Thomas B. (Thomas Brackett) Reed.

Modern eloquence; (Volume 5) online

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you are going to send this Union boy to prison. Hold on,
General ; that won't do ; that won't do at all ; we invited this
fellow over here, and we promised to protect him. Now,
General, don't you see, if you send him off to prison, you
will ruin our Southern honor." What could a com-
mander do with such boys? I made the Union man stand
up, and said to him, " Now, sir, if I permit you to go
back at the solicitation of these Confederates, will you

solemnly promise me, on the honor of a soldier "

And he did not wait for me to finish my sentence. With
a loud " Yes, sir," he leaped like a great bull-frog into
the river and swam back. [Laughter.]

Now, my countrymen, I allude to that little incident for
a far higher purpose than mere amusement or entertain-
ment. I want to submit a question in connection with it.
Tell me, my countrymen, where else on all this earth
could you find a scene like that in the midst of a long and
bloody war between two hostile armies? Where else
could you find it? Among what people would it be pos-
sible except among this glorious American people, up-
lifted by our free institutions and by that Christian civili-
zation which was born in Heaven? [Applause.]


The Rapidan suggests another scene to which allusion
has often been made since the war, but which as illustra-
tive also of the spirit of both armies, I may be permitted
to recall in this connection. In the mellow twilight of
an April day the two armies were holding their dress
parades on the opposite hills bordering the river. At the
close of the parade a magnificent brass band of the Union
army played with great spirit the patriotic airs, " Hail
Columbia," and " Yankee Doodle." Whereupon the Fed-
eral troops responded with a patriotic shout. The same
band then played the soul-stirring strains of " Dixie," to
which a mighty response came from ten thousand Southern
troops. A few moments later, when the stars had come
out as witnesses and when all nature was in harmony,
there came from the same band the old melody, " Home,
Sweet Home." As its familiar and pathetic notes rolled
over the water and thrilled through the spirits of the sol-
diers, the hills reverberated with a thundering response
from the united voices of both armies. [Applause.]
What was there in this old, old music, to so touch the
chords of sympathy, so thrill the spirits and cause the
frames of brave men to tremble with emotion? It was
the thought of home. To thousands, doubtless, it was the
thought of that Eternal Home to which the next battle
might be the gateway. To thousands of others it was the
thought of their dear earthly homes, where loved ones
at that twilight hour were bowing around the family altar,
and asking God's care over the absent soldier boy.

I ask the audience to return with me now to that wild
and weird wilderness of scrub oaks, chinkapins, and pines,
where we left Grant and Lee, and in another part of which
Hooker and Burnside fought, and Stonewall Jackson fell ;
and in which Grant was now greeting Lee for the first
time in battle on that famous 5th of May, 1864. Lee and
Grant in that wild wilderness " volleyed and thundered "
their greetings and counter-greetings in the most lordly
manner for two or three days. On the second day, while
riding over the field covered with the dead, General Lee
indicated by the peculiar orders he gave me, his high esti-
mate of General Grant's genius for war. He ordered me
to move that night to Spottsylvania Court-House. I
asked if scouts had not reported that General Grant had


suffered heavy losses and was preparing to retreat. Lee's
laconic answer revealed his appreciation, I repeat, of the
character and ability of his great antagonist. " Yes," he
replied, " my scouts have brought me such reports ; but
General Grant will not retreat, sir; he will move to
Spottsylvania Court-House." I asked if he had informa-
tion to that effect. " No," he replied, " but General Grant
ought to move to Spottsylvania. That is his best manoeu-
vre and he will do what is best." General Lee then
added, " I am so sure of it that I have had a short road
cut to that point, and you will move by that route."
This was Lee's prophecy. Its notable fulfilment was the
arrival of Grant's troops at Spottsylvania almost simul-
taneously with the head of the Confederate column and
the beginning of the great battle of Spottsylvania.

