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Chapter
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
R. E. Lee: A Biography

by Douglas Southall Freeman

published by Charles Scribner's Sons,
New York and London, 1934

The text, and illustrations except as noted, are in the public domain.


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Vol. IV
p105
Chapter VIII

The Last Council of War

"Not yet" — Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Longstreet's answer bespoke his chief's mind. As long as there was a prospect of escape Lee felt it was his duty to fight on. He would not yield one hour before he must. But might it be possible, on the basis of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Grant's letter, to negotiate an honorable peace? Might Grant be willing to do now what he had refused to do a month before — confer and see if a way could be found to end the slaughter? Perhaps the chance was remote, but if there was a chance, Lee must avail himself of it. He could not assume, in Grant's words, "the responsibility of any further effusion of blood." With no reply to Longstreet, he took a single sheet of cheap, ruled note paper that bore a raised watermark in the upper left-hand corner, and wrote this answer:


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LEE'S FIRST NOTE ON THE SURRENDER

This note, dated April 7, 1865, was written by General Lee in response to one addressed him on the same day from Farmville, by General Grant, who stated that further Confederate resistance was hopeless and that he desired to shift from himself "the responsibility of any further effusion of blood, by asking . . . the surrender" of the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee personally wrote the answer so that the news of negotiations for surrender might not become known to the troops.

After the original in the U. S. War Department.

7th Apl '65

Genl

I have recd your note of this date. Though not entertaining the opinion you express of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of N. Va. — I reciprocate your desire to avoid useless effusion of blood, & therefore before Considering your proposition, ask the terms you will offer on Condition of its Surrender

Very respy your obt. Servt       
R. E. Lee    
Genl

Lt. Genl. U. S. Grant

Commg Armies of the U. States1

Lee sent this reply promptly and did not show it to Longstreet, or, so far as is recorded, to any one else, though the nature of the p106 message from Grant was guessed if its purport was not actually known.2 Within an hour after the flag of truce had been met, the answer had been presented on the lines to the waiting staff officer, who was none other than Lee's old friend and former adjacent at West Point, Seth Williams, Grant's inspector general.

The wagons had passed on now and had halted in the neighborhood of New Store, close to the southwestern edge of Buckingham County, nearly twenty miles from Farmville, but they were much scattered because of "the wretched road and jaded condition of the animals."3 Broken-down caissons and wagons were abandoned and sometimes were not even pulled out of the road before they were fired.4 The troops who still carried their muskets had hardly the appearance of soldiers as they wearily tramped along, their clothes all tattered and covered with mud, their eyes sunken and lustreless, and their faces pale and pinched from their ceaseless march. "Many of the men who had thrown away their arms and knapsacks were lying prone on the ground along the roadside, too much exhausted to march further, and only waiting for the enemy to come and pick them up as prisoners, while at short intervals there were wagons mired down, their teams of horses and mules lying in the mud, from which they had struggled to extricate themselves until complete exhaustion had forced them to be still and wait for death to glaze their wildly starting eyes, and still their quick gasping and panting for the breath which could scarcely reach some of them through the mud that almost closed their nostrils; but through all this a part of the army still trudged on, with their faith still strong, and only waiting for General Lee to say whether they were to face about and fight. . . ."5

With straggling as it was, and with the enemy known to be close on his heels, Lee deemed it desirable to send ahead Gordon's tired men and the various scattered units and to bring from van to rear the corps of Longstreet which had suffered less and was in fair fighting condition. Nothing was left of the infantry now but the starved remnant of these two corps and a few small brigades p107 kept together by the spirit of their officers and the persistence of their morale. By 11 P.M. Gordon's men had passed up the road toward Lynchburg, and Longstreet resumed the march.6 The cavalry closed the rear7 — kept there because the immediate danger from the troops following them was greater at that time than that from any force that might be moving parallel to the route of the retreat. At 1 A.M., from New Store, the wagons started again.8

