General Orders No. 9 and the Roots of the Lost Cause Myth

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.

10 thoughts on “General Orders No. 9 and the Roots of the Lost Cause Myth

  1. E.A. Mayer April 10, 2015 / 7:44 pm

    I’ve come to believe that the roots of the ‘lost cause’ myth started to develop quite earlier, perhaps as soon as the real possibility of military defeat dawned, that it can be seen in Cleburne’s now rather famous letter, and particularly in his lament that should they lose: “that the history of this heroic struggle will be written by the enemy; that our youth will be trained by Northern school teachers; will learn from Northern school books their version of the war; will be impressed by all the influences of history and education to regard our gallant dead as traitors, our maimed veterans as fit objects for derision.”

  2. Mike Stone, Peterborough, England April 11, 2015 / 12:21 am

    Cleburne needn’t have worried.

  3. Rosemary April 11, 2015 / 4:51 am

    At least the Vietnam War experience aids people today in understanding how the North could have lost.
    Don’t you want to go back in history and smack those post Civil War northern democrats for the long-term pain they helped create in the name of their short-term goals?

  4. hankc9174 April 11, 2015 / 6:15 am

    it’s certainly true that the north had ‘overwhelming numbers and resources’ as is so for virtually every victorious combatant. This farewell address is the final period in the last sentence of the life of the ANV ( sorry for the mixed metaphor).

    Lee’s soldiers followed his commands; he is offering direction, and encouragement, to his now leader-less men.

    It’s poor leader who does not tailor communications to the audience, whether it be the president, his soldiers, his colleagues or others.

  5. neukomment April 11, 2015 / 9:19 am

    Your mention of the issue of desertion from the ANV raises another question of how events are remembered. How many descendants of confederate veterans would ever know, let alone admit, their ancestor was a deserter, especially in those last months of the war? How many of those deserters went on to be part of the future confederate veteran groups? And then there is the many and various reasons, some reasons better than others, a given individual would desert the ANV at that time; dire distress and need of families back home and so forth….

  6. Mark April 11, 2015 / 10:20 am

    I think the claim that General Order #9 was “one of the first expressions of the Lost Cause Myth” as Brooks does in the linked article a quite a circumspect claim and pretty unassailable. Others quibbling with this view seem to do so by inserting their own understandings into this very modest claim.

    Levin seems to dismiss it on the basis that there wouldn’t have been the intention to create a myth at that point. Others objected that there would have been earlier origins. But neither objection is incompatible with the contention that Gen Ord 9 was an “early expression” of a rationalization that is reality denial intended to assuage hurt feelings that we all know and have done at some level, and even frequently if we’re honest. If this reasoning is correct, it is pointless to look for earlier authors because this isn’t how such things are authored. I think the myth of the Lost Cause is simply the public working out of this all-too-human phenomenon into a larger narrative, sometimes with ghastly consequences.

    I don’t even find the objections raised by Levin and others raised very interesting questions. Several things seem beyond dispute, That Lee was the only thing sustaining the war for some time, his public position (though his image itself would be inflated as a cultural icon by the LC), and that it was an official order would make it the most significant early expression of it in any case. Whether it was “one of the first” expressions or the most significant expression of earlier feelings is splitting hairs and beside the point.

    It seems to me some here see the LC as a psychological phenomenon and some see it as an overt planned conspiracy. Of course it was both, one leading to the other. I think failure to recognize its dual nature leads to disagreements that amount to misunderstandings.

    • hankc9174 April 11, 2015 / 6:58 pm

      a quick and unscientific review of correspondence of other civil war surrenders, on both sides, reveals virtually every capitulator mentioning ‘overwhelming’ enemy strength..

      in recent warfare history when did anyone surrender in a timely manner? almost everyone fights too long.

  7. Mark April 11, 2015 / 12:31 pm

    I should have said whether it was one of the first expressions or the most significant early expression is beside the point. Who could deny it was at least the latter? It was public and official. A marker was laid down. Many different expressions could be used perhaps, but I just don’t see any controversy at all in the statement that General Order #9 was “one of the first expressions of the Lost Cause Myth”.

    To reiterate more concisely perhaps, on the one hand I think it makes little sense to disagree with the statement on the grounds that the word “first” may not be true in a strictly temporal sense when “one of the first” shows this was not even claimed. It doesn’t seem any more effective to disagree based on what seems to me a differing assumptions about what the word “myth” means. Because whether understood as pathological and natural or intentional and conspiratorial, the LC myth was both and it seems to me the expression encompasses both senses.

    So my judgement the critics of this expression aren’t being specific enough. As a commonsense statement of a generally accessible truth, I think the statement is perfectly fine and hard to improve upon.

    Perhaps it was the moment when what was felt was expressed in writing for the first time.

  8. Msb April 11, 2015 / 1:45 pm

    Well said, Brooks. As pointed out in the excellent recent book on Appomattox, both Grant and Lee used the event to support their interpretations of the war’s meaning. The book also points out how many other Confederates repeated Lee’s assertion.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s