On this field occurred some of the most desperate fight-
ing of the war. Winfield Scott Hancock, the superb,
made his famous charge and brilliant capture of the bloody
salient in the mist and darkness of that fateful morning
the 1 2th of May. Here he sent to Grant his characteristic
field despatch, " I have used up Johnson and am going
into Early." Here Lee, with his army cut in twain, rode
into the breach, and like Napoleon at Lodi, placed himself
at the head of his reserves, resolved to recapture the sali-
ent or fall in the effort. Here, as he sat upon his horse in
front of my lines, his head uncovered, his hat in hand,
his face rigid and fixed upon the advancing foe, the Con-
federate soldiers exhibited that deathless devotion to his
person which knew no diminution even to the end. As I
seized his bridle and called in the hearing of the men,
" General Lee, this is no place for you. You must go to
the rear," my soldiers caught the words, and with electric
spontaneity there came from my lines, in thunder-tones,
" General Lee to the rear, General Lee to the rear," and
they surrounded him and literally bore horse and rider to
a place of safety. Here, under the inspiration of his
majestic and magnetic presence, occurred that furious
counter-charge which swept forward with the resistless
power of a cyclone, bearing all things down before it,
driving Hancock back, and retaking a large portion of
the salient. Here occurred that incessant roll of mus-
ketry for more than twenty hours, unparalleled in the


annals of war, the storm of Minie balls cutting away
standing" timber, piling hecatombs of dead Federals in
front of the parapets and filling the inner ditches with
dead and dying Confederates, upon whose prostrate
bodies their living comrades stood to beat back with
clubbed muskets the charging columns of Grant as they
rushed with frantic fury up the slippery sides of the blood-
drenched breastworks.

My brother Americans, all the ages have claimed chiv-
alry and courage ; but I stand here to-night, with the fear
of God upon me, measuring my every word, and throw
down the challenge to all history. I challenge the proud
phalanxes of Cyrus and Alexander, the Tenth Legion of
Caesar, the Old Guard of Napoleon, or the heroic High-
landers of Scotland to furnish a parallel to that heroism,
devotion, and self-sacrifice which was exhibited by those
American boys in blue and gray from '61 to '65.

All things began now to point to the Confederacy's
certain and speedy death. Whether as these boys in blue
claimed, they were beginning then to whip us into sub-
mission or, as our boys claimed, we were simply wearing
ourselves out whipping them [laughter] is a matter of no
consequence now. I want to pause a moment, in connec-
tion with that piece of innocent pleasantry, to drop one
thought ; and would to God for the sake of my country, I
could send this thought ringing down the ages until it
had found a lodgment in every American youth's brain
fcr a hundred generations. That thought is this : that for
the future glory of this Republic, it is absolutely imma-
terial whether on this battlefield or that the blue or the
gray won a great victory, for, thanks be to God, every
victory won in that war by either side was a monument to
American valor. [Applause.]

It was no longer possible to fill our ranks, except by
converting slaves into soldiers, and the proposition to
free all the Southern negroes at once and arm therq for
Southern defense became the great problem of the hour.
It was no longer possible to feed Lee's army, and starva-
tion literal starvation was doing its deadly work. So
depleted and poisoned was the blood of our men from
insufficient and unsound food, that the slightest wound
in the finger, a mere scratch, would oft-times end in


gangrene, blood poisoning and death. Young gentle-
men, it was no uncommon sight to see your Southern
brothers in Lee's army with sticks in their hands picking
grains of corn from under the feet of the half-fed horses,
and washing that corn for soldiers' food. We had to
ration on corn right often ; and one night after an unusu-
ally big ration of corn, I heard a great groaning down
in my camp. I walked down and asked " What is the
matter with you, Jake? What in the world are you
making all this noise about, sir?" "Sick, General; I
am sick; I ate too much corn." But Jake was out next
morning, and as I came out he hailed me : " Hallo,
General, I'm all right this morning, I feel first-rate ; I ate
a lot of corn last night, and now, if you will give me a
good-sized bale of hay, I will be ready for the next fight."

The crowning fact which gilds this gloom with a lasting
radiance, is that amidst all this suffering the esprit of the
army was never broken. The grim humor of the camp
waged incessant war upon the spirit of despondency.
One soldier would meet another and accost him thus,
" Hallo, Bill, I advise you to invest your month's pay in a
bottle of the most powerful astringent, and contract your
stomach to the size of your ration." [Laughter.]

