Joshua Chamberlain, a hero of Gettysburg, was the first person to receive the white flag from the Confederates at Appomattox Court House on April 12, 1865.
Chamberlain had received a clean, milk-white towel as his division readied for one final push against the enemy on April 9.
Hours later, he watched Lee and Grant ride up to the farmhouse where they’d agree on surrender terms. Then he watched them leave.
Three days later the official ceremony took place, ensuring the end of the Civil War two weeks later.
But since the War had ended, so did official accounts of it. Forty years later, Chamberlain recalled in his memoirs what actually happened.
Perhaps artists can be forgiven for the pictures they created of Grant and Lee inside the Wilmer McLean house. They show a much more formal event, with Grant wearing a neat uniform. Or Lee and Grant on the battlefield, surrounded by soldiers.
By the turn of the century, the National Archives still had no record of what actually happened after Lee’s surrender on April 9.
Not until May 1901 did the Boston Journal publish Joshua Chamberlain‘s account of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. Chamberlain by then had served as governor of Maine, as president of Bowdoin College and as a New York lawyer and businessman.
Here’s how he set the scene:
“On the terrible march to Appomattox Courthouse the Federal troops were ever shrouded in smoke and dust, and the rattle of firearms and the heavy roar of artillery told plainly of the intense scene which threatened to bring on yet one more general engagement.
Then, wrote Chamberlain, came a thrilling moment. An orderly rode up with a desperate message from Gen. Philip Sheridan to turn aside from the march and come to his relief.
A Weight So Terrible
“The orderly said in a voice of greatest excitement that the Confederate infantry was pressing upon Sheridan with a weight so terrible that his cavalry alone could not long oppose it,” he wrote.
Chamberlain turned onto a side road and ordered Gen. Gregory to follow with his brigade. He and his men quickly reached the fight.
The Confederates had driven the cavalry to the edge of the field. Chamberlain sent the first line into action, then the first and second brigades. “Once, for some unknown reason, I was ordered back, but in the impetuosity of youth and the heat of conflict, I pushed on, for it seemed to me to be a momentous hour,” Chamberlain wrote.
“We fought like demons across that field and up that bristling hill. They told us we would expose ourselves to the full fire of the Confederate artillery once we gained the crest, but push on we did.”
Chamberlain’s forces pushed the Confederates past the stone wall behind which they had hidden. Then they drove them back to the crest of the ridge, down over it and away.
Union forces gathered for a last dash at the enemy. From the top of the hill they could see a mile across the valley to the opposite ridge. There the Confederate infantry had drawn up in a line of battle, with cavalry to the right and lower down more cavalry running hither and thither.
“In the valley, where flowed the now narrow Appomattox …was a perfect swarm of moving men, animals, and wagons, wandering apparently aimlessly about, without definite precision,” wrote Chamberlain. “The river sides were trodden to a muck by the nervous mass. It was a picture which words can scarce describe.”
Suddenly a couple of men rode out from the extreme left of the Confederate line.
“[E]ven as we looked the glorious white of a flag of truce met our vision,” he wrote. “When the men arrived, the one who carried the flag drew up before me, and, saluting with a rather stiff air — it was a strained occasion — informed me that he had been sent to beg a cessation of hostilities until General Lee could be heard from.
General Ord was in charge, and Chamberlain told the Confederate officer with the flag to head left to find him. The officer saluted stiffly and galloped away down the line.
Ord received the flag, and soon after came the command to cease firing until 4 p.m. The troops had just barely resumed the positions their positions and expected an attack any moment.
“And just then the glad news came that General Lee had surrendered,” wrote Chamberlain.
Shortly afterward, Chamberlain saw the ‘sturdy Rebel leader. “He was dressed in the brilliant trappings of a Confederate army officer, and looked every inch the soldier that he was,” wrote Chamberlain. “A few moments after that our own beloved leader, General Grant… came riding by.”
Chamberlain noted how different the two men looked. Lee looked ‘gay with the trappings of his army.’ Grant, on the other hand, wore, ‘an open blouse, a slouch hat, trousers tucked into heavy, mud-stained boots, and with only the four tarnished golden stars to indicate his office!’
The two commanders passed by, went into the Wilmer McLean house and arranged the final terms of surrender.
“That work done neither leader staid long with his command, the one hurrying one way, the other another,” wrote Chamberlain.
Jubilation at Appomattox
They slept that night as they hadn’t slept in years, he wrote. For a while his men showed unrestrained jubilation, but soon they slept with no fear of a night alarm.
“We awoke next morning to find the Confederates peering down into our faces, and involuntarily reached for our arms, but once the recollections of the previous day’s stirring events came crowding back to mind, all fear fled, and the boys in blue were soon commingling freely with the boys in gray, exchanging compliments, pipes, tobacco, knives and souvenirs.”
On April 12 came the formal surrender parade. Neither Grant nor Lee attended, but Chamberlain received the surrender of the Confederate infantry.
This story about the surrender at Appomattox was updated in 2022.