It was now Saturday, April 8, the beginning of the sixth day after the evacuation of Petersburg. Lee's objective remained the same — Danville and union with Johnson — but his hope of attaining that objective had dwindled until now it hung on a double contingency. The meandering Appomattox River along the line of Lee's retreat was narrowing fast. A few miles more of the march and the river would cease to be a protective barrier against that part of Grant's army moving south of the stream and parallel to Lee. Beyond the headwaters of the Appomattox, across a watershed to the west, lay the James River, with Lynchburg at the nearest point of Lee's approach. This watershed was about twelve miles wide. Directly over it ran the Southside Railroad, on which were the provision trains that had been sent from Lynchburg, as well as the cars that had been hurried from Farmville on the Federals' approach. If, therefore, Lee was to escape, he had to cross the watershed between the Appomattox and the James before the enemy got there and closed the way. And if he was to keep his army from literal starvation, he had to meet at some point on the railroad over that watershed the trains of provisions that were being moved to meet him. The most convenient place to reach the trains was where the road of his march crossed the railway at a station called after the county and the river, Appomattox. The terrain was as shown in the sketch on page 108.


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The watershed between the James and Appomattox Rivers east of Lynchburg,
with special reference to the line of the Southside Railroad.

Would Lee reach Appomattox Station before the Federals and would he procure food there or nearby? If he did, he might fed the men, turn south and even yet reach Danville and join General Johnston. But if he found the Federals across the watershed in sufficient strength to block his advance and to seize his provisions, p108 that was the end. James River would then cut off his retreat. There could be nothing beyond that point, no alternative to which, as in the past, he could turn quickly if his chosen plan had to be laid aside.

Lee had no way of judging that morning precisely what were the chances of reaching Appomattox Station and of getting his provisions. General St. John had started out for Danville on the 7th and had made a wide circuit ahead of the army, in order to avoid the Federals. At Pamplin's Station, eighteen miles west of Farmville, he had found the cars sent up from Farmville. He thought they should go farther west and he communicated with General Lee. But the situation was so uncertain that Lee had not been willing to send them on toward Lynchburg.9 Perhaps he decided not to have these rations sent westward because he intended to halt at Appomattox Courthouse the supplies sent down from Lynchburg. With supplies both at Appomattox and at Pamplin's he stood a better chance of feeding the men.

As for the possibility of marching to Appomattox before the Federals could close the way, that depended on how many of the enemy were pursuing on the north side of the river and how many were moving and at what speed on the south side, by a somewhat shorter route. The Confederate intelligence service had broken p109 down with the rest of the staff. None of the cavalry was ahead. Lee had no means of ascertaining the grim truth that two Union corps10 were now on the north bank, following him closely, while the cavalry corps, the V, the XXIX, and part of the XXV were hurrying forward, unencumbered by wagons and weak horses, in an effort to beat him to Appomattox Station.

Toward that point the march continued slowly through bright sunshine during the morning hours of the 8th.11 The Federals in the rear did not push the cavalry. The infantry were only a little disturbed on the left flank,12 and there only by horsemen. Lee's manner was as composed as ever, and when he received the salute of a cavalry command he passed, it was, as one officer wrote, "with a calm smile that assured us our confidence was not misplaced."13

The situation was so quiet that General Lee halted during the forenoon and stretched himself out on the ground to rest. While he was there, General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pendleton approached and told him that a number of his officers had met the previous evening and had considered the situation. They had concluded that the army could not cut its way through the Federals or disband and reassemble, and that, consequently, further bloodshed would be futile.14 They had deputized Pendleton to acquaint Lee with their deliberations and to tell him that, in their opinion, he ought to stop the fighting and open negotiations for the surrender of the army. Pendleton did not say so, but the officers had acted in a desire to save Lee the humiliation of making the first move toward surrender. They were willing to assume the responsibility of advising that course if thereby they might relieve him. Lee did not like the suggestion. What he answered is a matter of dispute. Early writers quoted him as saying, "Surrender? I have too many good fighting men for that!" Pendleton stated that Lee replied substantially: "I trust it has not come to that! We certainly have too many brave men to think of laying down our arms. They still fight with great spirit, whereas the enemy does not. And, besides, if I were to intimate to General Grant that I would listen to terms, he would at once regard it as such an evidence of weakness that he p110 would demand an unconditional surrender and sooner than that I am resolved to die. Indeed we must all determine to die at our posts."15 The manner must have been sterner than the words, for when General Pendleton talked of the interview shortly after it ended, he had the air of a man who had been decidedly snubbed and was embarrassed to have to tell of it.16 Longstreet and Gordon had not attended the conference nor did they share the opinion of those for whom Pendleton spoke. Longstreet stated that when he was asked to broach to General Lee the subject of surrender, he refused with a sharp reminder that in proposing such action the officers were violating the articles of war and were liable to court-martial.17

