Confederate Gray, Firelight, & Home

Last week we read about a Union soldier looking at his “long road” beyond Appomattox. Today, we’ll take the Southern point of view. The war was over, but the Confederates had lost. For many of these Southern men, their road home would be more difficult and symbolically longer.

The following selection is semi-fictionalized. In other words, it’s based on real history, but these thoughts do not belong to any particular Confederate soldier. The setting is the evening of April 13, 1865 (Lincoln has not been assassinated yet).

Looking Back

We’ve lost. Don’t bother with flowery language. Until now, I could always hope for a better day, another victory for our army. But now it’s over. All the grief and regret which I’d keep back cannot be avoided.

If we’d won, perhaps we could have justified the sacrifices. But now, we are left with too many questions, too many memories. I’ve buried too many cousins and brothers.

Confederate artillery unitWe’d believed the war couldn’t last long…that Southern tenacity would win the day. We’d volunteered to defend our homeland from invasion. I know the politicians have their story and their views and I know history may not treat us kindly. But I fought to defend my family. I didn’t even own any slaves and many of the men I fought beside didn’t either.

Battlefields now behind us will be the silent monument to us…places were we fought: Manassas, Gaines Mill, Malvern Hill, Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, Amelia Springs, Saylor’s Creek, Appomattox. Appomattox: here the armed struggled ended and the road home and the questions began.

Faded gray, dusty gray, torn gray – I guess those are ways to describe my uniform. I ain’t got any other clothes. Mother and sisters made it for me at the beginning and it’s been through it all – the forced marches, the charges to single victories. There a tear in the sleeve from the bullet wound last year. It hangs loosely because of the winter of hunger and the reoccurring malaria.

The ranks of the company and regiment – indeed of the whole army – are thin, like my gray coat. We soldiers fought to defend our Constitutional rights and our families. We believed we were right and that’s what kept us strong. We were men in gray, following a cross flag.


The gun is gone. That weapon had almost become like a friend, I’d had the thing so long. Laid it down yesterday. The war’s over.

I don’t really believe it yet. Someday, I’ll realize it. You see, it’s not a desire to kill, a burning anger, or even bitter resentment in my heart…it’s just a feeling of shock, too hard to describe.

Confederate prisoners at GettysburgIt seems to strange to think the old bugle won’t call us to the march again…that Gener’l Lee won’t ride the lines again while we cheer…that Old Stonewall won’t sudden return from somewhere far off in the mists of time. Four years establishes new habits and routines and now it’s hard to realize we’ll never be the feared Army of Northern Virginia.

The firelight dims, but the embers burn a little longer. It’s like hope. The grand fire of enthusiasm and fight is dead, but in the coals we again find the iron qualities which drew us here first. We’re reminded of what we hold dear: faith, family, home. I can actually go home. That is a single grand reality. Home.

Fire refines. Have we been refined? Our lives, our souls, our character have been thrown in the hottest fire of war and defeat. Can we emerge as stronger, better men?

Looking Forward

Perhaps we’ve been tested and prepared. Perhaps forgiveness is stronger than victory. We’ll go home and…

But what will be left at home? Haven’t had a letter since late last autumn when Mother said the crops had been burned. Did the girls survive the winter? What will I be going home to? Will my sweetheart still be waiting for me or has the war destroyed her?

So many questions…

And then how will the Yankees treat us? Sure, we were paroled, but will they all be kind like those fellows who shared their food with me? We’d never had slaves, but what about the people who did – how will they like doing their own work? And what about the freedmen? Will they be better off in freedom and will the northern people accept them kindly? I don’t have answers. To speak honestly, I mistrust Yankee politicians.

Soldiers of the 10th Virginia CavalryIt’s a long road home. Looking at my comrades, I know we’ll all face different struggles…to forgive, to forget, to heal, to accept, to reunite. But I guess I’ve learned more as a Rebel soldier than I’d thought…more than shooting and killing. I’ve learned not to give up what’s important to you.

