The dawn is chill and gray. Union soldiers line the small dirt road, ranks thin from disease, battle losses, and the scars of war. The 1st Division of the 5th Corps, Army of the Potomac, stands rank on rank, observing with some attention the far hill, where their enemies are gathered. Union Brig. Gen. Joshua L. Chamberlain describes this moment — the surrender ceremony led by Confederate Gen. John B. Gordon’s on the morning of April 12, 1865, at Appomattox Court House — in his memoir, “The Passing of the Armies:”
Our earnest eyes scan the busy groups on the opposite slopes, breaking camp for the last time, taking down their little shelter-tents and folding them as carefully as precious things, then slowly forming ranks as for unwelcome duty.
They are enemies. They fought each other with every atom of their spirits since 1861, four blood-soaked years ago.
And now they move. The dusky swarms forge forward into gray columns of march. On they come, with the old swinging route step and swaying battle flags. In the van, the proud Confederate ensign—the great field of white with the canton of star-strewn cross of blue on a field of red, the regimental battle-flags with the same escutcheon following on, crowded so thick, by thinning out of men, that the whole column seemed crowned with red.
For years, those battle flags marked the enemy lines; they were aim points for every Union man with a rifle or cannon. In the words of Frank Haskell, a Union officer watching Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg, they were “treason’s flaunting rag.”
At the right of our line our little group mounted beneath our flags, the red Maltese cross on a field of white, erewhile so bravely borne through many a field more crimson than itself, its mystic meaning now ruling all.
The battle flag, whether Union or Confederate, bore strong meaning for the soldiers who fought under it. Regimental colors were usually gifts from the town where the regiment came from. To lose the colors was to lose the regiment’s honor and its identity. In the smoke and noise of battle, the colors were what men looked to for reassurance that their regiment — their identity — was still there. And now these banners hung over a field absent of battle but thick with emotion.
The Army of Northern Virginia was laying down its arms. Mounted in front of the Union line was Chamberlain, wounded seven times, the hero of Little Round Top. Expected to die from being gutshot through the groin at Petersburg the year prior, Chamberlain made an incredible recovery and was back leading his troops in the final campaign. His wounds were extensive, however, essentially depriving him of any sexual gratification with his wife ever again. If anyone was entitled to feel animus toward a foe, it was Chamberlain.
The momentous meaning of this occasion impressed me deeply. I resolved to mark it by some token of recognition, which could be no other than a salute of arms. Well aware of the responsibility assumed, and of the criticisms that would follow, as the sequel proved, nothing of that kind could move me in the least. The act could be defended, if needful, by the suggestion that such a salute was not to the cause for which the flag of the Confederacy stood, but to its going down before the flag of the Union.
Today, Confederate flags are going down all over the country. Most stand for racism, ignorance, bitterness, and hate. Imagine, however, that in this one moment from the past, Americans faced Americans.
My main reason, however, was one for which I sought no authority nor asked forgiveness. Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood: men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond; — was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured?
Instructions had been given; and when the head of each division column comes opposite our group, our bugle sounds the signal and instantly our whole line from right to left, regiment by regiment in succession, gives the soldier’s salutation, from the “order arms” to the old “carry” — the marching salute. Gordon at the head of the column, riding with heavy spirit and downcast face, catches the sound of shifting arms, looks up, and, taking the meaning, wheels superbly, making with himself and his horse one uplifted figure, with profound salutation as he drops the point of his sword to the boot toe; then facing to his own command, gives word for his successive brigades to pass us with the same position of the manual, — honor answering honor. On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glorying, nor motion of man standing again at the order, but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead!
Chamberlain was a professor of rhetoric prior to the Civil War, and can consequently be verbose. While his prose is beautiful, it often obscures the basic meaning of an act. What he did, in short, was to give the “marching salute” to the Confederates who were marching to surrender. It was not the “present arms” that would be rendered for a high-ranking officer, but an informal salutation among soldiers.
This act, were it to happen today, would be unthinkable. The Rebel flag stands for treason, slavery, and inhumanity in our modern culture. But we are stuck in our own modern culture and do not place ourselves in the shoes of these men who had bled each other dry. When they stared at each other across the road, they saw Americans. Some triumphant; some defeated, but Americans nonetheless.
As each successive division masks our own, it halts, the men face inward towards us across the road, twelve feet away; then carefully “dress” their line, each captain taking pains for the good appearance of his company, worn and half-starved as they were. The field and staff take their positions in the intervals of regiments; generals in rear of their commands. They fix bayonets, stack arms; then, hesitatingly, remove cartridge-boxes and lay them down. Lastly, — reluctantly, with agony of expression, — they tenderly fold their flags, battle-worn and torn, blood-stained, heart -holding colors, and lay them down; some frenziedly rushing from the ranks, kneeling over them, clinging to them, pressing them to their lips with burning tears.
As the Confederate soldiers laid down their flags, they laid down their identities as rebels, as fighters; they laid down their connection with their hometowns and communities. Most laid down their hate and returned to the Union. For some, however, it was too much, and they kept that flag burning in their minds, where it would fuel the racist violence of the Reconstruction era.
It is for that reason that the Confederate flag must no longer be seen in Walmarts, on state capitol building, or waved proudly in parades. It cannot be a popular symbol of hateful violence. Where it should hang is in museums, archives, and historical displays as a reminder of what happened when our country split and the two sides could no longer communicate with each other. To erase the memory of the Confederacy entirely is to invite similar events back another day under a different flag.
If we can learn anything from the simple act of Chamberlain, it is that reconciliation begins with respect.
And only the Flag of the Union greets the sky!