Historical Tales: 2—American - Charles Morris

Home-Coming of General Lee and His Veterans

Sad is defeat, and more than sad was the last march of General Lee's gallant army after its four years of heroic struggle, as it despondently made its way along the Virginian roads westward from the capital city which it had defended so long and valiantly. It was the verdant spring-tide, but the fresh green foliage had no charms for the heart-broken and starving men, whose food supplies had grown so low that they were forced to gnaw the young shoots of the trees for sustenance. It is not our purpose here to tell what followed the surrounding of the fragment of an army by an overwhelming force of foes, the surrender and parole, and the dispersion of the veteran troops to the four winds, but to confine ourselves to the homeward journey of General Lee and a few of his veterans.

Shortly after the surrender, General Lee returned to Richmond, riding slowly from the scene on his iron-gray war-horse, "Traveller," which had borne him so nobly through years of battle and siege. His parting with his soldiers was pathetic, and everywhere on his road to Richmond he received tokens of admiration and respect from friend and foe. Reaching Richmond, he and his companions passed sadly through a portion of the city which exhibited a distressing scene of blackened ruins from the recent conflagration. As he passed onward he was recognized, and the people flocked to meet him, cheering and waving hats and handkerchiefs. The general, to whom this ovation could not have been agreeable, simply raised his hat in response to the greetings of the citizens, and rode on to his residence in Franklin Street. The closing of its doors upon his retiring form was the final scene in that long drama of war of which for years be had been the central figure. He had returned to that private family life for which his soul had yearned even in the most active scenes of the war.

It is our purpose here to reproduce a vivid personal account of the adventures of some of the retiring soldiers, especially as General Lee bore a part in their experiences. The narrative given is the final one of a series of incidents in the life of the private soldier, related by Private Carlton McCarthy. These papers, in their day, were widely read and much admired, and an extract from them cannot fail still to be of interest. We take up the story of the "Brave Survivors, homeward bound:"

"Early in the morning of Wednesday, the 12th of April, without the stirring drum or the bugle call of old, the camp awoke to the new life. Whether or not they had a country, these soldiers did not know. Home to many, when they reached it, was graves and ashes. At any rate, there must be, somewhere on earth, a better place than a muddy, smoky camp in a piece of scrubby pines; better company than gloomy, hungry comrades and inquisitive enemies, and something in the future more exciting, if not more hopeful, than nothing to eat, nowhere to sleep, nothing to do, and nowhere to go. The disposition to start was apparent, and the preparations were promptly begun.

"To roll up the old blanket and oil-cloth, gather up the haversack, canteen, axe, perhaps, and a few trifles,—in time of peace of no value,—eat the fragments that remained, and light a pipe, was the work of a few moments. This slight employment, coupled with pleasant anticipations of the unknown, and therefore possibly enjoyable future, served to restore somewhat the usual light-hearted manner of soldiers and relieve the final farewells of much of their sadness. There was even a smack of hope and cheerfulness as the little groups sallied out into the world to combat they scarcely knew what. As we cannot follow all these groups, we will join ourselves to one and see them home.

"Two 'brothers-in-arms,' whose objective-point is Richmond, take the road on foot. They have nothing to eat and no money. They are bound' for their home in a city which, when they last heard from it, was in flames. What they will see when they arrive there they cannot imagine, but the instinctive love of home urges them. They walk on steadily and rapidly, and are not diverted by surroundings. It does not even occur to them that their situation, surrounded on all sides by armed enemies aid walking a road crowded by them, is at all novel. They are suddenly aroused to a sense of their situation by a sharp 'Halt! Show your parole.' They had struck the cordon of picket-posts which surrounded the surrendered army. It was the first exercise of authority by the Federal army. A sergeant, accompanied by a couple of muskets, stepped into the road, with a modest air examined the paroles, and said, quietly, 'Pass on.'

"This strictly military part of the operation being over, the social commenced. As the two 'survivors' passed on they were followed by numerous remarks, such as, 'Hello, Johnny! I say—going home?' 'Ain't you glad?' They made no reply, these wayfarers, but they thought some very emphatic remarks.

"From this point on to Richmond was the grand thought. Steady work it was. The road, strangely enough, considering the proximity of two armies, was quite lonesome, and not an incident of interest occurred during the day. Darkness found the two comrades still pushing on.