The day wore on, with less of incident than any since the retreat had begun. During the early afternoon word came from Fitz Lee that his rearguard was about two miles behind him. Only infantry was pursuing him, he said, and they were of the II Corps. The Federal cavalry had probably gone to the Confederate left: had not he better leave a cavalry picket on the road and come p111 forward with his troops?18 Some two hours later a further dispatch from Fitz Lee brought news that the enemy's cavalry had reached Prospect Station, twenty miles east of Appomattox. They would arrive at Appomattox by 10 A.M. of the 9th at the earliest. Rooney Lee and Gary should push on to Appomattox, Fitz Lee wrote. He would come forward himself as quickly as he could get past the column.19 If this was a correct forecast, the race to Appomattox would be close! The enemy's cavalry and the Confederate advance would get there within a few hours of each other.

During the same afternoon of the dragging march toward Appomattox there disappeared from Confederate command an officer who had played no small part on the bloody stage of northern Virginia. Throughout the operations from March 29 onward, despair had seemed to dominate the heart of Richard H. Anderson, "Fighting Dick." As already indicated,20 he nowhere had fought with his old vigor. After the action at Sayler's Creek he had spent the 7th trying, as he said, to get together the fragments of his command.21 While he had been looking for Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pickett, that officer had been searching for him, and, at length, had rejoined Longstreet with a handful of men, only about sixty of whom, as he subsequently reported, had muskets when the end came. These survivors were assigned to Mahone.22 After Wise had collected what was left of Johnson's division, the largest of Anderson's units, it was attached to Grimes's division of Gordon's corps.23 Thus was Anderson left without a command, and on the afternoon of the 8th he was formally relieved and notified that he could return to his home, or any other place he might select, and report thence to the Secretary of War.24 The specific reasons for Lee's action were not given — whether he thought Anderson disqualified for further command because of his despair, or whether he considered him culpable for what had happened at Sayler's Creek.25 Whatever the cause, Anderson did not dispute the action. p112 After the war, in a personal struggle of the bitterest sort against poverty, he remained on friendly terms with his old chief.26 At the same time that Lee relieved Anderson of command, he took the same action regarding Pickett and Bushrod Johnson, but the order regarding Pickett apparently never reached him. As late as April 11 he signed himself, "Maj. Genl. Comdg." Lee thought the order had been given Pickett, and when he saw him later he is said to have remarked, "I thought that man was no longer with the army."27

About dark28 Lee received another note from Grant. It had been passed through the lines before noon29 but had been delayed in reaching General Lee. It came sealed, its contents not known to those who handled it,30 and was in answer to Lee's request of the previous evening for a statement of Grant's terms. With the aid of a wax-taper that Colonel Venable lighted, Lee quietly read the paper. Grant stated, in simple terms, that as peace was his great desire, the only condition on which he would insist would be that the officers and men who were surrendered should be disqualified to bear arms until properly exchanged. Grant added that he would meet Lee, or, he offered thoughtfully, would designate officers to meet others named by Lee to arrange the terms for the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia.31

Lee said nothing for a few moments. Then he asked Colonel Venable, "How would you answer that?"

"I would answer no such letter," Venable asked.

