Excerpt from Reminiscences of the Civil War Covering events from April 1865; published in 1903; reprinted on
Documenting the American South (Web site)
An ex-Confederate general remembers the end of the Civil War
"They knew that burnt homes and fenceless farms, poverty and ashes, would greet them on their return from the war."
The American Civil War (1861–65)—a bloody struggle described by Northerners as a rebellion, and by Southerners as a fight for independence—drew to a close April 9, 1865, with the surrender of Confederate general Robert E. Lee (1807–1870) and his troops in Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. The Southern troops were surrounded and outnumbered, and in many ways they were too weak to continue fighting. About twenty-five thousand Confederates were gathered at Appomattox, and Southern general John Brown Gordon (1832–1904) later wrote in his memoirs, "but two thirds of them were so enfeebled [weakened] by hunger, so wasted by sickness, and so foot-sore from constant marching that it was difficult for them to keep up with the army."
Union general Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885) allowed generous terms of surrender. He permitted the Southern soldiers to keep their horses, for example, because he realized many of them had a long journey home and a farm that would need to be tilled (plowed) when they got there. The soldiers on both sides saluted each other as the Confederates stacked their guns on the ground. While the surrender endedthe military conflict, however, a larger political question remained: Under what terms would the North bring the Southern states back into the Union?
Both sides also wondered how they would recover from a war that had taken such a devastating toll. The North lost about 110,100 soldiers in battle and 224,580 more to disease. The South lost 94,000 in combat and 164,000 more to disease. Another 277,401 Union soldiers and 194,026 Confederates came home wounded. Particularly in the South, many soldiers came home to scorched fields and cities left in ruins. The famed "march to the sea" by Union general William T. Sherman (1820–1891) cut a 60-mile-wide path of destruction through Georgia, as troops took whatever food and supplies they could carry and demolished everything else. When Confederate troops evacuated cities such as Atlanta, Georgia, and Richmond, Virginia, they set fire to arsenals and destroyed railroad lines to keep those assets from falling into the hands of Northern troops. Sometimes the flames spread to factories, flour mills, and other shops before Union forces arrived.
Perhaps most jarring to the Southern soldiers heading home, the war had freed about four million African Americans from slavery. Whites had lost the forced labor pool that had made the South so prosperous. They would have to find a new way to run their large farming operations. They would also have to accept a new social order with African Americans as freed men, not slaves. This would prove to be a challenge for whites who clung to ignorant, racist views of African Americans as inferior people.
Faced with a destroyed homeland and an uncertain future, the ex-Confederates had several choices. Some fled to Mexico, British Honduras, or Brazil. There they "tried to preserve their Southern agricultural society," as noted in Out of the Storm, "but it was not long before internal squabbling, coupled with the harsh external realities of Mexican [and other foreign] politics, put an end to the experiment." Most soldiers made the tough trek home, stopping at strangers' houses to beg for food, even stealing from warehouses. Arthur Peronneau Ford, a Confederate soldier from South Carolina, joined a pack of soldiers who stormed a military supply house in Salisbury, North Carolina, just ten days after Lee's surrender at Appomattox. He described the scene in his memoirs, Life in the Confederate Army:
The warehouse was guarded by about a dozen boys of the home guard, who protested violently; but they were just swept [to] one side, and the door was broken open, and every man helped himself to what he wanted or needed. I got a handful of Confederate money, a pair of shoes, some flour and bacon, a pair of socks, and a small roll of jeans. This roll of cloth I carried clear home across my shoulders, and when I reached Aiken, in May, exchanged it with the baker for one hundred bread tickets, which provided our family with bread for the rest of the summer.
For a few months after the war, the South was in a state of near lawlessness. Some of the discharged soldiers, deserters (soldiers who abandoned their units), and newly freed slaves turned into vandals and thieves, taking what little remained to the Southerners after the war. George Cary Eggleston (1839–1911), a Confederate soldier from Virginia, described the robbers in his memoirs, A Rebel's Recollections. "They moved about in bands, from two to ten strong, cutting horses out of plows, plundering helpless people, and wantonly destroying valuables which they could not carry away," Eggleston wrote. He described one group that descended on a mansion "where only ladies lived" and demanded dinner. After they were fed, the men poured molasses over the carpets and furniture, and left. Eggleston continued:
Outrages were of every-day enactment, and there was no remedy. There was no State, county, or municipal government in existence among us. We had no courts, no justices of the peace, no sheriffs, no officers of any kind invested with a shadow of authority, and there were not men enough in the community, at first, to resist the marauders [robbers], comparatively few of the surrendered soldiers having found their way home as yet.
