From The Soldiers’ Flag to the KKK’s Flag: Some Thoughts

Defenders of Confederate heritage who have made known their support of the Confederate Battle Flag often argue that the battle flag (in both its square version–Army of Northern Virginia–and its rectangular version–Army of Tennessee) was the soldiers’ flag, and that in honoring it one honors service and sacrifice. Some advocates go further, and claim that Confederate soldiers did not fight to defend slavery (in part because they claim so few Confederate soldiers owned slaves).

Those issues are open for discussion, of course, but let’s set them aside for the moment. Rather, let’s turn to the use of the Confederate flag by the Ku Klux Klan … and why that group uses it.

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April 14, 1865: Meetings, Meeting, Meetings

April 14, 1865, proved to be a busy day in American history. At Fort Sumter, South Carolina, Major General Robert Anderson raised the national colors over the fort four years after he had ordered them to be lowered. Henry Ward Beecher gave the main address. It was quite a celebration, and as night came fireworks lit up the sky.

There was more good news from North Carolina. Joseph Johnston contacted William T. Sherman to seek a temporary suspension of operations so the two men could meet. Sherman assented, suggesting the Appomattox terms as a basis for discussion. He would reassure Grant the next morning that he would “be careful not to complicate any points of civil policy.”

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April 12, 1865: Stacking Arms

On April 12 the Army of Northern Virginia stacked arms, furled flags, and formally completed surrendering. Much has been made of this ceremony, largely by Joshua Chamberlain and John B. Gordon, two gifted writers with vivid imaginations and healthy egos whose stories improved with age. Yet neither Grant nor Lee was present (Lee waited until after the ceremony to head back to Richmond, where his wife remained), and in fact several Confederate units had already stacked arms and signed paroles. Gordon had attempted to have his men stack arms on April 11, avoiding the ceremony, but John Gibbon and Charles Griffin, in charge of arranging the surrender, insisted upon a more formal process that would take place the next day: otherwise Gibbon would not issue paroles. Nor did everyone have arms to stack: what remained of George Pickett’s division left a mere fifty-three rifled muskets at the surrender.

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April 11, 1865: Lincoln’s Last Speech

News reached Washington of the surrender at Appomattox late in the evening on April 9. As one might imagine, the next day was one of celebration and jubilation. People wanted their president to say something about the great victory. Lincoln fended off these requests on April 10, although he asked the band present to play “Dixie,” because it was “one of the best tunes I have ever heard.” However, he promised to offer some appropriate remarks the next evening.

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April 11, 1865: The War Continues Elsewhere

It did not take long for Ulysses S. Grant to leave Appomattox Court House: he did so on the afternoon of April 10, when he headed to Burkeville to catch a train to City Point. That repaired line proved rather rickety, as Grant did not make it to City Point until April 11, where Mrs. Grant awaited his arrival. The general declined an offer to visit Richmond, but several staff officers took advantage of a travel delay to visit the former capital of the Confederacy.

Robert E. Lee stayed near Appomattox Court House: he would not leave until April 12. He spent some time gathering information and preparing a report of his army’s final campaign, declaring that Grant had five times as many soldiers as Lee–a rather large exaggeration, to say the least.

At Danville, Jefferson Davis prepared to carry on the fight. So did Dabney Maury at Mobile, although he had decided to evacuate that city in the wake of Union successes on April 9 and 10. Meanwhile, William T. Sherman approached Goldsborough, North Carolina, where he learned of the events at Appomattox. Now he could focus his efforts on taking out Joseph E. Johnston’s ramshackle Rebel army.

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.

The Mind and Heart of Ulysses S. Grant


One wonders what was on Ulysses S. Grant’s mind on the evening of April 9, 1865, as he reflected on that day’s events. What was he feeling? What was he thinking? After all, the general was not much given to public displays of emotion: he was a master of wry understatement. And yet he had achieved the mission he had undertaken precisely thirteen months ago–March 9, 1864–that of bringing Robert E. Lee to the surrender table.

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