Virginia at War, 1865 Now Available for Pre-Order

I wrote this essay so long ago that I almost forgot about it.  The other day I learned that the final volume [link to Amazon] in the Virginia at War series edited by James I. Robertson and William C. Davis is now available for pre-order and is slated for publication in November.  I was asked to contribute an essay on the demobilization of the Army of Northern Virginia.  That is an incredibly broad topic and with my word limit I had to think carefully about how to narrow my focus.  In the end I decided to look at the first few weeks following the surrender at Appomattox and specifically at the experiences of the men as they walked home. The research process was difficult owing to the fact that so few men kept a record of their journeys home.  Here is a taste.

“When Johnny Comes Marching Home”: The Demobilization of the Army of Northern Virginia

Lawrence Taliaferro’s civil war should have ended on very familiar ground when he crossed the Rappahannock River by Fredericksburg shortly after the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.  Instead, Taliaferro was struck by the drastic changes to the landscape.  Abandoned and rusting war machinery littered the ground as well as the bones of old mules and horses.  The surrounding forests had been leveled to serve the needs of warring armies throughout the conflict.  As Taliaferro traversed those final twelve miles to what he hoped would be the comforts of his family’s estate he became disoriented by the numerous paths that obscured a well-known road.  Eventually he lost his way and was forced to ask for directions.  An elderly black man, who Taliaferro later learned was an ex-slave of the family, escorted the confused and tired young man to his home.

Once home Taliaferro reunited with his father and sister and shortly thereafter an older brother who also served in Lee’s army.  With only a mule, horse, and a few ex-slaves who remained with the family the Taliaferro’s began the process of rebuilding their estate by collecting old bones and iron from the surrounding area, which they resold.  The Federal army, in recognition of the family’s hospitality during the war, supplied mules and food, which no doubt furthered the process of rebuilding and perhaps even a sense of optimism that a brighter future was possible.  No amount of succor from the Federal army, however, would have blinded Lawrence Taliaferro as well as his family to the challenges they would face in the immediate future.

The confusion and uncertainty that Lawrence Taliaferro experienced on his journey home was repeated along countless roads and paths throughout Virginia.  Unfortunately, much of the literature on the Army of Northern Virginia and the Civil War ends with the furling of flags and the stacking of arms on the surrender field at Appomattox. While the army ceased to function as the military arm of the Confederate government it did not cease to exist following the surrender ceremony on April 12; rather it slowly dissipated along the roads leading to destinations around the South.  Our tendency to end the Civil War narrative on April 9, 1865 and our attraction to stories of reconciliation obscures or minimizes the connections between the war and the post-war challenges surrounding emancipation and subjection to Republican rule which defined the era of Reconstruction.

A survey of the experiences of Lee’s men in the first few weeks following their surrender at Appomattox can serve to challenge our tendency to infer a sharp distinction between the war years and Reconstruction.  Indeed, many of the fears and lingering questions that Confederates traveled home with would play out in the following decades.  For the newly minted veterans of Virginia the journey may have been more emotionally and psychologically taxing given the close connection between defense of home and nation.   It is not a stretch to imagine soldiers contemplating their futures, or more specifically, whether they would face retribution from the federal government in the form of disfranchisement or property confiscation.  Many worried about what a post -emancipation social order would look like with the federal government now in control and the U.S. army in a position where it could realize the worst fears of white southerners associated with images of racial amalgamation – the very social order the Confederate army was intended to defend.   The end of the war raised profound questions of identity that civilians and soldiers would have to answer.  White southerners occupied a precarious position in the days and weeks following the end of the war as they clung to their former Confederate selves and wrestled with whether they could embrace their prewar identification as Americans.

2 comments… add one
  • Mark DC Nov 20, 2011 @ 17:10

    My mother was a Lee, her family came from Virginia, and accordingly I believed the fanciful things we learned in high school and college : the Civil War was a tragedy, but the men are both sides were honorable and brave, and especially brave were the Southern leaders. If they weren’t outright abolitionist at heart, they were just on a different time table to release their slaves, who loved them dearly.

    Imagine my surprise when I started to read Google Books and Newspapers, from the South, from 1820-1865. I found a world in Southern newspapers, Southern speeches, Southern Books, that no one ever hinted to me about.

    A world of torturing slaves, and torturing people who, even preachers, who would dare to PREACH against slavery. A world of dictatorial control of the press, and religion. Elections? You were free to vote for whichever pro slavery scoundrel you wanted, and no one else was allowed to run. Lincoln wasn’t even allowed on the ballot in 9 of the 11 states, and where he was allowed on it, the state didn’t even bother to count his votes. Not that he would have that many, since Southern lunatics would have killed him or his representitives if they had dared to compaign. And any thing Lincoln said or did was presented in a way that made him seem like he was urging blacks to rape southern women and kill southern men. Perhaps Lincoln SHOULD have urged such things, so they could tell the difference.

    Southern leaders were not exactly like radical Islamic religious leaders, but they came as close as they could, give them an A for effort. Most people alive in the South in 1860 had never heard a legal sermon against slavery, never read a legal book or pamphlet against it.