The war’s over. I’ll accept that. I ain’t going to keep fighting. It’s over. But I’ll take the courage I’ve gained and go home. I’ll keep my mother and sisters safe again. We’ll plow the ruined fields. We’ll rebuild the barn and expand the house.

My gray coat may hang behind the door, hidden from prying eyes, but the manly qualities mastered on battlefields and the hope kindled in this last night can guide this soldier. I’m a soldier in gray, starting the long road home to forgive and rebuild.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. The Confederates faced a harder post war “road.” What other feelings might they have had? Share your thoughts or historical quotes.




Union Blue, Stars, & Home

The Civil War was over after the surrender at Appomattox Court House. (Well, almost – there were still a few Southern armies which had to surrender, but that was only a matter of time.) The Army of Northern Virginia had laid down their weapons.

What happens next?

Today, I’m going to take a semi-fictionalized viewpoint and tell some history from the perspective of a Union soldier on the evening of April 13, 1865 (thus placing it before Lincoln’s assassination). I think this will be more interesting to you, dear readers, than lists of facts and “random” information. Keep in mind that the following information is based on real historical facts, but does not contain actual written quotes by a Union soldier.

Looking Back

It’s over. After four years of fighting, our nation is one country again. It’s a time of triumph, and while there are some events which I shall proudly tell my children, there are many others I wish I’d never seen or done. War has changed me. It’s changed our nation. Can we move on and start again? I believe so.

I swat at a pesky mosquito – that’s one thing I won’t miss: Virginia weather, mud, and bugs! And while I’m listing on those topics – I shan’t miss the army food either. I’ll gladly trade tasteless hardtack, salt pork, and a million pounds of army beans for my dear wife’s cooking and her delicious apple pies. (I did learn to make decent coffee…)

But the memories of hundreds of miles, campaigns, battles, and skirmishes fill my mind tonight. I’m one of the lucky ones, I guess. How many men and boys from my small home town won’t be coming home? Their places around the fire are empty, and we who have survived sit a little closer, trying to fill the vacant spaces. We don’t say anything, all lost in our thoughts.

Union Soldier burial crew at Antietam, 1862We’d enlisted…how long ago was it? Months, years, or another lifetime? When the war started it was only supposed to last three months. How wrong we all were! But we enlisted and came – thousands and thousands of men from all stations, classes, and stages of life. Something bigger than ourselves brought us here. For the younger men, it might’ve been a love of adventure or running from home. For others committed to a cause of liberty, a chance to strike a blow at slavery. Still others came for the money. Others, speaking with foreign accents, wanted a chance to prove they were worthy citizens. But most, myself included, came because we believed America should be one nation and we wanted to defend that idea for future generations.

And so we fought. We bled. We died. For what we believed was right. And the graves stretched for endless miles behind us. We were soldiers in Union blue.


The cannons are silhouetted on the low ridge. They’re silent now. It’s over.

Union army camp [public domain]That glorious fact is still not fully real in my mind. Won’t we be force marching again tomorrow? Won’t we be fighting another battle, watching our comrades tumble to the ground, crying out in agony? Won’t we be burying the dead and writing those letters home?

No. It’s over.

The stars shine brightly, as if all of heaven is illuminated and celebrating peace. Stars – you beacons of hope, shining through the darkness nights above cold battlefields, above lonely tenting grounds, above the homesick soldier. Stars – now seeming to dance in the sky. It’s over and you seem to know. The battlefields will become hallowed grounds, the tents will disappear, the soldier goes home.

It’s over. The stars now point the way home.

Looking Forward

Rumor has it that there will be a grand review of the Union army, then we’ll all be mustered out and head for home. I’ll trade this blue wool uniform for civilian clothes again and return to my pre-war job – providing for my family in a peaceful setting.

Home and family – ah, blessed words. Never take for granted the place and those you love most. They were always there, waiting for your return.

I wonder what will happen next. I mean –  I know what I will do – go home and hold my family close. But what will the country do? Will we welcome back the Southern states like long-lost family? Or will we send them to the woodshed for punishment like rebellious, bratty children? Which would be most effective? As a father, I think now it is the time to welcome them back. They’ve been punished enough. But will the politicians, the leaders see that? And what about these freedmen? How will they fit into our society? How will we welcome them?