"Ah, but it must be answered," Lee said.32

Lee was not willing to consider surrender, but the hope of a general settlement that had shaped his action on receipt of Grant's first letter did not seem wholly destroyed by Grant's language. It might not be impossible to make honorable terms for all the Confederate forces. So, from the roadside where the message p113 reached him, on a sheet similar to the one he had used the night before, Lee wrote in his own hand this letter, of which Colonel Marshall took a copy on a bit of scrap paper:

8h Apl '65

Genl

I recd at a late hour your note of today. In mine of yesterday I did not intend to propose the surrender of the Army of N. Va. — but to ask the terms of your proposition. To be frank, I do not think the emergency has arisen to call for the surrender of this Army, but as the restoration of peace should be the sole object of all, I desired to know whether your proposals would lead to that and I cannot therefore meet you with a view to surrender the Army of N. Va. — but as far as your proposal may affect the C. S. forces under my command & tend to the restoration of peace, I shall be pleased to meet you at 10 A.M. tomorrow on the old stage road to Richmond between the picket lines of the two armies.

Very respy your Obt Sevt       
R. E. Lee    
Genl.

Lt. Genl U. S. Grant

Commg Armies of the U. S.33

This letter was delivered to General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Humphreys' lines, beyond the Confederate rearguard.34 Before it was dispatched, the leading brigades of Gordon's command, very weary, had halted at 3 P.M. about one mile from Appomattox Courthouse.35 Ahead of Gordon were surplus wagons and, beyond the courthouse, the artillery under General R. L. Walker that had been started from Amelia Courthouse on the 4th and had now been overtaken.36 Longstreet's corps stopped behind Gordon, about nightfall, his rearguard six miles from the courthouse.37 Lee and his staff turned out from the road into thick woods, with Longstreet and his officers, and made his camp on the left of the highway, about p114 two miles from the courthouse.38 Lee's ambulance and the headquarters wagons were entangled somewhere among the trains. There were no tents, no tables, no camp stools, no cooking utensils, and practically no food. The moon was now up39 and the air was chill, though the day had been warm for the season. A fire was lighted. Lee and the others sat around it on the ground.40

About 9 o'clock there came a sudden roar of artillery from the front where, until that time, all had been quiet. The sound probably was heard at Lee's headquarters and told its own story.41 If it was not heard, what had happened was soon written on the skies. For against the clouds, in front as well as in rear and on the left flank, the light of camp-fires was reflected.42 And soon there came confirmation in messages from the front. The enemy was across the line of the army's advance over the watershed! Federal troops had come up from the south, and had attacked and had captured some of the surplus artillery as well as the wagon train of Rooney Lee's division.43

Although this news might mean the extinction of the last spark of hope, Lee received it so quietly that none of those who were with him that evening recorded what he said in comment. He sent orders to Fitz Lee to pass the cavalry to the front and directed him to report in person at headquarters.44 The rearguard, left without cavalry, proceeded to dig and to man field works across the road of the Federal pursuit.

Ere long Fitz Lee arrived, as did Gordon, on a like summons. With these and with Longstreet, began Lee's last council of war. The commander stood by the fire. Longstreet sat on a log, smoking his pipe. Gordon and Fitz Lee stretched themselves out on a blanket.45 Staff officers and perhaps some of the brigade and division commanders sat nearby but not within earshot.46

p115 Lee explained the condition of affairs as far as he knew it and read to his chiefs of corps the correspondence with Grant.

What, he then asked, did they advise him to do?47

There could, of course, be only one answer from men who were determined to fight as long as any hope remained. That answer was to attack as soon as possible, to attempt to cut a way through, and, if successful, to resume the march. Should it be found that the troops ahead were only cavalry, Fitz Lee's men could charge them, with Gordon in support, and could clear the road for the rest of the soldiers. But if the Federal infantry had outmarched the weary survivors of the Army of Northern Virginia, and stood in force across the road, too strong to be driven, the troops would then be virtually surrounded and only one thing remained to be done — surrender. The word could not be avoided now.

