When Legend Becomes Fact

Artist Louis Guillaume's rendering of the Surrender of Lee's Army to Grant.
Artist Louis Guillaume’s rendering of the Surrender of Lee’s Army to Grant.

In the John Wayne classic movie, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” a reporter makes the comment “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” This is probably true many times in history, and seems to involve a part of the Reserves’ history at Appomattox Court House as shown in the recent post by Codie Eash about Benjamin Jeffries (8th Pa. Res., Co. D, 191st Pa., Co. A) witnessing a meeting between Generals Grant and Lee.  How many still believe that the Battle of Gettysburg was fought over shoes?

Two other points need to be mentioned for understanding discussions about history.

First, a distance of only several yards can produce a difference in descriptions of the same event by two (or more) witnesses/participants. The second point was explained to me in my early research days by Dr. Richard Sommers, U. S. Army Military History Institute. When I read a source, I should try to understand the author’s motivation and purpose for his description. Is it slanted towards a purpose? How long after the event was it written?

The following timetable and description set up the events at Appomattox Court House relative to this discussion:

April 1, 1865 – The Battle of Five Forks

April 2 – As soon as General Grant heard of the Union victory at Five Forks, he ordered an immediate assault by all troops on the Petersburg siege lines. This attack started about 4 a.m. and the results of this days fighting forced General Lee to abandon his Petersburg and Richmond lines. The Army of Northern Virginia’s only hope was to retreat westward, pick up some much needed supplies and then turn southward to link up with General Johnston’s army in the Danville, Virginia area.

In the early afternoon, while listening to the fighting around Petersburg, the V Corps marched in the direction of the Southside Railroad. The order of march was the 1″ Division, 2nd Division and then the 3 Division; the “Combined Regiment” (remnants of the 190th, 191st.157th Regiments) was on the left of the 2nd Division about 200 yards out to protect its flank.

Photograph shows the house in Appomattox where the terms of surrender between Generals Grant and Lee were signed April 8, 1865. The family of the owner of the house, Wilmer McLean, are seated on the steps.
Photograph shows the McLean House at Appomattox where the terms of surrender between Generals Grant and Lee were signed April 8, 1865. The family of the owner of the house, Wilmer McLean, are seated on the steps.

April 3 – General Lee had started his retreat during the night.

At daylight, General Grant, after receiving scouting reports to this effect, realized

General Lee’s intentions and ordered the Army of the Potomac not only to chase the Army of Northern Virginia, but to pass it and cut off its path of retreat. The chase was on; long forced marches became the norm with the V Corps becoming foot cavalry.

On the move since 8 a.m., the V Corps reached the Southside Railroad and turned west for the Danville Railroad. There seemed to be a new determination in their manner and step as perhaps, these men began to see a light at the end of the four-year long tunnel of war.

April 4 – The march resumed about 5 a.m. with the 3rd Division in the lead, followed by the 1S and 2nd divisions. (Commanders usually rotated their order of march each day if possible.)

Foragers were out all day along the route as rations became scarce, the supply wagons could not keep pace with the fast marching infantry.

After a hard march on muddy roads, the V Corps reached Jetersville. Rumor had it that they were ahead of General Lee so entrenchments and fortifications were built in the expectation of being attacked.

April 5 – The V Corps, now entrenched, waited for the attack. The Confederates arrived in the area, but except for some skirmish line fighting, there was no attack. The two armies just stared at each other until Union reinforcements in the form of the II and VI Corps arrived in the afternoon which forced General Lee to head for Lynchburg.

April 6 – The V Corps was on the move about 6 a.m. and covered approximately 29 miles before a halt was ordered. About three miles of this distance was counter-marching at the double-quick by the Bucktails. Confederate cavalry harassed the supply wagons trying to follow the 2nd Division so the “Combined Regiment” was sent back to protect the wagons.  Upon their arrival, they learned there was not much damage done by the enemy cavalry except to shake up the coffee brigade (the skulkers and shirkers).