"Some time after dark a light was seen a short distance ahead, and there was a 'sound of revelry.' On approaching, the light was seen to proceed from a large fire, built on the floor of an old and dilapidated outhouse, and surrounded by a ragged, hungry, singing, and jolly crowd of paroled prisoners of the Army of Northern Virginia, who had gotten possession of a quantity of cornmeal and were waiting for the ash-cakes then in the ashes. Being liberal, they offered the new-comers some of their bread. Being hungry, they accepted and ate their first meal that day. Finding the party noisy and riotous, the comrades pushed on in the darkness after a short rest and spent the night on the road.

"Thursday morning they entered the village of Buckingham Court-House, and traded a small pocket-mirror for a substantial breakfast. There was quite a crowd of soldiers gathered around a cellar-door, trying to persuade an ex-Confederate A. A. A. Commissary of Subsistence that he might as well, in view of the fact that the army had surrendered, let them have some of the stores; and, after considerable persuasion and some threats, he decided to forego the hope of keeping them for himself and told the men to help themselves. They did so.

"As the two tramps were about to leave the village and were hurrying along the high-road which led through it, they saw a solitary horseman approaching from the rear. It was easy to recognize at once General Lee. He rode slowly, calmly along. As he passed an old tavern on the roadside some ladies and children waved their handkerchiefs, smiled, and wept. The general raised his eyes to the porch on which they stood, and, slowly raising his hand to his hat, lifted it slightly and as slowly again dropped his hand to his side. The 'survivors' did not weep, but they had strange sensations. They passed on, steering, so to speak, for Cartersville and the ferry.

Richmond, VA


"Before leaving the village it was the sad duty of the 'survivors' to stop at the humble abode of Mrs. P. and tell her of the death of her husband, who fell mortally wounded, pierced by a musket-ball, near Sailor's Creek. She was also told that a companion who was by his side when he fell, but who was not able to stay with him, would come along soon and give her the particulars. That comrade came and repeated the story. In a few days the dead man reached home alive and scarcely hurt. He was originally an infantryman, recently transferred to artillery, and therefore wore a small knapsack, as infantry did. The ball struck the knapsack with a 'whack!' and knocked the man down. That was all."

The night was spent in an old building near the ferry, and in the morning the ferryman cheerfully put them across the river without charge.

"Soon after crossing, a good, silver-plated table-spoon, bearing the monogram of one of the travellers, purchased from an aged colored woman a large chunk of ash-cake and about half a gallon of buttermilk. This old darky had lived in Richmond in her younger days. She spoke of grown men and women there as 'chillun what I raised.' 'Lord! boss—does you know Miss Sadie? Well, I nussed her and I nussed all uv their chillun; that I did, sah. You chillun does look hawngry, that you does. Well, you's welcome to these vittles, and I'm pow'ful glad to git dis spoon. God bless you, honey!' A big log on the roadside furnished a comfortable seat for the consumption of the before-mentioned ash-cake and milk.

"The feast was hardly begun when the tramp of a horse's hoofs were heard. Looking up, the 'survivors' saw with surprise General Lee approaching. He was entirely alone and rode slowly along. Unconscious that any one saw him, he was yet erect, dignified, and apparently as calm and peaceful as the fields and woods around him. Having caught sight of the occupants of the log, he kept his eyes fixed on them, and as he passed turned slightly, saluted, and said, in the most gentle manner, 'Good-morning, gentlemen; taking your breakfast?' The soldiers had only time to rise, salute, and say, 'Yes, sir,' and he was gone.

"It seems that General Lee pursued the road which the 'survivors' chose, and, starting later than they, overtook them, he being mounted and they on foot. At any rate, it was their good fortune to see him three times on the road from Appomattox to Richmond. The incidents introducing General Lee are peculiarly interesting, and the reader may rest assured of the truthfulness of the narration as to what occurred and what was said and done.

