly replied, " When I begin a thing, I most in general go through with it."

If, in those last days of the struggle, there were some who yielded to despair and disgraced themselves, there were men whose loftiness of spirit disdained misfortune. One only will be mentioned— Lieutenant James Thompson, of Chew's Horse Artillery. He was a youth fair to look upon, gay and dashing, the knightliest of the knightly, and the bravest of the brave. I saw him on the morning of the 7th for the last time. He had been wounded the day before. His left arm lay in a sling, and he was pale from pain and loss of blood. Upon being asked where he was going, he said he was about to join the cavalry. "You can not fight," said I; "you can hardly sit on your horse." For some moments he seemed to be trying to conceal the resolution he had»then already formed. At last he said, "I have made up my mind not to survive the Confederacy," and rode away as if ashamed of seeming to boast.

Not long afterward, as I learned from an eye-witness, he joined Rosser's brigade at the High Bridge, and plunged into the thickest of the fight. With the bridle-reins between his teeth, and a pistol in his right hand, he penetrated deep into the masses of the enemy and fell covered with wounds.

As we neared Appomattox the army was forced to move in a more limited space. As far as one could judge, we seemed to be marching forward in an irregular rectangle, with the main body a central line. The stragglers and unarmed men apparently outnumbered the central column. At times the road seemed to be entirely occupied by them, and yet there was not once any thing like a panic. The stragglers did not seem frightened at all; they pushed steadily onward, looking toward the mountains. Their only thought seemed to be to find something to eat and something to ride.

While stopping at a well in a farm-yard by the wayside, I witnessed a scene that feebly illustrates the fatigue of the foot-sore and weary men. The farmer had brought into the road a batch of mules for the purpose of running them off from the Federals. One mule refused to budge past the yard gate. The owner, after many vain efforts to drag him by main force, called for volunteer equestrians. Several at once offered their services. The foremost leaped upon the mule's back, and so quickly was he thrown that his rising motion was in a measure continuous. Another victim, and then another, was called for, and each served in the same way. For a while the crowd surged respectfully past the animal, and then fresh victims arrived.

The last man I saw thrown was a stout, grim-looking fellow. He was armed with a canteen and a long stick upon which he seemed to lean for support. "If you can ride," said the farmer, "here's a chance to rest yourself." "Ride," said the soldier, transported with the thought, "why I could ride a loose tiger." The soldier mounted, and the mule, who seemed to improve by practice, responded in the old way.

The last I saw of that farmer he was sitting on the fence, the picture of despair, while the mule was gazing defiantly at the. passing columns, as if to say, "If there be any more of you military gentlemen who want to ride me, I am most respectfully yours to command." The morning of the surrender is well remembered. Reports of heavy losses of artillery and trains the night before were rife. The want of food was very great for man and beast, and now and then men spoke in whispers of a surrender. By nine o'clock there was firing all around the line. Our last position was upon a raised plateau, with a wood-covered ridge on our left and a valley flanking our right. In front was another valley reaching to the railroad junction. Lee had still an army of about twelve thousand, rank and file, exclusive of the cavalry, and of these at least one half would have dared any thing at his command. That he could have gotten away with a considerable portion of his troops there is not a doubt. The soldiers were not demoralized. Many were eager for battle, and even the stragglers calmly expected Lee to carry them off safely. Being ordered to deliver a message to one of Lee's staff, in the search for him I rode across the plateau in several directions, and nearly at every point of our line there was fighting. The central portion of what the soldiers called the "bull-ring" was covered with the various impediments of an army. Among these were about three thousand prisoners.

The surging mass kept moving around and around as if looking for some outlet or place of shelter. At last there seemed to be a settled conviction that the fatal day had arrived, and still many thought that the genius of Lee would yet triumph. I saw Custar gallop by, holding in his hand a ramrod with a white handkerchief upon it. At this very moment there was passing a Federal battery with horses and men that had just been captured. Two old soldiers were standing near discussing the situation. At the sight of Custar one said, "What did I tell you; look at that Yankee chap with the white rag. It's all up with us." "O, that's nothing," the other replied, "look at that fine battery we have just captured. Massa Bob'll beat 'em yet."

When it was known that we had surrendered, there was at first some dissatisfaction, but sympathy for Lee soon did away with all individual sense of humiliation. When Harris's Mississippi brigade of Mahone's division were informed of the surrender, and ordered to cease firing, most of the officers and men refused to obey, declaring that they would never surrender. Mahone went and expostulated with them, but they would not listen to him. Finally Lee came and made a personal appeal. For some time even his authority was disregarded. Many of the officers and men gathered around him and implored him not to put upon them such disgrace. With tears they begged him to trust himself to their care, swearing that they could and would carry him through safely, and telling him that once in the mountains he could raise another army.

But Lee told them with broken accents and with many tears, that he could not break his word; that his honor was involved. Finally he asked them if they who had followed him so long and stood by him so faithfully were ashamed to share his fate. This appeal they could not resist, though with heart-breaking sobs they yielded.

There is hardly a doubt that this brigade would have carried Lee out safely had he let them try it. Mahone called them the "Invincibles." They were often selected for quick and desperate work. I will state a single instance of their valor. At Farmville, when the Federals made a determined effort to break our lines, in the midst of the battle a courier rode up and told Mahone that a part of the Stonewall Division had given way, and that the enemy at this point had penetrated half a mile beyond our right flank. Mahone at once sped away like an arrow, down the line. In less than twenty minutes he returned with Harris's brigade, and charging the enemy in flank with the bayonet, killed or captured nearly every one.

As soon as the firing ceased, many of the Federals came into our lines and began to fraternize with the men. In order to carry home some relic of the surrender, they swapped knives, or any thing they had for the old plunder of the Confederates. Some of the latter, alive to the situation, having exhausted their stock in trade, went about seeking to replenish it, and hence there arose quite a brisk demand for old papers, combs, etc.

The Federals seemed overjoyed at the issue, and their hearts were running over with kindly feeling. One man, a colonel, made a speech to a large crowd of Confederates. He was a big-hearted soldier, and with many compliments to Lee and his men, seemed to be trying to take away the sting of defeat from the crest-fallen foes. Among other things, he said that the North loved the South, and that the next President of the United States would be General Lee. Finally he said, "We are all a band of brothers now," and seemed to pause for a reply. A grim, battle-scarred veteran responded in audible tones and with an oath, "If I had you out in the woods by yourself I'd brother you."

I have only to add, in conclusion, that this retreat which, in the eyes of some, reflects somewhat upon the fame of Lee, may yet go down into history as the triumphant masterpiece of his genius.

The wonder is, not that his army was' captured at Appomattox, but that it was not captured long before it reached that point. To successfully conduct a beaten army, after the stunning defeats at Petersburg and Five Forks, almost as he was surrounded by overwhelming numbers, for eight days, without food and with little ammunition, is a feat almost without a parallel in military annals. And when he at last resolved to cease the struggle, it was not with a corporal's guard around him, but a gallant army of twelve thousand men. If he saw fit to forget his own glory, and to consult only the interests of our common country, let us endeavor to appreciate his magnanimity, and give him that praise which posterity will certainly accord him.

Vol. I, No. 1.—3.

Southern Bivouac, September 1882—August 1883, Volume 1 (Wilmington, North Carolina: Broadfoot Publishing Company, 1992), 28-33.

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