    Since Jefferson Davis himself said 2/3 of his soldiers had already deserted (or gone awol) in 1864, in his Macon speech, and since according to Edward Pollard, the Confederate War department alo admitted 2/3 or more men deserted long before the Civil War ended, and since diaries during the war show massive continual desertions, I wonder when those amazing facts are going to be addressed in a single text book,, even a college text book? The war ended because Southern soldiers deserted, probably the best kept open secret of the Civil War, next to the secret that the South literally went to war to SPREAD slavery, not to preserve it.

    What amazes me is how this collective secret was kept an open secret, and a generation would pass, then the children raised on the myths would go into hyperdrive to prove the honor and bravery of Southern leaders.

    Nowadays, when massive desertions are admitted even in part, it is clothed in the the constume of “the North starved the South”. As if it was Lincoln’s fault the South attacked after their insane Ultimatums to spread slavery were ignored. As if Lincoln should have suggested to Davis that the speculators and Southern deserters grow more food, and less cotton. Davis was quite happy with cotton speculation while it benefited him. But the North did not fight fair? Thats like the guy who tries to rob the 7-11 crying in the cop car, blaming them for using the radio.

    As if torturing 13 year old girls who ran away rather than give up their child, was fair. Ask Robert E Lee about torturing girls, he seemed to get a kick out of it, he paid 600% higher bounties, and kept close details about the search for them, in his account books. He was especially interested in getting back the girls who had produced babies so light, they could pass for white.

    This is detailed in the amazing book “Reading the Man” by Elizabeth Pryor. Can you imagine if Lincoln had papers in his own handwriting detailing very large rewards for the return of young mulatto girls, and their white looking infants? Do you think that would be mentioned in passing, on equal footing with what footware Lee happened to wear on a given Sunday.

    Fairness? Did Lee give the girls a head start, maybe a few days provisions, a map. Maybe call off the slave dogs that were the back bone of Southern economy, because more than anything else, the slaves feared the dogs when they attempted to flee.

    As if the insanity that pervaded Southern leaders was mindful of fairness.

    Furthermore, reading Jeff Davis amazing broadside about black soldiers given in 1863, I wonder how anyone can take seriously the notion there were large groups of black soldiers fighting for the Confederacy. Yes there were some black soldiers, who may have volunteered, but who knows what they were told? We are lied to 150 years later, do you think the Southern slave owners told the truth to them at the time?

    Additionally, even as late as April 1865, there were issues in the SOuth about using slaves as soldiers — and the legislation passed in that month specifically said the slaves that would have been forced into the army would STILL be slaves.

    DO all wars generate absurdities, masquerading as fact? Is it just human nature?

    For example, slaves were not paid to be soldiers — their OWNERS were. Yet with straight faces southern apologist will brag that blacks were treated equally in the Confederacy. Since Lee would torture girls barely 13 years old in peace time, imagine what this religious lunatic did to grown male slaves in war time. Did he taunt them before their torture, as Lee did to the girls? Did he scream at them during the torture, as he did to the girls? One thing he did not do, is sell the children born to any of the male slaves, that was something Masser Robert reserved for the girls he enslaved.

    You just can’t get any crazier than that. Lee was still trying to rent slaves out after the war was going on — he had girls as young as 13 tortured, while he personally stood by screaming at them. Then, apparently, he sold their children, because you don’t rent out infants, you sell them.

    But Lee is yet today often spoken of as an abolitionist, just on a “different time table”. He should be the shame of the South, and of the US. He ran like a wuss from Richmond, and was a personal coward, but somehow his likeness is chiseled in some goofy mountain, and seems like half the schools in the South are named after him. While the South had many brave and honorable men, Lee was not one of them.

    Such goofiness is so absurd, it is pointless to take anyone seriously who pushes the insane deception of Southern honor and Southern bravery. With their leaders guilty of torturing children, selling babies, and running away in the face of person danger (yes, Davis did in fact wear a dress and worse, ran away, intending to leave his wife and children to the tender mercies of Union soldiers) I just don’t take anything their apologist say as rational or valid. They may occasionally hit on something rational or valid, but a broken clock is right twice a day.

    It might take another 150 years before the South will quit acting like spoiled babies. I used to believe, all throught high school and college, that the Confederacy was at least in part a noble effort by honorable men. But reading their own words, seeing the Southern newspapers and Southern Books, and SOuthern speeches, I realize the Confederates were essentially bullies, torturing, attacking, committing treason, murder and rape, all in the name of Jesus, who got their ass kicked, and have been crying about it ever since.

    It boils down to that, bullies who got their ass kicked, who ran home to momma, and tried to tell her that the little guy was picking on him. For 150 years they have been trying that crap, and I for one one, know better.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 21, 2011 @ 2:49

      Thanks for the comment, Mark, but it’s difficult to respond given the level of emotion exhibited.

      It might take another 150 years before the South will quit acting like spoiled babies.

      For what it’s worth, I would advise steering clear of such generalizations since they rarely hold up.

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