It was impossible to secure hats enough to shelter the
heads of those brave boys from the winter's blasts; but
those rascally Confederates had a way of getting hats for
themselves. I was on a train of cars going into Peters-
burg. A large number of old men were in the cars, com-
ing up to see the boys. Every one of those old men on
the inside of the cars had a hat. Those boys on the out-
side in the army, who had no hats, wanted hats obliged
to have hats had stationed themselves along the railroad
track in a long line, and in the hands of the man at the
head they had put a tree-top. There he stood with this tree-
top close to the railroad side ; and as the train came sweep-
ing by, they called " Look out ! " and the old men stuck
out their heads, and hats, and the brush swept the hats.

It was the fortune of my command to cover Lee's
retreat after the final break of our lines around Peters-
burg and Richmond, and as we crossed the river at mid-
night and burned the bridges behind us, I carried on my
spirit a load of woe which no language could describe.


In addition to the melancholy fate which had befallen
Lee's army, I had left behind me in that desolated city
that sweet and devoted wife who had followed me during
the entire war; I had left that wife extremely ill in bed.
But as I came back from the surrender, I found her still
alive, and I found a fact for which I would gladly build
with these hands a monument to the author of that fact
I do not know whether that author was General Grant
himself, or some man like Grant ; but this I do know that
some knightly soldier with a blue uniform on his back
had learned of her illness, and with a spirit worthy of an
American freeman, had placed around her home a guard
of boys in blue, who protected her from a single intruder.

I repeat, it was the fortune of my command to cover
Lee's retreat, fighting all day, marching all night, with
little food and no rest, with starvation claiming its vic-
tims at every mile of that march, I would be an un-
faithful chronicler, however, if I did not tell you that even
under those extreme conditions, that same spirit of fun-
making was forever present. Even the religious side of a
soldier's life had its laughable phase now and then.
There is not a man or woman in this audience who ever
laughed at anything who could have resisted it. There
was a deep religious feeling in Lee's army. Prayer-
meetings were held wherever possible. One was held at
my headquarters. A long lanky fellow about so high
[indicating] without education, but a brave soldier, knelt
at my side and prayed. " Oh, Lord," he said, " we are
having a mighty big fight down here and a sight of
trouble, and we do hope, Lord, that you will take a proper
view of this subject, and give us the victory." [Laugh-
ter.] Another prayer-meeting was held, at which there
was present an old fellow a one-legged fellow; his leg
had been taken off close to the hip-joint; he had been
sent home, of course, but had come back on a visit, and
was in the prayer-meeting. His leg was taken off so
short that he could not kneel down in prayer, as the boys
were in the habit of doing ; he had to sit up ; so he sat up
while Brother Jones prayed. Brother Jones was praying
for more manhood, more strength, more courage. This
old one-legged Confederate could not stand that sort of


a prayer for more courage at that stage of the game, any
longer; so, right in the middle of the prayer, he called
out : " Hold on there, Brother Jones hold on there, sir ;
don't you know you are just praying all wrong? Why
don't you pray for more provisions? We have got more
courage now than we have any use for." [Laughter.]
This broke up the prayer-meeting. Another prayer-
meeting was held, this time in a little log cabin on the

* roadside, by officers in high command; and one general

* officer stepped to the door of the little log cabin, in which
we were assembled, and beckoned to another general
officer passing by to come in and participate in the prayer-
meeting. The other general officer did not understand
exactly what was wanted with him ; so he replied, " No, I
thank you, General, no more at present; I have just had
some." [Laughter.]