From this decision, reached without heroics, there was no dissent. Details were worked out quickly. The advance was to begin at 1 A.M. Fitz Lee was to drive the enemy from his front, wheel to the left, and cover the passage of the trains, which were to be reduced to two battalions of artillery and the ammunition wagons. Gordon was then to move ahead, and Longstreet was to close up and be ready to repel any attack by the forces moving on the Confederate rear.48 The route was to be via Campbell Courthouse and Pittsylvania, and not by Lynchburg, on which a separate Federal column was moving along the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, and from which all provisions had been sent to meet General Lee's advance. The surplus wagons, however, were to go toward Lynchburg on the bare chance that they might escape while the enemy was pursuing the army.49

The orders were given. The conference was ended. Hope had seemed lost half a dozen times, only to find through Lee's resourcefulness something new on which to fix itself; hope had sustained the army on all that dreadful march; hope was now reduced to the possibility that only Union cavalry and none of the blue-coated infantry stood in the way. Yet, though the army was merely the ghost of other days, somehow that hope would not down altogether.

p116 Gordon and Fitz Lee rode off. Longstreet prepared to make his bed on the ground, with his saddle for his pillow and the saddle blanket for his covering. Something as nearly approaching peace as ever there comes in war was about to settle over the bivouac among the trees when one of Gordon's staff officers returned to explain that his chief had neglected to ask where he was to halt and camp the next night — as though it were certain he would break through and resume the march. Did General Lee have any directions for him on this point?

"Yes," said Lee firmly. "Tell General Gordon I should be glad for him to halt just beyond the Tennessee line," some 175 miles away.50

It was then about midnight, the beginning of one of the three or four most memorable dates in American history, April 9, 1865, Sunday, Palm Sunday. And the oaks in the forest were tasseling in rebirth.51


The Author's Notes:

1 MS., office of the U. S. Adjutant General. It is worth noting that the original contains the full conclusion used in letters of the time, "Very respectfully your obedient servant" and also the formal address to General Grant by his military title. These are not published in the version given in O. R., 46, part 1, p619, though Grant's polite conclusion to the preceding letter is printed.

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2 Colonel Marshall, in his Appomattox, 7, said there was some difference of opinion among officers as to what the answer should be. That reference, obviously not conclusive, is the only one the writer has found indicating that the dispatch may have been seen by others besides Longstreet or may have been discussed.

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3 Stevens's report, Lee MSS. — L.

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4 Longstreet, 620.

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5 F. M. Myers, 388‑89.

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6 Longstreet's report, Lee MSS. — K. Cf. Longstreet, 619.

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7 O. R., 46, part 1, p1303.

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8 Stevens's report, Lee MSS. — L.

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9 St. John's report, Lee MSS. — L.

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10 II and VI.

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11 Falling Flag, 45.

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12 Longstreet, 620.

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13 Falling Flag, 46.

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14 Gordon, 443.

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15 Pendleton, 402. The difference between Pendleton's version and the briefer "Surrender," etc., is not important; but in Jones, 297, there is an elaborate version in which, after quoting substantially what Pendleton wrote, Jones went on to attribute to Lee this language: "General, this is no new question with me. I have never believed we could, against the gigantic combination for our subjugation, make good in the long run our independence unless foreign powers should, directly or indirectly, assist us. This I was sure it was their interest to do, and I hoped they would so regard it. But such considerations really made with me no difference. We had, I was satisfied, sacred principles to maintain and rights to defend, for which we were in duty bound to do our best, even if we perished in the endeavor." Pendleton's own language is, of course, to be preferred to Jones's account of what he remembered Pendleton had told him. Moreover, Jones clearly misunderstood at least that part of Pendleton's remarks that relate to Lee's alleged belief that foreign intervention was the only means of winning Southern independence and might reasonably be expected. Lee held no such views. What he said in South Carolina in the winter of 1861‑62 has already been quoted (see vol. I, p621). In addition, he wrote Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Mr. Davis on July 6, 1864, "As far as I have been able to judge this war presents to the European world but two aspects, a contest in which one party is contending for abstract slavery and the other against it. The existence of vital rights involved does not seem to be understood or appreciated. As long as this lasts, we can expect neither sympathy nor aid. Nor can we expect the policy of any government towards us to be governed by any other consideration than that of self-interest. Our safety depends upon ourselves alone. If we can defeat or drive the armies of the enemy from the field, we shall have peace. All our efforts and energies should be devoted to that object" (Duke Univ. MSS.). This speaks for itself.