As the details of surrender were negotiated at Appomattox, General Gordon saw the sadness, anxiety, and dread among his troops. They did not know what they would find when they got home, or what the coming years of Reconstruction would hold. As he later recounted in his 1904 memoirs, Gordon told his men their duties did not end with the war. They would have to show their strength and courage in rebuilding the South and forging new ties with the North.
Things to remember while reading an excerpt from Reminiscences of the Civil War:
- The Civil War had freed the slaves, leaving whites to wonder how they would interact with freed African Americans and how they would run their plantations without forced labor.
- The destruction was not limited to the battlefield. Sherman's march through Georgia brought the war to the people by destroying their homes and farmlands. As Confederate troops fled certain cities, they burned their own armories and railroad lines (with flames sometimes spreading to neighboring buildings) to leave nothing to the Union troops.
- Faced with a home front in ruins and an uncertain political future, some war-weary soldiers thought about moving to Mexico or South America, where they believed they could set up their own slave-holding civilizations.
Excerpt from Reminiscences of the Civil War
During these last scenes at Appomattox some of the Confederates were so depressed in spirit, so filled with apprehensions as to the policy to be adopted by the civil authorities at Washington, that the future seemed to them shrouded in gloom. They knew that burnt homes and fenceless farms, poverty and ashes, would greet them on their return from the war. Even if the administration at Washington should be friendly, they did not believe that the Southern States could recover in half a century from the chaotic condition in which the war had left them. The situation was enough to daunt the most hopeful and appall the stoutest hearts. "What are we to do? How are we to begin life again?" they asked. "Every dollar of our circulating medium has been rendered
To many intelligent soldiers and some of the officers the conditions were so discouraging, the gloom so impenetrable, that they seriously discussed the advisability of leaving the country and beginning life anew in some other land.
While recognizing the dire extremity which confronted us, I was inclined to take a more hopeful view of the future. I therefore spoke to the Southern soldiers on the field at Appomattox, in order to check as best I could their disposition to leave the country, and to counteract, if possible, the paralyzing effect of the overwhelming discouragements which met them on every side.
As we reached the designated point, the arms were stacked and the battle-flags were folded. Those sad and suffering men, many of them weeping as they saw the old banners laid upon the stacked guns like trappings on the coffin of their dead hopes, at once gathered in compact mass around me. Sitting on my horse in the midst of them, I spoke to them for the last time as their commander. In all my past life I had never undertaken to speak where my own emotions were so literally overwhelming. I counselled such course of action as I believed most conducive to the welfare of the South and of the whole country. I told them of my own grief, which almost stifled utterance, and that I realized most keenly the sorrow that was breaking their hearts, and appreciated fully the countless and stupendous barriers across the paths they were to tread.
Reminding them of the benign Southern climate, of the fertility of their lands, of the vastly increased demand for the South's great staple and the high prices paid for it, I offered these facts as legitimate bases of hope and encouragement. I said to them that through the rifts in the clouds then above us I could see the hand of Almighty God stretched out to help us in the impending battle with adversity; that He would guide us in the gloom, and bless every manly effort to bring back to desolated homes the sunshine and comforts of former years. I told them the principles for which they had so grandly fought and uncomplainingly suffered were not lost,—could not be lost,—for they were the principles on which the Fathers had built the Republic, and that the very throne of Jehovah was pledged that truth should triumph and liberty live. As to the thought of their leaving the country, that must be abandoned. It was their duty as patriots to remain and work for the recuperation of our stricken section with the same courage, energy, and devotion with which they had fought for her in war. I urged them to enter cheerfully and hopefully upon the tasks imposed by the fortunes of war, obeying the laws, and giving, as I knew they would, the same loyal support to the general Government which they had yielded to the Confederacy. I closed with a prophecy that passion would speedily die, and that the brave and magnanimous soldiers of the Union army, when disbanded and scattered among the people, would become promoters of sectional peace and fraternity .…
As the Confederates were taking leave of Appomattox, and about to begin their long and dreary tramp homeward, many of the Union men bade them cordial farewell. One of Grant's men said good-naturedly to one of Lee's veterans:
"Well, Johnny, I guess you fellows will go home now to stay."