My command was now thrown to the front ; and on the
evening of the eighth of April, the day before the final
surrender, we struck that cordon of bayonets which
General Grant had thrown across the line of our retreat
at Appomattox. Then came the last sad Confederate
council of war. It was called by Lee to meet at night.
It met in the woods by his lonely bivouac fire. There
was no tent, no table, no chairs, no camp-stools; on
blankets spread upon the ground we sat around the great
commander. A painter's brush might transfer to canvas
the physical features of that scene, but no tongue or pen
could describe the unutterable anguish of those broken-
hearted commanders as they sat around their beloved
leader and looked into his now clouded face and sought
to draw from it some ray of hope. I shall not attempt to
describe that scene ; but I would be untrue to myself and
to Lee's memory if I did not say of him that in no hour of
that great war did his masterful characteristics appear to
me so conspicuous as they did then and there ; as he
stood in that lonely woodland, by that low-burning fire,
surrounded by his broken followers ; and yet stood so
grandly, so calmly facing and discussing the long-dreaded

It was resolved at that last council that my wing of the
army, now in front, should attempt at daylight the next
morning to cut its way out through Grant's line. We


moved at daylight and this audience will pardon the
pride which impels me to say that in no battle of that
great war was there a prouder record of American valor
ever written than was then and there made by that little
band of poorly clad and starving American heroes who
followed my standard in that last charge of the war.

As I fought to the front, Longstreet was compelled to
fight to the rear, so that every foot of advance by either
of us simply widened the breach between the two wings
of Lee's army such was Grant's magnificent strategy;
and it was at this hour, as I was desperately fighting in
every direction around me, that I received the last note
from General Lee. It was to inform me that there was
a flag of truce between General Grant and himself, stop-
ping hostilities, and that I should notify the Union com-
manders in my front of that fact. The audience will
understand that no unnecessary delay occurred in sending
out that information. I called for my chief of staff and
said : " Take a flag of truce and bear this message to the
Union commanders quick." He soon informed me we
had no flag of truce. " Oh, well," I said, " take your
handkerchief and tie it on a stick, and go." He said,
" General, I have no handkerchief." I ordered : " Tear
your shirt and put that on a stick and go." He looked at
his shirt, and then at mine, and said : " I have on a flannel
shirt; I see you have; there is not a white shirt in the
whole army." I said, "Get something, sir get some-
thing, and go" ; and he got a rag and rode to the front,,
and soon he returned, and with him one of the most
superb horsemen who ever sat upon a saddle, and as I
looked into his flashing eyes, with his long curls falling
to his shoulders, I found myself in the presence of that
afterwards great Indian fighter, that man who ought for-
ever to hold a place in every American heart, the gallant
Custer. [Applause.] With a wave of his sword, which
embodied all the graces of the school, he said to me:
" General Gordon, I bring you the compliments of Gen-
eral Sheridan." Very fine, wasn't it? He added, how-
ever, " I also bring, sir, General Sheridan's demand for
your immediate and unconditional surrender" which
was not quite so fine. I replied : " You will please re-



turn, General, my compliments to General Sheridan, and
say to him that I shall not surrender." The audience
will understand that it required no vast amount of cour-
age to send that sort of a message in view of the Hag of
truce which forbade any more fighting. Soon a white
flag was seen in my front, and beneath its silken folds
rode Philip Sheridan and his escort. I rode out to meet
him, and between Sheridan and myself occurred a similar
controversy; he had received no such message from
General Grant about a flag of truce the message had
miscarried, and I am quite satisfied that Sheridan hap-
pened to be about that time, as he always was, in a place
too hot for the messenger to want to find him ; but upon
my presenting to him the autograph letter from General
Lee, it was agreed that we order the firing to cease and
withdraw our lines to certain points. This was done,
and Sheridan and I dismounted and sat together on the

It would require the pen of a master to describe the
succeeding events. In the little brick house where they
met, Lee and Grant presented a contrast as strangely
inconsistent with the real situation as it was unprece-
dented and inconceivable. Had any one of this audience,
unacquainted with the facts, suddenly appeared in that
room, you would have selected Lee for the victor and
Grant as the vanquished hero. And when you had
analyzed the reasons for this marvelous contrast, your
conception of the great characteristics of the two men,
and your admiration for each would have risen to a still
higher plane.

There stood Lee dressed (as a mark of respect to
Grant) in his best uniform, unbent by misfortune, sus-
taining by his example the spirits of his defeated com-
rades and illustrating in his calm and lofty bearing the
noble adage which he afterwards announced, that " the
virtue of humanity ought always to equal its trials."