"After the feast of bread and milk, the no longer hungry men passed on. About the time when men who have eaten a hearty breakfast become again hungry,—as good fortune would have it happen,—they reached a house pleasantly situated, and a comfortable place withal. Approaching the house, they were met by an exceedingly kind, energetic, and hospitable woman. She promptly asked, 'You are not deserters?' 'No,' said the soldiers; 'we have our paroles; we are from Richmond; we are homeward bound, and called to ask if you could spare us a dinner.' 'Spare you a dinner? Certainly I can. My husband is a miller; his mill is right across the road there, down the hill, and I have been cooking all day for the poor, starving men. Take a seat on the porch there, and I will get you something to eat.'

"By the time the travellers were seated, this admirable woman was in the kitchen at work. The 'pat-a-pat, pat, pat, pat, pat-a-pat, pat' of the sifter, and the cracking and 'fizzing' of the fat bacon as it fried, saluted their hungry ears, and the delicious smell tickled their olfactory nerves most delightfully. Sitting thus, entertained by delightful sounds, breathing the air and wrapped in meditation, or anticipation, rather, the soldiers saw the dust rise in the air and heard the sound of an approaching party.

"Several horsemen rode up to the road-gate, threw their bridles over the posts or tied them to the overhanging boughs, and dismounted. They were evidently officers, well-dressed, fine-looking men, and about to enter the gate. Almost at once the men on the porch recognized General Lee and his son. They were accompanied by other officers. An ambulance had arrived at the gate also. Without delay they entered and approached the house, General Lee preceding the others. Satisfied that it was the general's intention to enter the house, the two 'brave survivors,' instinctively and respectfully venerating the approaching man, determined to give him and his companions the porch. As they were executing a rather rapid and undignified flank movement to gain the right and rear of the house, the voice of General Lee overhauled them thus, 'Where are you men going?' 'This lady has offered to give us a dinner, and we are waiting for it,' replied the soldiers. 'Well, you had better move on now—this gentleman will have quite a large party on him to-day,' said the general. The soldiers touched their caps, said, 'Yes, sir,' and retired, somewhat hurt, to a strong position on a hen-coop in the rear of the house. The party then settled on the porch.

"The general had, of course, no authority, and the surrender of the porch was purely respectful. Knowing this, the soldiers were at first hurt, but a moment's reflection satisfied them that the general was right. He, no doubt, had suspicions of plunder, and these were increased by the movement of the men to the rear as he approached. He misinterpreted their conduct.

"The lady of the house—a reward for her name—hearing the dialogue in the yard, pushed her head through the crack of the kitchen door and, as she tossed a lump of dough from hand to hand and gazed eagerly out, addressed the soldiers: 'Ain't that old General Lee?' 'Yes, General Lee and his son and other officers come to dine with you,' they replied. 'Well,' she said, 'he ain't no better than the men that fought for him, and I don't reckon he is as hungry; so you just come in here. I am going to give you yours first, and then I'll get something for him.'

"What a meal it was! Seated at the kitchen table, the large-hearted woman bustling about and talking away, the ravenous tramps attacked a pile of old Virginia hoecake and corn-dodger, a frying-pan with an inch of gravy and slices of bacon, streak of lean and streak of fat, very numerous. To finish—as much rich buttermilk as the drinkers could contain. With many heartfelt thanks the 'survivors' bade farewell to this immortal woman, and leaving the general and his party in the quiet possession of the front porch, pursued their way.

"Night found the 'survivors' at the gate of a quiet, handsome, framed country residence. The weather was threatening, and it was desirable to have shelter as well as rest. Entering and knocking at the door, they were met by a servant girl. She was sent to her mistress with a request for permission to sleep on her premises. The servant returned, saying, 'Mistis says she is a widder, and there ain't no gentleman in the house, and she can't let you come in.' She was sent with a second message, which informed the lady that the visitors were from Richmond, members of a certain company from there, and would be content with permission to sleep on the porch, in the stable, or in the barn. They would protect her property, etc., etc., etc.

"This message brought the lady of the house to the door. She said, 'If you are members of the—, you must know my nephew, he was in that company. Of course they knew him, 'old chum,' 'comrade,' 'particular friend,' 'splendid fellow,' 'hope he was well when you heard from him; glad to meet you, madam.' These and similar hearty expressions brought the longed-for 'Come in, gentlemen. You are welcome. I will see that supper is prepared for you at once.' (Invitation accepted.)