So many questions. That is the future: unknown.

Soldiers_in_campBut one thing I know – I cannot speak for the commanders or the politicians – but I can speak for myself and my comrades here. We are men in blue. We dared to fight to defend our country. We are stronger. We will be better citizens.

The stars in the sky have witnessed it all. Now, they are our witnesses as we see the future dawning. We are going home. It’s over.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. What other thoughts and conflicts would a Union soldier have felt at this time? Share your opinions or historical resources.


The Last Salute To The Army of Northern Virginia

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!

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

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?

The Journey & The Surrender

As I’m trying form my thoughts into words for this first blog post in the April series “Appomattox & The Long Road Home,” my feelings are mixed. While thinking about primary source quotes, I can almost see the soldiers’ confused emotions – joy that the war was end, sorrow over lost comrades, reality of losing. Over all these thoughts, one historical person stands above the rest, so I think I’ll tell the story of the Confederacy’s last week from the perspective of General Robert E. Lee.

The Man

General Lee, 1865In April 1865, Robert E. Lee was fifty-eight years old. He’d been in the military for most of his life, serving in the Corps of Engineers with the United States Army and, in the last four years, playing a major role in the command strategy for the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. His sons served with the Confederate military, and his wife and daughters resided in Richmond during the war. Lee had strong faith and a belief in God’s providence. He was known for his proud and honorable character. His Southern troops had unshakeable confidence in his abilities and had unquestioningly followed his orders many times.

The Situation

The previous year – 1864 – General Lee successfully held Union General Grant and the huge Army of the Potomac away from Richmond, capital of the Confederacy. The horrific Overland Campaign resulted in over 90,000 casualties and ended when Lee blocked Grant’s sneaky maneuver at Petersburg.

Petersburg – a small town and railroad hub a little over 20 miles from Richmond – became the setting of one of the longest sieges of the American Civil War. For about 10 months, both side hunkered in dirt trenches, flinching from the shrieking artillery shells, and dreading orders to attack. Steadily, Grant extended his siege lines until they enveloped the Confederates on three extended sides. Lee was forced to spread his starving troops thinly along the lines, trying to keep escape routes open.

The rest of Lee’s home state – Virginia – was mostly in Union hands. Lee’s last military hope was General Joe Johnston’s Confederate army in North Carolina. Johnston was fighting General Sherman who’d swung north after the devastating march through Georgia.

And Then Spring Came…

Spring came, melting the snow and signaling the commencement of military action again. Grant and his army awoke from their hibernation and a series of “small” battles were fought along the Confederate right flank. (Flank is the side of an army position, in case you’re wondering.) On April 1, while the Confederate generals were away at a fancy lunch a Union attack at Five Forks disorganized and broke the Confederate lines.

Eventually someone had to go tell General Lee at his Petersburg headquarters that the right flank was broken. (I don’t think they confessed about the fancy lunch – Lee would not have approved! Lee had spent part of the day at a prayer meeting with another of his religious generals.)

Fateful Day

The following day – April 2, 1865 – Lee and his army had to evacuate Petersburg. They hurried west, trying to outmaneuver Grant’s swarming army.

Lee sent a message to President Jefferson Davis in Richmond, advising him to leave the capital. It was no longer defendable. The Confederacy was crumbling, but Lee did not give up. He would re-organize and outflank or fight through Grant’s army to reach North Carolina.

