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Faces From The Past—ii

July 2024
3min read

The ordeal in Wilmer McLean’s parlor took place on April 9, but Robert E. Lee remained near Appomattox for another three days, until his men stacked their arms and I surrendered the worn, laded battle Hags which they had followed for four years. Then he set out toward Richmond, pitching his tent each night, sleeping under canvas for the last time. News of his coming preceded him, and along the road women and children waited, some with gifts of food.

On the morning of April 15, 1865, at almost the same time that Abraham Lincoln was dying in Washington, Lee readied the town of Manchester on the outskirts of Richmond. William Hatcher, a Baptist minister, looking out his window at the gray, sodden landscape, saw Lee’s party ride by in the heavy downpour. “His steed was bespattered with mud,” Hatcher wrote, “and his head hung down as if worn by long traveling. The horseman himself sat his horse like a master; his face was ridged with self-respecting grief; his garments were worn in the service and stained with travel; his hat was slouched and spattered with mud …”

The rain was still falling when Lee and five other officers, with Lee’s old ambulance and a few wagons carrying their personal effects (one, lacking canvas, was covered with an old quilt) rode into Richmond, and the first people who saw them enter the ruined city wept. As they went along, crowds grew thicker, cheers broke out, and Union troops uncovered when the General passed by. Finally he reached the house on East Kranklin Street, dismounted, and made his way toward the gate through a cheering throng, occasionally grasping an outstretched hand. Then he bowed, went into the house, and closed the door on four years of war.

Worn out, heartbroken, deeply concerned for the future of the South and its people, Lee stayed in the house for days on end, sitting quietly in the back parlor with his family, sleeping the sleep of exhaustion. In those first weeks alter Appomattox, Union troops patrolled the streets of the city outside his door; dazed civilians depended for food on handouts from Federal relief agencies. No trains entered the ghostly city; there was no mail. Yet everyone waited for news, mostly to learn the fate of captured troops or of the army still fighting under Joe Johnston. Nearly fifty thousand Negroes had come in from the outlying plantations, but no one seemed to know what to do with them, or they with themselves. After Lincoln’s assassination former Confederate soldiers were forbidden to talk to each other in the streets, and between ten and fifteen thousand of them roamed the city, silent, sullen, many of them crippled. At night the desolate city was in darkness, for Ore had destroyed the gas mains. There was no light, and there seemed to be no hope.

If Lee had thought to slim out the city and the past he was mistaken, for the South still looked to him for leadership, despite the Union sentinel in front of his house. A stream of callers began to arrive: women seeking husbands and sons, ministers and civic leaders seeking advice, the (curious seeking souvenirs or a glimpse of the great man. Confederates still in Libby Prison wrote, asking him to arrange their release, or if that was impossible, just to “ride by the Libby, and let us see yon and give you a good cheer. We will all feel better after it.” Officers and men came by to bid their old chief farewell before they headed for home. One day two ragged soldiers appeared, saying they were delegates for sixty more whose uniforms were too tattered for them to enter the house. On another occasion, when Lee was trying to answer the flood of correspondence, a tall Confederate soldier with one arm in a sling tame to the door and was turned away with an apology by Custis Lee, the General’s son. As he turned to go, the soldier said he had been with Hood’s Texans and had followed Lee for four years, and now he was going to walk home to Texas; he had hoped to shake his commanders hand. Custis changed his mind and went to get his father, and when Lee came downstairs the soldier took his hand, struggled to say something, and then burst into tears. He covered his face with his arm and walked out of the house.

Thousands who could not see him in the flesh wanted a picture, and one day in April Mathew Brady, the photographer, came to the front door and told a servant he wanted to see the General. When Lee appeared and heard the request he said, “It is utterly impossible, Mr. Brady. How can I sit for a photograph with the eyes of the world upon me as they arc today?” But Brady, who had suffered physical and financial hardships and risked danger on a score of battlefields in his determination to document the Civil War, knew this was one picture that had to be taken. It ended the story.

He went to Mrs. Lee and to one of Lee’s friends, and they persuaded the General to sit for him. Once more Lee put on the gray uniform, came out into the sunlight below the back porch, and spoke wearily to the photographer: “Very well, Mr. Brady, we are ready.” And the photographer with the failing eyesight put his head under the black cloth, focusing the camera until he thought he could see the image sharp. His subject, the commander in chief of the defeated Confederate Army, stood motionless, perfectly controlled except for the pride and defiance written in his eyes.

—Richard M. Ketchum

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