Artists rendering of the surrender of Ewell's Corps, April 6, 1865.
Artists rendering of the surrender of Ewell’s Corps, April 6, 1865.

April 7 – The marching resumed at 4:30 a.m. with the 2nd Division in the lead. The route of march covered about 18 miles via Rice’s Station and Farmville before reaching Prince Edward Courthouse about 7:30 p.m.

The Combined Regiment remained with the wagon train all day, providing protection from the marauding Confederate cavalry who were looking for supplies of any kind.

During one of the pauses in the marching, Capt. Richard M. Birkman (11th Pa Res, Co. A, 190th Pa., Co. C) grabbed a few minutes of sleep and upon waking from this nap, provided some comic relief for his tired command. A brush fire near the rest area set off some discarded Confederate ammunition. Captain Birkman, waking with a start thinking they were under attack, grabbed his sword and yelled “Fall in!” Amid the laughter of his men he realized what happened and soon joined their laughter.

Ammunition was not the only equipment being discarded by the Confederates. Lame or dead horses, broken wagons, caissons, artillery pieces, and personal equipment including rifles marked their path. Confederate troops also laid along the roads and fence lines or tried to hide in buildings and wooded areas. These men were not really stragglers, they were simply too exhausted from the lack of sleep, proper food, and perhaps, a heavy heart, to continue with the fast pace of their retreating army.

April 8 – There was no let up in the hard marching. Starting about 6 a.m., 42 miles were covered before a halt was ordered about 1 a.m. There was hardly any talking heard from the marching V Corps ranks, only the tramp, tramp, tramp of very sore and tired feet.

Photograph shows Union Veterans with Stacked Muskets at Appomattox Court House.
Photograph shows Union Veterans with Stacked Muskets at Appomattox Court House.

When the halt was finally called, unknown to the exhausted men, they were about six miles from Appomattox Court House and about twelve hours from the end of the their war. If the truth could be known, the men probably didn’t care. Right then, all they wanted was sleep, followed by a good meal. The Confederates were, probably, at least third on their list of priorities.

April 9, (Palm Sunday) – Much too soon the chase was on again, starting about 4 a.m. A halt was called shortly after sunrise for breakfast but very few of the men had coffee or food to prepare.

As the march resumed, fighting was heard in the distance. Sheridan’s cavalry was blocking General Lee’s path, but they needed infantry support to keep the path blocked. As usual the orders were shouted, “Bucktails to the front!” followed shortly by “Double-quick” and “March.”

The fast advancing Combined Regiment moved ahead of the V Corps who opened ranks to let them through.

“The men forgot their aches and blisters, the fever of weariness and hunger as they double-quicked toward the front.” 

Upon seeing a Confederate skirmish line in a wooded valley, Col. Joseph Pattee (10th Pa. Res., Co. B, 190th Pa., F&S) ordered “Deploy skirmishers!” Amid cheers of encouragement from the cavalry, and in less than a minute, a line of Bucktails stretched through the edge of the wooded area, facing the enemy skirmish line.”

Colonel Joseph Pattee, 10th Pennsylvania Reserves and later 191st Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers.
Colonel Joseph Pattee, 10th Pennsylvania Reserves and later 191st Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers.

This line was southwest of Appomattox Court House along Plain Run, facing northeast with its left flank along the T. Trent farm lane, the right flank crossing the J. Sears farm lane. The Pennsylvanians advanced, coming under Confederate artillery fire, first by regular shells, and then, as they approached the enemy, canister rounds. Soon they were close enough for rifle fire to be exchanged. The artillery fire was coming from Poague’s artillery, the rifle fire from the 4th and 14th North Carolina Regiments.