"The old haversacks were deposited in a corner under the steps and their owners conducted downstairs to a spacious dining-room, quite prettily furnished. A large table occupied the centre of the room, and at one side there was a handsome display of silver in a glass-front case. A good big fire lighted the room. The lady sat quietly working at some woman's work, and from time to time questioning, in a rather suspicious manner, her guests. Their direct answers satisfied her, and their respectful manner reassured her, so that by the time supper was brought in she was chatting and laughing with her 'defenders.'

"The supper came in steaming hot. It was abundant, well prepared, and served elegantly. Splendid coffee, hot biscuit, luscious butter, fried ham, eggs, fresh milk! The writer could not expect to be believed if he should tell the quantity eaten at that meal. The good lady of the house enjoyed the sight. She relished every mouthful, and no doubt realized then and there the blessing which is conferred on hospitality, and the truth of that saying of old, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'

The wayfarers were finally shown to a neat little chamber. The bed was soft and glistening white; too white and clean to be soiled by the occupancy of two Confederate soldiers who had not had a change of underclothing for many weeks. They looked at it, felt of it, and then spread their old blankets on the neat carpet and slept there till near the break of day.

"While it was yet dark the travellers, unwilling to lose time waiting for breakfast, crept out of the house, leaving their thanks for their kind hostess, and passed rapidly on to Manikin Town, on the James River and Kanawha Canal, half a day's march from Richmond, where they arrived while it was yet early morning. The greensward between the canal and river was inviting, and the 'survivors' laid there awhile to rest and determine whether or not they would push on to the city. They desired to do so as soon as they could find a breakfast to fit them for the day's march."

In this venture they met with a new experience, the party applied to, a well-fed, hearty man, gruffly repulsing them, and complaining that some scoundrels had stolen his best horse the night before. He finally invited them in and set before them the bony remnants of some fish he had had for breakfast. Rising indignantly from the table, the veterans told their inhospitable host that they were not dogs, and would consider it an insult to the canine race to call him one. Apparently fearing that the story of his behavior to old soldiers would be spread to his discredit, he now apologized for the "mistake," and offered to have a breakfast cooked for them, but they were past being mollified, and left him with the most uncomplimentary epithets at the command of two old soldiers of four years' service.

"At eleven A. M. of the same day two footsore, despondent, and penniless men stood facing the ruins of the home of a comrade who had sent a message to his mother. 'Tell mother I am coming.' The ruins yet smoked. A relative of the lady whose home was in ashes, and whose son said, 'I am coming,' stood by the 'survivors.' 'Well, then,' he said, 'it must be true that General Lee has surrendered.' The solemnity of the remark, coupled with the certainty in the minds of the 'survivors,' was almost amusing. The relative pointed out the temporary residence of the mother, and thither the 'survivors' wended their way.

"A knock at the door startled the mother, and with agony in her eyes she appeared at the opened door, exclaiming, 'My poor boys!' 'Are safe and coming home,' said the 'survivors.' 'Thank God!' said the mother, and the tears flowed down her cheeks.

"A rapid walk through ruined and smoking streets, some narrow escapes from negro soldiers on police duty, the satisfaction of seeing two of the 'boys in blue' hung up by their thumbs for pillaging, a few hand-shakings, and the 'survivors' found their way to the house of a relative, where they did eat bread with thanks.

"A friend informed the 'survivors' that day that farm hands were needed all around the city. They made a note of that and the name of one farmer. Saturday night the old blankets were spread on the parlor floor. Sunday morning, the 16th of April, they bade farewell to the household and started for the farmer's house.

"As they were about to start away, the head of the family took from his pocket a handful of odd silver pieces, and extending them to the guests, told them it was all he had, but they were welcome to half of it. Remembering that he had a wife and three or four children to feed, the soldiers smiled through their  tears at his, bade him keep it all, and 'weep for himself rather than for them.' So saying, they departed, and at sundown were at the farmer's house, fourteen miles away.

"Monday morning, the 17th, they 'beat their swords (muskets in this case) into ploughshares' and did the first day's work of the sixty which the simple farmer secured at a cost to himself of about half rations for two men. Behold the gratitude of a people! Where grow now the shrubs which of old bore leaves and twigs for garlands? The brave live! are the fair dead? Shall time or calamity, downfall or ruin, annihilate sacrifice or hatch an ingrate brood?"