The tired and tried Confederate, who did not clearly understand the spirit in which these playful words were spoken, and who was not at the moment in the best mood for badinage, replied:
"Look here, Yank; you guess, do you, that we fellows are going home to stay? Maybe we are. But don't be giving us any of your impudence. If you do, we'll come back and lick you again."
What happened next …
Most of the soldiers returned to their homes. Unless they had a horse or caught a ride on one of the few still-running trains, they had to make the trip on foot. Some were lucky enough to return to areas untouched by fighting or looting. Some found their former slaves would still work for them, this time as paid employees.
The memoirs of several Southern soldiers say the Reconstruction period that followed was, in many ways, more difficult than the war. Resentment grew among many ex-Confederates as they watched the freed slaves vote, hold elected office, and even go to school as part of the North's plan to rebuild the South. Most Southerners had to take a "loyalty oath" in order to be pardoned, or forgiven, for participating in the "rebellion." They had to pay higher taxes to rebuild the roads and cities ruined by the war. Many soured at the thought of their taxes paying for African American schools or going to African American legislators whom, they believed, were incompetent or corrupt.
The bitterness of many Southerners was summed up in the lyrics to the song "O, I'm a Good Old Rebel," reprinted in The Confederate War:
Three hundred thousand Yankees is stiff in Southern dust
We got three hundred thousand before they conquered us.
They died of Southern fever and Southern steel and shot
I wish they was three million instead of what we got.
I can't take up my musket and fight them now no more,
But I ain't gonna love them, now that is certain sure.
And I don't want no pardon for what I was and am
I won't be reconstructed, and I don't care a damn.
Did you know …
- The Confederacy created its own form of paper money, but as that government crumbled, the money became almost worthless. At one point, it took $60 or $70 in Confederate money to equal one gold dollar.
- In the South alone, half of the white men of military age were killed or maimed (disfigured or handicapped) by the war.
- Gordon became a prominent Georgia politician after the war. He served as U.S. senator (1873–80, 1891–97) and governor (1886–90). He was shot in the face at the Battle of Antietam in 1862, the bloodiest day of the Civil War, and collapsed face-first into his cap. He later claimed the only thing that kept him from drowning in his blood was another bullet hole in the cap from earlier that day, which allowed the blood to flow out.
- Determined to preserve the memory of the Confederacy's so-called "Lost Cause," many Southern white women formed groups to maintain soldiers' graves, build monuments, and organize events honoring their war heroes. In many Southern states, the birthdays of Lee and Jefferson Davis (1808–1889), the first and only president of the Confederacy, became official holidays.
Consider the following …
- What did the freedom for African Americans mean for Southern whites?
- Why did some Confederates consider moving to Mexico or South America at the end of the war? Why did General Gordon think it was better for the soldiers to stay?
- What caused the looting after the war ended?
For More Information
Eggleston, George Cary. A Rebel's Recollections. New York: Hurd and Houghton; Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1875. Reprint, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996.
Ford, Arthur Peronneau, and Marion Johnstone Ford. "Life in the Confederate Army." Documenting the American South: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries. (accessed on September 14, 2004).
Gallagher, Gary W. The Confederate War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.
Gordon, John Brown. Reminiscences of the Civil War. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1903. Reprint, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993. Also available at Documenting the American South: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries. http://docsouth.unc.edu/gordon/gordon.html (accessed on September 14, 2004).
Greeno, Col. C. L. "The Capture of Jefferson Davis." The Sabre Regiment: 7th Pennsylvania Cavalry. (accessed on September 14, 2004).
Harnden, Henry. The Capture of Jefferson Davis. Madison, WI: Tracy, Gibbs & Co., 1898.
Trudeau, Noah Andre. Out of the Storm: The End of the Civil War, April–June 1865. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1994.