General Lee and Traveller, 1866In the dark night, riding along the muddy Virginia roads closely followed by a couple staff officers, what did he think? One writer described the commander and scene this way:

They [Confederate soldiers] saw his lips move and knew he was talking with his Friend [God]… The white, sad face seem unconscious of those near him. “How easily I could get rid of this and be at rest!” he had said… “But it is our duty to live. What will become of the women and children of the South if we are not here to protect them?” He thought of the humiliation, of the pride of family, of the state, of the whole South. It had done all it could – and lost – failed! “We have appealed to the God of battles,” said he, “and He has decided against us.” And, now, “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?” (1)

Fighting For Every Step

The next week must have been one of the hardest of Lee’s life. Supplies stockpiled and sent ahead for his starving troops never arrived or were destroyed by Union troops. Every step of the race west seemed blocked or contested by blue-clad cavalry or infantry. Grant was closing in. Still, Lee and his men kept up a moving fight. Sutherland’s Station, Namozine Church, Amelia Springs, Rice’s Station, Sailor’s Creek, High Bridge, Cumberland Church, and Appomattox Station became the sites of desperate battles or skirmishes.

The Impossible

On April 6, 1865, at Sailor’s Creek, Lee snatched a battle flag and tried to rally his troops. They gathered – so few, compared to the thousands and thousands in the previous years. Dead men cannot rise and fight again, only the living few looked back at the commanding general. They’d do anything for him…and he knew it. Perhaps scenes from other places flashed through his mind – Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania, Petersburg. He’d asked them to do the impossible, and they’d tried and often succeeded.

"The Last Rally" by Mort Kunstler. No Copyright Infringement Intended. (

“The Last Rally” by Mort Kunstler. No Copyright Infringement Intended. (

Now, looking at their gaunt, weary faces he could see the impossible looming before him. They’d never ask him to. But was it right that the pale-face sixteen year old staring at him with worshipful admiration should die when there was no chance of success? Or the veteran of four years, looking so thin and exhausted, with his belt pulled tight to keep a uniform on his dangerously thin body – should he collapse by the roadside for want of food? Their expressions inspired him; their trust made him want to fight on, and so he rallied them, encouraged them, added another block to the legend of his leadership.

Leadership – they’d followed him so far, he would have to do the impossible to save them…if the supplies were not at Appomattox.

The Decision

The Union reached Appomattox first. The Confederate supplies were gone.

It was over. To save the boys and the faithful veterans, he asked for terms of surrender. To protect the fathers, sons, and brothers still living, who could return and care for their wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters, he would surrender.

“There is nothing left me but to go to General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths,” he said.

The Surrender

Grant was willing to meet to discuss surrender terms. And in the afternoon of April 9, 1865, the two generals met in the parlor of Wilmer McLean’s home. Outside the troops of both armies waited, silently under the terms of a temporary cease-fire.

Surrender at AppomattoxFirst, Lee and Grant talked over old-times, reminiscing about by-gone days in the U.S. Army and the Mexican War period. Then, Lee asked for the terms of surrender. Grant named them: the officers and men would be paroled under the agreement not to fight against the United States, weapons would be surrendered but this would not include officers’ side arms, horses owned by the soldier could be kept and taken home, and the soldiers would return home without legal charges pressed against them.

Lee accepted and requested that food would be sent to his soldiers. Grant agreed. The surrender documents were signed around 4 p.m. As word spread, the Union troops started cheering; out of respect for Lee and the surrendering army, Grant order the demonstrations of victory to be stopped.

Lee’s Journey & Surrender

Most of Lee’s personal journey from Petersburg and his personal surrender to accept the situation went un-recorded. He did not write much about those days and did not want to talk about it in later years. From the facts, we can trace the steps on a map, but we will never be able to fully trace the path of his thoughts on the road to surrender. Perhaps this is for the best.

Still, we can look back at the facts and make observations.

Robert E. Lee’s leadership and victories had been legendary. But, to me, one of his greatest moments is at the end. He was not defeated. His journey of self-searching and self-sacrifice led him to make the ultimate leadership decision – to do the thing he most dreaded.

Reality faced him on the journey to Appomattox. On the night of April 8th, he decided to die “a thousand deaths” to save his men. That is self-less leadership. It reminds me of a verse in Scripture: “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Based on this article and other information you have read, what single word would you use to describe Robert E. Lee’s character?

(1) Robert E. Lee: The Christian by William J. Johnson, Christian Liberty Press, Arlington Heights, IL, 1993. Pages 148-149.