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16 Alexander, 600‑601.

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17 Longstreet, 620; Gordon, 433. General Schaff (Sunset of the Confederacy, cited hereafter as Schaff, 141) had a very interesting critique of the several accounts of this interview and of the conference that led to it. He inclined to the belief that both Gordon and Longstreet were to some extent party to the proposal, and he called attention to the fact that neither of them entered a denial until long after Pendleton's death.

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18 Lee MSS. — N, dated 1 P.M.

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19 Lee MSS. — N, dated 3 P.M.

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20 See supra, p91.º

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21 Anderson's report, Lee MSS. — K; Pickett's report, ibid.

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22 Pickett's report, Lee MSS. — K; Pickett to Latrobe, April 11, 1865, Lee MSS.; William Mahone to W. H. Taylor, Nov. 29, 1891, quoting MS. order of April 8, 1865, Taylor MSS.

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23 O. R., 46, part 1, p1291; Grimes, 117.

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24 Anderson's report, Lee MSS. — K.

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25 There is no reason to believe that intemperance had anything to do with it. One of the members of his staff told C. Irvine Walker, Anderson's biographer, that during his period of command in Virginia, Anderson did not drink.

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26 Cf. his letter of June, 1866 to Lee, covering his final report, Lee MSS. — K.

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27 Lee MSS.; personal statements to the writer by Colonel W. H. Taylor and Major Giles B. Cooke; W. H. Taylor to W. H. Palmer, MS., June 17, 1911. W. H. Palmer to W. H. Taylor, MS., June 24, 1911, Taylor MSS. These two writers recalled the issuance of the order.

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28 Alexander, op. cit., 601, said the letter came late in the afternoon, but Colonel Venable in a letter to Colonel Taylor, March 9, 1894, stated it arrived after dark (Taylor MSS.).

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29 O. R., 46, part 3, p643.

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30 O. R., 46, part 3, p643.

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31 O. R., 46, part 3, p641.

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32 Venable to Taylor, loc. cit.

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33 MS., office of the U. S. Adjutant General; Marshall's copy in Lee MSS. — M. In some of the printed versions of this letter — Fitz Lee's and Alexander's for example — "desired" is put in the present tense, with an obvious change of meaning.

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34 Alexander, 601.

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35 O. R., 46, part 1, p1291.

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36 O. R., 46, part 1, p1282; Stevens's report, Lee MSS. — L.

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37 Longstreet's report, Lee MSS. — K.

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38S. H. S. P., 357. For a detailed description of the site, see Schaff, 163.

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39 Falling Flag, 49.

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40 Schaff, loc. cit.

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41 It was plainly audible at the headquarters of General Bryan Grimes (27 S. H. S. P., 94). He was east of Appomattox Courthouse and probably not more than a mile from Lee.

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42 MS. Memoirs of W. B. Freeman.

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43 O. R., 46, part 1, p1282; Stevens's report, Lee MSS. — L.

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44 O. R., 46, part 1, p1303.

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45 Cooke, 459; Long, 420; Gordon: Modern Eloquence, 5, 491.

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46 Probably it was the proximity of these men that led Gordon into the error (Reminiscences, 435) of asserting that General Pendleton and a number of staff officers attended the council.

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47 Gordon, loc. cit.; O. R., 46, part 1, p1303.

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48 O. R., 46, part 1, pp1266, 1303.

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49 Marshall's Appomattox, p11; Colston to Lee, April 8, 1865, 4 P.M.; Lee MSS. — M.

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50 Gordon, 436.

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51 Falling Flag, 55.


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