I had seen him before in defeat as well as in the hour
of triumph with the exultant shouts of his victorious
legions ringing in his ears. I was familiar with the spirit
of self-abnegation with which he had severed his allegi-
ance to the general Government, and, like old John
Adams, had resolved that sink or swim, survive or perish,


he would cast his fortunes with those of his people. I
had learned from long and intimate association with him
that unlike Caesar and Alexander and Bonaparte, and the
great soldiers of history, the goal of his ambition was not
glory, but duty, and only duty, that it was true of him as
of few men who have ever lived that distance in his case
did not lend enchantment, but that the nearer you ap-
proached him the greater and grander he grew.

And now, self-poised and modest, bearing on his great
heart a mountain-load of woe, with the light of an un-
clouded conscience upon his majestic brow, with an in-
nate dignity and nobility of spirit rarely equaled and
never excelled, this central figure of the Confederate
cause rose in this hour of supremest trial, in the estima-
tion at least of those who had followed him, to the highest
place of the morally sublime.

There, too, was Grant (peace to his ashes, and forever
cherished be his memory), his slouch hat in hand, his
plain blue overcoat upon his shoulders, making with Lee
a contrast picturesque and unique. Grave, unassuming,
and considerate, there was upon his person no mark of
rank ; there was about him no air of triumph nor trace of
exultation. Serious and silent, except in kindly answers
to questions, he seemed absorbed in thought, and evi-
dently sought to withdraw, if in his power, the bitter sting
of defeat from the quivering sensibilities of his great
antagonist. Some of his responses to questions have al-
ready gone into history. His replies were marked by a
directness, simplicity, force and generosity in keeping
with the character of the magnanimous conqueror who
uttered them. They were pregnant with a pathos and a
meaning to the defeated Confederates, which can only be
understood by a full comprehension of the circumstances
and of the nobility of spirit and of the lofty sentiment
which inspired them.

But General Grant rose, if possible, to a still higher
plane, by his subsequent threat of self-immolation on the
altar of a soldier's honor, and by his heroic declaration
of the inviolability and protecting power of Lee's parole,
and by invoking with almost his dying lips, the spirit of
peace, equality, fraternity, and unity among all of his


These evidences of Grant's and Lee's great character-
istics ought to live in history as an inspiration to future
generations. They ought to live on pages at least as
bright as those which record their military and civic
achievements. They ought to be inscribed on their
tombs in characters as fadeless as their fame and as
enduring as the life of the Republic.

Outside of that room the scenes were no less thrilling
or memorable. When the Confederate battleflags had
been furled forever, and as a Confederate corps marched
to the point where its arms were to be stacked, it moved
in front of the division commanded by that knightly sol-
dier, General Joshua L. Chamberlain, of Maine. That
brilliant officer called his command into line and saluted
the Confederates at a " present arms " as they filed by, a
final and fitting tribute of Northern chivalry to Southern
courage. The briny tears that ran down the haggard and
tanned faces of the starving Confederates ; the veneration
and devotion which they displayed for the tattered flags
which had so long waved above them in the white smoke
of the battle ; the efforts secretly to tear those bullet-rent
banners from their supports and conceal them in their
bosoms ; the mutually courteous and kindly greetings and
comradeship between the soldiers of the hitherto hostile
armies ; their anxiety to mingle with each other in friendly
intercourse ; the touching and beautiful generosity dis-
played by the Union soldiers in opening their well-filled
haversacks and dividing their rations with the starving
Confederates these and a thousand other incidents can
neither be described in words nor pictured on the most
sensitive scrolls of the imagination. [Applause.]

No scene like it in any age was ever witnessed at the
close of a long and bloody war. No such termination of
intestine and internecine strife would be possible save
among these glorious American people. It was the in-
spiration of that enlightened and Christian civilization
developed by the free institutions of this unrivaled and
Heaven-protected Republic.

While political passion has now and then, and for brief
periods, disturbed this auspicious harmony, yet what a
marvel of concord, of power, and of progress is presented
for the contemplation of mankind by this reunited


country. The bloodiest war of the ages, with its embit-
tered alienations all in the past; its lessons and immortal
memories a guide and inspiration for all the future.

Online LibraryThomas B. (Thomas Brackett) ReedModern eloquence; (Volume 5) → online text (page 9 of 38)