April 9, 1865 was arguably among the most important days in U.S. history.
U.S. Grant: The Surrender
The Civil War had dragged on for four long years, and the casualty count was in the hundreds of thousands and would go higher. It had lasted far longer than anyone ever expected with casualties far more than anyone ever imagined.
Soldiers and civilians, North and South, were exhausted, but Union soldiers outnumbered the dwindling Confederates, both in manpower and supplies. That included food; it was rumored that their army was literally starving.
The war had gone beyond the point of diminishing returns. Thus it was with a heavy heart that Confederate General Robert E. Lee agreed to meet with Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, and finally end the horrible business.
The terms, according to the expressed policy of President Abraham Lincoln, were generous. Only a few weeks earlier, Lincoln had counseled his top generals to “let ’em up easy.”
Grant’s terms were simple: put down your arms, go home and fight no more. They would not be assailed. Ex-rebel soldiers would be paroled on law abiding behavior. General Lee asked and was granted another request: those who owned horses and mules could keep their personal property. Grant conceded the request; they would need their animals for spring planting. Lee said the terms would have a happy effect on his men.
It was all over in an hour.
All military is predicated on order, and even in surrender, order needed to be maintained and detailed records assiduously kept.
Northern soldiers cranked out thousands of hastily printed parole slips on common, blue-lined notebook paper. They were simply worded, but required name, rank and signatures. Once completed and duly recorded, the now ex-rebels could make their way home.
Some of them lived close by. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had been created from a large portion of native Virginians, although attrition and recruitment had added soldiers from the entire South over the years, even as far away as Texas.
Nevertheless, happy effect or not, some diehard Confederates refused to sign the paroles, and merely “slipped away,” or, as they claimed, “escaped from Appomattox.”
Grant’s Order #73
At the time of the surrender, it was common knowledge that the remnants of the Confederate Army was in dire straits. Food had been scarce for weeks. Expected supplies had been undelivered. Grant arranged rations to be sent to Lee’s encampments.
According to Ernie Price, Chief of Education and Visitor Services at Appomattox Court House NPS, one of the little known facts, are the terms of General Grant’s Order #73, which entitled the bearer of the parole to free transportation – a railroad ticket or steamship passage.
“All officers and men of the Confederate service paroled at Appomattox Court House, Va., who, to reach their homes, are compelled to pass through the lines of the Union armies, will be allowed to do so, and to pass free on all Government transports and military railroads.”
Mostly, they walked. They had become “professional walkers” over the course of the War, able to go twenty miles or more on foot – every day.
Splitting from their units, the former soldiers evolved into small groups of two or three or four, all going in the same direction, at least for a while. Scores of them made their way to Danville, not far from Appomattox. Danville was a railroad hub, generally undamaged by fighting. Trains were still running South – and West. A few ran North to Baltimore where ships were available to go to Charleston or New Orleans or ports in between. A signed parole was all that was needed for free passage.
The Parole: Other Perks
Chief Price, an expert on the paroles, acknowledges that the existing physical papers are few and far between. Given the flimsy paper quality, the tucking away in pockets or haversacks, the sad remembrances and simply the passage of more than 150 years, they have become a rarity.
But he also acknowledged that in addition to transportation benefits, ex-Confederates could, if need be, apply at any Union-held commissary and receive food or clothing or shoes. The Chief explained that the ex-Rebel merely had to present the parole slip and a Union officer would sign the reverse indicating what had been provided. One such rarity noted that a bolt of denim cloth had been issued. (The soldier could then take the cloth to a local tailor and have a pair of pants made.)
He also noted that while food might be provided, ex-Confederates preferred to stop at farmhouses along the way. They were on their own home soil; many of the farms were still reasonably prosperous. Most families were generous; too many had lost sons or husbands or brothers. If they could spare the meal and provide a warm and dry place to spend the night, they were happy to open their homes and hearts.
Abraham Lincoln sincerely wanted the Union to be reunited as easily and gently and with as little hardship as possible. One could conjecture that had he lived, “reconstruction” might have been very different. Maybe.
Ernie Price, Chief of Education and Visitor Services at Appomattox Court House NPS