On this celebration of Veteran’s Day we should remember our Civil War veterans on both side of that bloody conflict. In America today, we have many descendants of those who wore the Blue and the Gray who are proud of their ancestor’s service.
Whatever you think of the reasons that they fought for, let’s remember that they believed deeply in their respective causes. Any reading of Gary Gallagher’s The Confederate War and The Union War educates any serious Civil War enthusiast about the reasoning of the combatants.
Today, I’d like to remember four participants, two from each side, that should be remembered on this day.
Colonel Isaac Avery was a young North Carolina infantry officer who joined the Confederate Army at the start of the war. He rose from company command to regimental command. Wounded at the Battle of Gaines Mill, he missed the subsequent battles at Second Manassas and Antietam. After his brigade commander was wounded at Chancellorsville, Avery assumed temporary command of his brigade.
At the Battle of Gettysburg, Avery was mortally wounded on July 2nd while leading a charge up Culp’s Hill. After some time he was discovered by his men and realizing that his wound was mortal, gestured to his adjutant and friend, Major Samuel Tate, for paper and a pencil. His right hand was paralyzed and he was unable to speak but he wrote these deathless words with his left hand, “Major, tell my father I died with my face to the enemy. I. E. Avery.”
Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes was one of the most famous jurists in American history, serving on the Supreme Court for over 30 years. Yet, Holmes himself counted everything after 1865 as pale by comparison to his Civil War Service. In 1884, in his Memorial Day speech delivered in Keene, New Hampshire, he delivered a phrase that we remember today, “In Our Youth Our Hearts Were Touched With Fire.”
Holmes who enlisted at 20 in 1861 and was commissioned a second lieutenant. He was wounded three times in the service of the Union, at Ball’s Bluff, Antietam and Chancellorsville, while serving with the 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.
Finally, there are two soldiers who are forever entwined due to one brief moment at the end of the war. On April 12, 1865, exactly four years since the firing on Fort Sumter, the Confederate infantry paraded up the Appomattox Road for the official surrender of their arms and banners. Leading them on a magnificent white horse was Maj. Gen. John Brown Gordon. Accepting their surrender was Maj. Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.
Gordon was a 33-year old Georgian who had joined the Confederate Army at the start of the war. He was unschooled in the soldierly arts, being a lawyer and businessman. He started as a captain and quickly rose to major general by May of 1864. He was wounded for the first time at the Battle of Malvern Hill. At the Battle of Antietam, he was wounded an incredible five times before he was evacuated to the rear. It would take months for him to recover from his wounds but he did.
He returned to service in June 1863 and led a brigade at the Battle of Gettysburg. He was wounded once again at the Battle of Shepardstown during the Valley Campaign of 1864 where he commanded a division. Returning to the Army after the Battle of Cedar Creek, he led the Second Corps until the surrender at Appomattox.
His counterpart, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, was a 37-year old college professor from Maine. He eventually taught every subject on the curriculum except for science and mathematics. In August 1862, he was commissioned as the lieutenant colonel of the 20th Maine Infantry, preferring to learn under an experienced officer, Col. Adelbert Ames.
Chamberlain’s unit was present at Antietam but did not fight. At Fredericksburg, they were lightly engaged but spent the night lying on the freezing cold ground. They missed Chancellorsville due to an outbreak of smallpox. Shortly afterwards, Ames was promoted to brigade command and Chamberlain became the colonel of the 20th Maine.
The 20th Maine and Joshua Chamberlain achieved their fame with the legendary defense of Little Round Top at the extreme left of the Union line. On July 2nd, they were repeatedly attacked by superior forces. Running low on ammunition, Chamberlain ordered a bayonet charge that swept the Confederates down the hill and preserved the Union line. For his actions that day, he was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Promoted to brigade command after recovering from malaria and dysentery, he returned to the army in November 1863. On June 18, 1864, at Rives’ Salient during the Siege of Petersburg, Chamberlain was seriously wounded through the hips. When an aide asked him to lie down, he told him that he didn’t want his men to see him fall. Believing that he was going to die, General Grant promoted him to brigadier general. Despite his wound, Chamberlain returned to active duty in November, determined to serve until the end of the war.
On the morning of April 9, 1865, Chamberlain learned of the desire by Lee to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia when a Confederate staff officer approached him under a flag of truce. “Sir,” he reported to Chamberlain, “I am from General Gordon. General Lee desires a cessation of hostilities until he can hear from General Grant as to the proposed surrender.” The next day, Chamberlain was summoned to Union headquarters where Maj. Gen. Charles Griffin informed him that he had been selected to preside over the parade of the Confederate infantry as part of their formal surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 12th.
Here is General Chamberlain’s own description of the surrender ceremonies:
“The General was riding in advance of his troops, his chin drooped to his breast, downhearted and dejected in appearance almost beyond description. At the sound of that machine like snap of arms, however, General Gordon started, caught in a moment its significance, and instantly assumed the finest attitude of a soldier. He wheeled his horse facing me, touching him gently with the spur, so that the animal slightly reared, and as he wheeled, horse and rider made one motion, the horse’s head swung down with a graceful bow, and General Gordon dropped his swordpoint to his toe in salutation.
“By word of mouth General Gordon sent back orders to the rear that his own troops take the same position of the manual in the march past as did our line. That was done, and a truly imposing sight was the mutual salutation and farewell.
“At a distance of possibly twelve feet from our line, the Confederates halted and turned face towards us. Their lines were formed with the greatest care, with every officer in his appointed position, and thereupon began the formality of surrender.
“Bayonets were affixed to muskets, arms stacked, and cartridge boxes unslung and hung upon the stacks. Then, slowly and with a reluctance that was appealingly pathetic, the torn and tattered battleflags were either leaned against the stacks or laid upon the ground. The emotion of the conquered soldiery was really sad to witness. Some of the men who had carried and followed those ragged standards through the four long years of strife, rushed, regardless of all discipline, from the ranks, bent about their old flags, and pressed them to their lips with burning tears.
Thus ended the Civil War in Virginia.