General Lee signed the surrender document for the Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865. (You can find that story here). However, on April 12, 1865, the Confederate soldiers formally laid down their weapons under the watchful eyes of victorious Union soldiers.
It was a tense moment. It was awkward for the Union soldiers to watch; in their hearts, many of them had come to respect their enemies’ courage. It was heartbreaking moment for the Confederates; some units simply disbanded and did not appear at the ceremony, but most came. In some units, there were less than a hundred soldiers when years before there had been thousands. It was a moment when both sides felt the loss of war.
The Union general presiding over the surrender was General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. The event made a solemn impression on him and wrote several accounts of the day in later years. He gave an order during the ceremony which set the tone for reconciliation.
Rather than write a long article, I thought I’d share a piece of poetry I drafted about six years ago about the surrender ceremony. (Poetry by Sarah Kay Bierle, 2009, All Rights Reserved.)
The Last Salute
The field is silent and still,
The days of war are past;
The Confederates break camp on the hill,
The day of surrender is here at last.
Silently the victors wait,
Waiting for the formalities of the day.
No longer is there any hate,
No longer do any want to slay.
The gray column moves out,
Toward the open field,
Slowly they come, though they would rather turn about,
Instead of their weapons and flags to yield.
General Gordon rides along,
His head bent down.
The words he hears are like a joyful song;
“Salute them!” is the order which sounds.
Salute them as brothers,
Salute them as brave men;
Salute those slain 258,000 others,
Salute them for more than can be told with pen.
They expect humiliation and receive honor instead,
And Gordon returns the salute.
Not another word is said;
They lay down their guns, never again to shoot.
The flags they gently fold,
Never more shall they wave in the sky.
The sorrow of some is hard to be told.
Never more shall they the Union defy.
Salute them as long lost brothers,
Salute them as new friends!
Salute them and forget the bitterness of others.
Salute them; this is the war’s long-awaited end!
P.S. General Chamberlain received some slight criticism for his order to have Union troops salute the surrendering Confederates. Do you think his order was beneficial? If so, why? If not, what should he have done and why?