Ends of War

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Jun 11, 2020
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This excellent book by Professor Caroline Janney looks at what happened to the men of the Army of Northern Virginia after Robert E. Lee surrendered it at Appomattox. Appomattox was not the end of the war experience for these men. Paroled, they then had to make their way to their homes. Those who were not included in the surrender had to either try to make their way to Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee, find a United States Army officer to whom they could surrender, or just go home. And that’s only a part of the story. “A more detailed accounting of the spring and summer of 1865 reveals the unanticipated problems and chaos that flowed from well-meaning actions and inconsistent choices that set the tone and expectations for years and even decades. Rather than serving as a clear ending to the conflict, the surrender of Lee’s army brought into stark relief many of the legal, social, and political questions that had plagued the war from the beginning. Even more importantly, what followed the surrender would offer the first real test of how a democracy might end a civil war and highlight the fractures in that democracy that would haunt generations to come.” [p. 3]

Lee had over 60,000 men in the trenches at Richmond and Petersburg, but only 26-28 thousand men received paroles at Appomattox. Professor Janney also goes into what happened with the men missing from the Appomattox paroles. “Accounting for the approximately 11,530 casualties sustained between April 2 and 8, a conservative estimate would suggest that at least 20,000 of Lee’s men dropped out of the ranks after April 1, escaped the Union cordon on April 9, or otherwise refused to surrender theselves. Their reasons were as varied as the men themselves. Many had been footsore and starving stragglers unable to keep up with the relentless pace of Lee’s army as it pushed west. Others believed that there was little use resisting any further and elected to go home. Some simply hoped to forgo the humiliation of surrendering. Much of the cavalry had managed to ride past the Union troopers blocking the road to Lynchburg, while other artillerists and infantrymen slipped from the lines that day, refusing to acquiesce or be conquered. All told, for nearly 17,000 soldiers from the Army of Northern Virginia, the war did not end in the now famous village.” [pp. 3-4]

Most histories of the Army of Northern Virginia end at Appomattox, but this book takes that story beyond the surrender and considers not only the fates of these men but also the concerns of others regarding these men. “The dispersal of Lee’s army inflamed fears of roving bands and marauders. In this instance and countless others that would follow Appomattox, Grant, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, President Andrew Johnson, Attorney General James Speed, and other government and army officials would make decisions shaped by the immediate context of the moment. Most of these decisions were well intentioned, but as is so often the case, both their short- and long-term implications had not been considered. Each new choice led to new questions and more improvising. Underlying all of this was ambiguity about whether the war had in fact ended. There had been no armistice that called for the end of all fighting, no treaty dictating the terms of peace signed by the political leaders of both sides. Appomattox was not the legal end of the war, only the capitulation of a single army. Both nineteenth-century and contemporary legal scholars have discussed this at length, pointing out that the surrender of armies is distinct from the termination of a state of war between the two sides. In the days, weeks, and months that followed April 9, this issue loomed large. Civilians, government officials, Union military authorities, and paroled Confederates wondered just what it meant to parole a rebel soldier. Would the conditions of paroles remain in effect indefinitely? How long would paroled Confederates be required to register with local provost marshals? Would they ever be allowed to travel beyond the confines of their homes or home states again? Perhaps most importantly, was a parole a blanket amnesty, as some northerners feared and many Confederates expected? Were paroles and their protections limited to wartime? If the war was declared over, would the surrender terms continue to protect paroled Confederate soldiers from prosecution by the federal government? While many Union officials and legal theorists argued that rebels could be prosecuted after the war, they recognized that declaring the war over too soon would prevent the United States from utilizing war powers that still appeared necessary to enforce emancipation. Long after Appomattox, decisions on wartime as a legal state mattered to both Confederate soldiers and newly emancipated African Americans.” [pp. 4-5]

The book begins with the pursuit to Appomattox along Lee’s retreat route from the Richmond/Petersburg area. Professor Janney goes into the surrender terms and tells us how some confederate soldiers were able to escape the surrender. She also tells us about detached units that weren’t with Lee, such as John S. Mosby and his men, and how Thomas Rosser attempted to gather the soldiers of Lee’s army who had not been surrendered. “Having temporarily disbanded his division at Lynchburg, on the rainy morning of April 10 Rosser and his staff rode toward Danville, where rumor had it they might confer with President Jefferson Davis about the prospects of continuing the fight. The president had departed by the time the general arrived, but Rosser found another audience in John C. Breckinridge, former general, now secretary of war. Agreeing that there might yet be hope, Breckinridge instructed Rosser to return to central Virginia and round up all of his troopers who had not yet been paroled. Breckinridge’s admonition that Rosser enlist only those not yet paroled underscored the value the Confederate leadership still placed on the parole oath. Paroled soldiers had pledged not to resume fighting until they had been exchanged. To break one’s parole was not only a failure of personal honor but a violation that would result in imprisonment or execution. Hewing to the code of military conduct and the laws of war, Breckinridge was adamant that only those soldiers who had avoided surrender could continue the fight, no matter how desperate the rebels might be or more troops.” [p. 49]

The book is solidly grounded in primary sources and the best scholarship among secondary sources. It’s well researched and compellingly written. Beginning with Lee’s retreat, Professor Janney takes us to the pardons for the crime of treason Andrew Johnson gave out after the war, noting in the words of Attorney General Joshua Speed, “There can be no pardon where there is no actual or imputed guilt. … [T]he acceptance of a pardon is a confession of guilt.” [p. 213] The book deservedly won the Lincoln Prize, which is the most prestigious book prize in Civil War history. It’s an outstanding book and I can highly recommend it for students of the war.

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