On April 12, 1865, two men met. Insofar as I am aware, neither man ever saw the other again.
They were very different men, one Union, the other Confederate, of different backgrounds, upbringing and careers. Neither was a professional soldier. Yet the vagaries of the Civil War and their own characters had led them down remarkably similar paths to this meeting on a cold spring morning.
The Southerner, John B. Gordon, was from Georgia and had been a lawyer, journalist and coal mine operator. When the war came he raised a volunteer company of Georgians with himself as Captain. They were incorporated into the 6th Alabama Infantry, where Gordon rose to Colonel.
He turned out to be an awesomely brave man and a good commander. Six foot tall and so slender he was constantly being compared to a ramrod, he put himself in the middle of his men and then led them right into the thickest of the fights. During the Seven Days battles, bullets shattered the handles of his pistol, pierced his canteen and tore away part of the front of his coat, but left him untouched.
Assigned to defend a part of the Bloody Lane at Antietam (Sharpsburg), Gordon’s personal luck ran out, but his reputation grew. He was shot in the calf, but stayed in the fight. Another bullet passed through the same leg, higher up. He stayed. A third ball went through his left arm. He stayed. A fourth ball hit him in the shoulder. He insisted on staying on staying with his men. Finally, a bullet hit him in the face, knocking him unconscious.
Somehow, he survived. Promoted to Brigadier General, he went on to fight at Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, all the way to the hell of Petersburg.
In April of 1865, he was a Major General, commanding one of Lee’s Corps. You could say, without too much exaggeration, that John B. Gordon embodied the Army of Northern Virginia. Valiant, proud, used to victory but ground down by the limitless pressure of the Army of the Potomac, there was something indomitable about both the man and the army.
The Northerner is more famous today: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. He was a true Northerner, a spare man from that spare northern outpost called the state of Maine.
Trained as a theologian, at the beginning of the war he was professor of modern languages at Bowdoin College. He decided to enlist in 1862, although he was married with three children. The college tried to protect him from this lunacy, first refusing to give him leave, then offering him a two year sabbatical to study in Europe. Chamberlain accepted the sabbatical — and promptly enlisted as a lieutenant colonel (2nd in command) in the 20th Maine. He was probably the only lieutenant colonel who spoke seven languages: Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, Syraic, French, and German.
He had seen action before, but his real fame began at Gettysburg.
There the Army of the Potomac occupied a hill line. The far left wing of the army more or less petered out at a place called Little Round Top. The last unit in the army happened to be the 20th Maine.
It was not placed there as part of any great plan. Badly under-strength, the 20th Maine was down to less than 250 (out of a nominal 1000) when it received the dubious reinforcement of 120 mutineers from the 2nd Maine. Even assuming they would be willing to fight, the regiment would still have only about a third of its nominal strength. It was supposed to stay in reserve.
But the Confederates were massing opposite the army’s left. An engineer officer, General Warren, inspecting dispositions, was horrified to find Little Round Top undefended. The Union left was “in the air” and the Confederates were in a perfect position to get past it, flanking the whole Army of the Potomac.
As fast as he could Warren scrounged around, grabbing every unit he could find and putting them into the line. The last unit just happened to be the 20th Maine.
There they withstood a mounting series of attacks, with the enemy always trying to lap around the left of their line. Chamberlain was forced, while absorbing heavy casualties, to thin out his line to extend it left and around back to cover his own flank.
Finally it was bent back like a half open jack knife. The line was thin, casualties were heavy, but what was worse they were running out of ammunition. Facing the inevitable collapse, Chamberlain decided on a lunatic solution: they would charge.
It was total lunacy, but they were all lunatics together. Before he could get half the line informed of the plan, the first half began the charge on their own, carrying the rest with them. Before it was all done, they had captured 400 prisoners and arguably saved the entire Army.
It was a heroic performance and would eventually gain Chamberlain the Congressional Medal of Honor, but it was not the end of his story. Chamberlain fought in every major engagement, right to the end. He was wounded six times and had his horse shot out from under him five.
He had the rather extraordinary luck to read his own obituary — twice! The first time came at Petersburg when he was shot through at the hip line, a wound that was, at that time, invariably fatal. Hence the obituary. (After giving him a lifetime of pain, it did, in fact, kill him — fifty years later.)
On March 25, 1865, as brevet Major General in command of a division, he was shot in the chest, leaving him unconscious and with a such a deathlike pallor that he received his second obituary. Actually, the bullet was deflected around his ribs, so he lived to attend the meeting.
You could say, without too much exaggeration, that Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain embodied the Army of the Potomac. Brave, proud, its men always better than its commanders, it was an army used to defeat but gifted with a dogged persistence that would eventually lead to victory. There was something noble and melancholy about both the man and the army.
The fate of the two armies was reflected in the final assignments of these two men. John B. Gordon was asked by Lee to command the final surrender ceremony of the Army of Northern Virginia. Chamberlain was honored by Grant with accepting that surrender.
The Confederates had asked that they be allowed to simply stack their arms and battle flags in camp and just march out, leaving them there. Grant had decided that something more formal was needed: The Army of Northern Virginia must formally surrender arms and battle flags.
Chamberlain had anticipated how painful this would be and had given his orders accordingly. No gay music, no cheers and no jeers. The Southerners, led by the famous Stonewall Brigade (nominally 5 regiments, actually 210 ragged survivors), marched up in silence, with Gordon riding in front.
If John B. Gordon embodied the Army of Northern Virginia, his posture showed how they felt. His head was down, his eyes were down and, in a man famous for his erect riding posture, his shoulders were slumped. He would do his duty, but the humiliation was written on him.
Chamberlain gave a command. A bugle call rang out. The Union soldiers snapped from Order Arms to Carry Arms, the marching salute.
Startled, Gordon looked up and realized the honor being offered. He wheeled his horse to Chamberlain, drew his sword and gave him the full version of the salute, sweeping the sword from upright before his face down until the tip came to his boot toe.
Then he turned around and passed an order down his own ranks. The Southerners brought their own rifles up to Carry Arms, returning the salute.
And so it ended.
There are many strange things about our Civil War. But none is stranger than what didn’t happen. Hatred and bitterness did not bury and fester into a permanently estranged populace. One cannot imagine it of the veterans of the Boyne or the Ebro, but in a few years Northern and Southern veterans, grown white haired, would be meeting in veteran’s groups, sharing the same encampments and swapping stories.
Some magical healing had taken place, saving our country from centuries of vengeance and reprisals.
One could say that healing really began at the meeting of those two men.