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Forget What You Think You Know About the Surrender at Appomattox

By Bill Hendrick 

Three of my great-grandfathers and at least one great-great grandfather served in Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, but not one of them is on the list of 28,231 soldiers paroled at or just after Appomattox.

Since all four were still in uniform as late as the winter of 1864-65, according to the National Archives, does that mean they deserted, or, like tens of thousands of others, simply gave up, went home and hid out from federal authorities? Or figured they’d join up with Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s army in North Carolina and continue the fight?

According to University of Virginia history Professor Caroline E. Janney’s astonishing new book, Ends of War: The Unfinished Fight of Lee’s Army after Appomattox, such questions may forever go unanswered.

“A conservative estimate would suggest that at least 20,000 of Lee’s men dropped out of the ranks after April 1, escaped the Union cordon on April 9, or otherwise refused to surrender themselves,” she writes.

The 28,231 on her list, she says, includes men paroled through April 15 in other Virginia cities and is “almost certainly” an overestimate.

The book, which reads like a novel, contains many surprises. Who would have thought, for example, that you’d read in a Civil War book that, after Lord Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown in 1781, some 6,000 British soldiers would be imprisoned for 19 months? And treated shabbily. Or that Congress voted to sell German prisoners into indentured servitude. (Another book, I hope!)

I was a journalist for more than 45 years, with a passion for history, but who wrote mostly about science, health, business and, occasionally, war. Though not a historian by training, I loved her book.

And so do top historians around the country such as Harold Holzer of Hunter College’s Roosevelt House in New York, who, in a review in The Wall Street Journal, praises it for being based on “an avalanche of anecdotal and statistical evidence.” 

Many thousands of Lee’s troops simply fled “undetected to join the regiments, refusing to take part in the funeral at Appomattox,” Holzer writes. Guerrilla raiders like the famous “Gray Ghost,” John Singleton Mosby, held out for months. Some, like Confederate Brig. Gen. Porter Alexander, refused to give up. He tried unsuccessfully to make his way to Brazil, where slavery was still legal. (Thousands did make it, and today their descendants, who call themselves Confederadoes, still hold festivals complete with rebel battle flags and hoop skirts.)

Jonathan Noyalas, director of Shenandoah University’s McCormick Civil War Institute in Winchester, Va., says that arguably “no single volume so successfully dismantles the notion that the transition to peace after Lee’s capitulation occurred swiftly and without issue than this latest volume” by Janney, who is the John L. Nau III Professor in the History of the American Civil War and director of the Nau Center for Civil War History at UVA.

Contrary to popular belief, or conventional wisdom, Lee’s surrender did not end the war and its fallout. And generals on both sides came up with their own rules for obtaining paroles, which were passes —slips of paper—that offered some protection from arrest, harassment or worse to defeated rebels. Janney counts 15,744 men paroled between April 9 and the end of June. 

The period after war’s end has been described as chaotic, confusing and sloppy, but that just means there’s a new world of possibilities for research, according to retired National Parks Service historian John Hennessy. Though thousands of books have been written about the war, many questions remain unanswered, he opines.

“We have hardly scratched the surface,” he said, “of an era that has been worked over so thoroughly by historians…”

Janney said in an email she started work on Ends seven years ago. There are no complete official lists of Confederates who were paroled or who took an oath of allegiance to the U.S. Constitution.

“You have pointed out a huge gap in the on-line resources,” she said. Andrew Johnson, who assumed the presidency after Lincoln’s assassination, issued a pardon proclamation a month after Lee’s surrender, exempting rank and file soldiers from taking the oath. Confederates over the rank of colonel or with $20,000 worth of property, previous U.S. officers or office holders, were required to take the oath.

Dr. James Marten, a history professor at Marquette University and author of a bevy of Civil War books, said when he read her book, “I was struck by how complicated this particular story” was. “Appomattox/surrender is something that we think we know, but we actually don’t —or didn’t until the book came along.”

The University of North Carolina Press, which published the book, says it “reveals that Lee’s surrender was less an ending than the start of an interregnum marked by military and political uncertainty, legal and logistical confusion, and continued outbursts of violence.”

“It provides great detail about how exactly the surrender occurred and how these Confederate soldiers’ military careers ended, but more important is the notion that occurs to you as you read it that, as in so much else during the Civil War, these guys were making it up as they went. There were few American precedents for any of this, and lots of junior officers and political appointees were making military decisions that, to us, seem to have been far above their pay grade. Perhaps the most important contribution is to show that there was no bright line separating the war from Reconstruction, or Reconstruction from Lost Cause memorialization — kernels of virtually every issue and myth that emerge for the rest of the nineteenth century appear during these few weeks of surrender and homecomings.”

The University of North Carolina Press, which published the book, says it “reveals that Lee’s surrender was less an ending than the start of an interregnum marked by military and political uncertainty, legal and logistical confusion, and continued outbursts of violence.”

Earlier this year, Dr. Janney was awarded the prestigious Gilder Lehrman award, which included a $50,000 prize, from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

As far as my own ancestors, the only one to receive a parole, Pvt. Bowling L. Mitchell of Virginia’s Amherst Artillery, got his at the Point Lookout, Md., prisoner of war camp, three weeks before Lee’s April 9 surrender, according to the National Archives. Records show that Pvt. James M. Hendrick of the 25th Virginia Infantry was still counted as “present” as late as February 1865, as were Pvt. Daniel T. Swisher of the 14th Virginia Cavalry and Pvt. Legrand Reynolds of the 4th Virginia Infantry. But did they just hide out and elude Federal authorities? And did they ever take the oath?

Perhaps time will tell.

Ends of War: The Unfinished Fight of Lee’s Army after Appomattox
Caroline E. Janney
331 pages
University of North Carolina Press
Hardcover (major booksellers)

Bill Hendrick spent 30 years as a reporter for The Atlanta Journal Constitution, 10 for The Associated Press and has written for WebMD, Reuters, UPI and other publications. His first book, with veteran historian and author Stephen Davis, is due out this summer, entitled, The Atlanta Daily Intelligencer Covers the Civil War (University of Tennessee Press).

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