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Lee's Surrender

04/08/05 12:00AM By Howard Coffin
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(HOST) Tomorrow is a Civil War anniversary that commentator Howard Coffin says is worth remembering.


(COFFIN) One hundred forty years ago this Saturday, the escape route for Robert E. Lee's beleaguered army had finally been closed by George Custer's Union cavalry supported by heavy lines of infantry. Lee had no choice but to ride up to the tidy village between the armies and meet Ulysses S. Grant. The time to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia was at hand, and it happened in as peaceful an appearing place as can be found in all America - Appomattox Court House. It was Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865.

Lee's downfall really was made inevitable a week earlier, on April 2, when the Army of the Potomac's Sixth Corps finally broke the lines guarding the rail center of Petersburg. In the vanguard was the First Vermont Brigade, making its final major contribution to the Union war effort. Because its commander Lewis Grant had spotted a weak point in the defenses, the brigade was accorded the honor of leading the attack - an honor the veterans would just as soon have foregone. With the war's end obviously near, life seemed all the more precious.

But as at Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, Cedar Creek and other battlefields placed in a key position, the Vermonters followed orders. That reliability throughout the war had cost them more casualties than any other Union brigade. After a monstrous artillery barrage, the 12,000-man attack rolled forward. Through an accident of terrain, orders and darkness, Captain Charles Gould suddenly found himself in the dim predawn light caught between the Rebel works and onrushing Union lines. He chose to climb the works, descending among Confederates who promptly bayoneted him in the face and back. But Gould, who as a little boy in Windham had fallen into a tub of his grandmother's boiling apple sauce, again survived, having become the first Union soldier to penetrate the Petersburg defenses. Within hours, Lee began his last retreat.

The Vermont Brigade never reached Appomattox, firing its last shots on April 6 at Sailors Creek. By early summer, the men would be back home, civilians again. Behind, on the bloody fields and in the hospitals and rebel prisons, 5,224 Vermonters had perished.

Years later, a poem that likely got at many Vermont soldiers' emotions 140 years ago tomorrow, was read at the dedication of the major Vermont monument at Gettysburg. Many veterans were listening to the following words of Julia Dorr, unofficial Vermont poet laureate and sister of a union general:

Oh beautiful one, my country
Thou fairest daughter of Time,
To-day are thine eyes unclouded
In the light of faith sublime!
No thunder of battle appals thee;
From thy woe thou has found release;
From the graves of thy sons steals only
This one soft whisper, - 'Peace!'

I'm Howard Coffin in Montpelier.

Howard Coffin is an author and historian who's specialty is the civil war.
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