The Day of the Confederacy; a Chronicle of the Embattled South

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Author: Nathaniel Wright Stephenson

Chapter XII. The Last Word

The evacuation of Richmond broke the back of the Confederate defense. Congress had adjourned. The legislative history of the Confederacy was at an end. The executive history still had a few days to run. After destroying great quantities of records, the government officials had packed the remainder on a long train that conveyed the President and what was left of the civil service to Danville. During a few days, Danville was the Confederate capital. There, Davis, still unable to conceive defeat, issued his pathetic last Address to the People of the Confederate States. His mind was crystallized. He was no longer capable of judging facts. In as confident tones as ever he promised his people that they should yet prevail; he assured Virginians that even if the Confederate army should withdraw further south the withdrawal would be but temporary, and that "again and again will we return until the baffled and exhausted enemy shall abandon in despair his endless and impossible task of making slaves of a people resolved to be free."

The surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, compelled another migration of the dwindling executive company. General Johnston had not yet surrendered. A conference which he had with the President and the Cabinet at Greensboro ended in giving him permission to negotiate with Sherman. Even then Davis was still bent on keeping up the fight; yet, though he believed that Sherman would reject Johnston’s overtures, he was overtaken at Charlotte on his way South by the crushing news of Johnston’s surrender. There the executive history of the Confederacy came to an end in a final Cabinet meeting. Davis, still blindly resolute to continue the struggle, was deeply distressed by the determination of his advisers to abandon it. In imminent danger of capture, the President’s party made its way to Abbeville, where it broke up, and each member sought safety as best he could. Davis with a few faithful men rode to Irwinsville, Georgia, where, in the early morning of the l0th of May, he was surprised and captured. But the history of the Confederacy was not quite at an end. The last gunshots were still to be fired far away in Texas on the 13th of May. The surrender of the forces of the Trans-Mississippi on May 26, 1865, brought the war to a definite conclusion.

There remains one incident of these closing days, the significance of which was not perceived until long afterward, when it immediately took its rightful place among the determining events of American history. The unconquerable spirit of the Army of Northern Virginia found its last expression in a proposal which was made to Lee by his officers. If he would give the word, they would make the war a duel to the death; it should drag out in relentless guerrilla struggles; and there should be no pacification of the South until the fighting classes had been exterminated. Considering what those classes were, considering the qualities that could be handed on to their posterity, one realizes that this suicide of a whole people, of a noble fighting people, would have maimed incalculably the America of the future. But though the heroism of this proposal of his men to die on their shields had its stern charm for so brave a man as Lee, he refused to consider it. He would not admit that he and his people had a right thus to extinguish their power to help mold the future, no matter whether it be the future they desired or not. The result of battle must be accepted. The Southern spirit must not perish, luxuriating blindly in despair, but must find a new form of expression, must become part of the new world that was to be, must look to a new birth under new conditions. In this spirit he issued to his army his last address:

"After four years of arduous service, marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources. I need not tell the survivors of so many hard-fought battles, who have remained steadfast to the last, that I have consented to the result from no distrust of them; but feeling that valor and devotion could accomplish nothing that could compensate for the loss that would have attended the continuation of the contest, I determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen.... I bid you an affectionate farewell."

How inevitably one calls to mind, in view of the indomitable valor of Lee’s final decision, those great lines from Tennyson:

"Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will."

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Chicago: Nathaniel Wright Stephenson, "Chapter XII. The Last Word," The Day of the Confederacy; a Chronicle of the Embattled South, ed. Conway, Moncure Daniel, 1832-1907 in The Day of the Confederacy; a Chronicle of the Embattled South Original Sources, accessed February 9, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8PN49DXGEQMFKXP.

MLA: Stephenson, Nathaniel Wright. "Chapter XII. The Last Word." The Day of the Confederacy; a Chronicle of the Embattled South, edited by Conway, Moncure Daniel, 1832-1907, in The Day of the Confederacy; a Chronicle of the Embattled South, Original Sources. 9 Feb. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8PN49DXGEQMFKXP.

Harvard: Stephenson, NW, 'Chapter XII. The Last Word' in The Day of the Confederacy; a Chronicle of the Embattled South, ed. . cited in , The Day of the Confederacy; a Chronicle of the Embattled South. Original Sources, retrieved 9 February 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8PN49DXGEQMFKXP.