On April 10, 1865, at the behest of General Robert E. Lee, Colonel Charles Marshall sat down to compose General Orders No. 9. As Marshall later told the story in 1887:
General Lee’s order to the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House was written the day after the meeting at McLean’s house, at which the terms of the surrender were agreed upon. That night the general sat with several of us at a fire in front of his tent, and after some conversation about the army, and the events of the day, in which his feelings toward his men were strongly expressed, he told me to prepare an order to the troops.
The next day it was raining, and many persons were coming and going, so that I was unable to write without interruption until about 10 o’clock, when General Lee, finding that the order had not been prepared, directed me to get into his ambulance, which stood near his tent, and placed an orderly to prevent any one from approaching me.
I sat in the ambulance until I had written the order, the first draft of which (in pencil) contained an entire paragraph that was omitted by General Lee’s direction. He made one or two verbal changes, and I then made a copy of the order as corrected, and gave it to one of the clerks in the adjutant-general’s office to write in ink. I took the copy, when made by the clerk, to the general, who signed it, and other copies were then made for transmission to the corps commanders and the staff of the army. All these copies were signed by the general, and a good many persons sent other copies which they had made or procured, and obtained his signature. In this way many copies of the order had the general’s name signed as if they were originals, some of which I have seen.
The order is worth a close reading, because it offers Lee’s explanation of Confederate military defeat … although not all of it.
During the Civil War Lee had often observed that Confederate civilians did not give their all in support of the cause of southern independence. As late as March 9, 1865, he told Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge: “Everything in my opinion has depended and still depends upon the disposition and feelings of the people.” Meanwhile, despite a growing concern about Confederate military fortunes, he always impressed others with his determination to damage the foe. As late as the afternoon of April 2, for example, he took time from what must have been a stressful situation to assure Jefferson Davis that he was doing all he could to recruit black soldiers and that while he found present circumstances “very critical,” he entertained hopes that a Union misstep would offer an opportunity to “cripple” the foe–this even as he advised that it was time to leave Richmond. Over the previous week he had watched his army dissolve, losing nearly half its numbers by April 9, with reportedly only 8,000 or so still bearing arms.
None of that made it into Marshall’s draft, which reflected Lee’s thinking on April 9. Rather, “the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources.” One might argue that a good general places his foe in that situation. Lee reassured his men of his confidence and faith in them, celebrated their courage and steadfastness (deserters would not be issued this order), and declared that it was his determination “to avoid the useless sacrifice” of those soldiers that had compelled him to meet Grant … a claim that conveniently omits mention of his correspondence with Grant on April 7 and 8.
Memory is shaped by what we forget as well as what we remember, and by what we choose to omit as well as what we choose to include. As Lee prepared to leave Appomattox, he also prepared to leave behind what he had said during the war about the will of Confederate civilians to fight. Indeed, by the spring of 1865 what kept many Confederate soldiers fighting was loyalty to each other and to their general, not to their cause, however they defined it.
Not everyone will find this reassuring. I can recall that Kevin Levin voiced objection to this take on the order as the first seed of the Lost Cause myth back in 2006. I offered my own elaboration soon afterward. You’ll have to admit that the themes Lee and Marshall sounded resonate today in the hearts and minds of advocates of Confederate heritage … and more than a few other people.