From Colonel Pattee, “I gained the presence of the enemy and relieved the cavalry (a few of them remained with us to the close of the battle) before the troops on my flanks were got into position. I could not hesitate without giving the enemy a dangerous advantage. So we pushed forward and kept the lead to the close. We drove the infantry back upon their artillery, which lined the crest of the long ridge over which the Lynchburg Road runs. When my line approached the sloping ground, which stretched a long way up to the battery where the enemy were endeavoring to form their infantry in line, I thinned my exposed center, placing them on my left in the heavy timber, and pushed that flank forward more rapidly, thus turning the flank of the enemy artillery, which, however, kept its position until their commander was killed and their horses so shot down that they were obliged to run their guns back down by hand. They were soon mixed pell-mell with my skirmish line when the flag of truce came forward from the village.”

When the horseman came from the Confederate line carrying a white flag. “Cease firing! Cease firing!” was heard along the Union line. He passed through the left side of the Pennsylvanians’ skirmish line near Cpl. Cornelius J. Smith (1st Pa. Rifles, Co. A, 190th Pa., Co. A) and seven other original Bucktails, and was led to the Union rear.  (Several flags of truce came to the Union lines at different locations.)

“The enemy still maintained a fire, however, from the cover of the houses, killing a cavalryman; whereupon some twenty of my men, among them were four or five from the First Division, entered the town and drove the enemy beyond it…”. Colonel Pattee continued, “All firing ceased a few minutes past 10 o’clock and the advance skirmishers were withdrawn.”

One of the Bucktails made a claim as to firing the last shot. Cpl. Harrison Green (1st Pa. Rifles, Co. F, 190th Pa., Co. F) explained, “Our Lieutenant, a German, was near me and when a shot was fired by someone near the enemy’s wagon trains, he drew his revolver and said, ‘By dam! I fire de last shot!’ and off it went.”

This still unknown cavalryman was possibly the last man killed in this part of the war.

Private McBride thought the fatal shot came from the wooded area instead of the town.

“Our color-sergeant planted the flag about 100 yards from where Lee met our general.”

Another “member of the 190th Pa., the original Bucktail Regiment,” gave this description, “…when the flag of truce was sent in to our lines we still held our position as a picket line during the armistice pending the surrender, and I was one of nine detailed to stand guard at the gap with instructions to let no one pass in or out without orders from headquarters. This post or gap was on the main road that Lee’s army marched on. Just outside our line and about 20 feet from the gap stood a honey-locust tree. Gen. Lee and staff officers rode up to our line and dismounted, and stood under this tree about 10 minutes, when Gen. Grant and staff rode up and met Lee under this tree. Of course our squad had the first cut at the tree, and I have now in my possession a limb that I cut for a cane…”

Alfred R. Waud captures the moment Union soldiers begin cutting up the tree under which Grant and Lee met, for trophies.
Alfred R. Waud captures the moment Union soldiers begin cutting up the tree under which Grant and Lee met, for trophies.

Prt. James P. McGahey (10th Pa. Res, Co. F, 190th Pa., Co. B) also mentioned that Abe Self (probably Pvt. William E. Self, 1st Pa. Rifles, Co. A, 190th Pa., Co. A) had a conversation with Confederate Gen. Fitzhugh Lee during this time.

Other members of the Combined Regiment were positioned about 500 yards from the Wilmer McLean house during the meeting of Generals Grant and Lee although some of the men probably moved closer. Very shortly, surrender details were agreed upon and this part of the war was over.

As already mentioned there is a difference of opinion between Pattee and McBride on the origin of the shot that killed the cavalryman. Pattee also seems to be wrong that the skirmish line was withdrawn. The famous tree has also been described as an apple tree in various stories about the surrender. Lee’s offer of his sword was discussed in Eash’s post.

I think it can be said Benjamin Jeffries was on the picket line, perhaps standing with McGahey’s group. Did Jeffries see General Lee offer his sword? If McGahey saw it, he simply didn’t mention it. The nay sayers in the Jeffries’ story are mostly from the Confederate side. Is their reasoning biased? The argument can go on forever. When legend and fact can’t be separated, believe what you will.

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Bill is the Chief Regimental Historian of the 54th (Co. L), 190th and 191st Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers and an avid researcher who focuses on the history of the Pennsylvania Reserves in the American Civil War.