Lawrence Taliaferro’s civil war should have ended on very familiar ground when he crossed the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg shortly after the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. Instead Taliaferro, who served in the 47th Virginia Infantry, was struck by the drastic changes to the landscape. Abandoned and rusting war machinery littered the ground as well as the bones of old mules and horses. The surrounding forests had been leveled to serve the needs of warring armies throughout the conflict. As Taliaferro traversed those final twelve miles to what he hoped would be the comforts of his family’s estate he became disoriented by the numerous paths that obscured a well-known road. Eventually he lost his way and was forced to ask for directions. An elderly black man, who Taliaferro later learned was an ex-slave of the family, escorted the confused and tired young man to his home.
The confusion and uncertainty that Lawrence Taliaferro experienced on his journey home was repeated along countless roads and paths throughout Virginia. Unfortunately, much of the literature on the Army of Northern Virginia and the Civil War ends with the furling of flags and the stacking of arms on the surrender field at Appomattox. While the army ceased to function as the military arm of the Confederate government it did not cease to exist following the surrender ceremony on April 12; rather it slowly dissipated along the roads as small groups of men headed off to destinations around the South. Our tendency to end the Civil War narrative abruptly at Appomattox and our attraction to stories of reconciliation and reunion obscures or minimizes the connections between the war and the post-war challenges that all of these men would face in one form or another.
The vast majority of the men in the Army of Northern Virginia chose to return home to rebuild their lives and communities. The time it took to walk home depended on the number of miles to be traversed as well as any unanticipated obstacles experienced along the way. The most serious challenge was the logistical nightmare of having to secure supplies from civilians who, in many cases, were overwhelmed by the demand. For William B. Grove the journey home took less than two weeks. While his diary entry of April 7 indicates that he was “determined with the help of God to resist to — the last” by April 28 he was working his plow and considering the planting of watermelon seeds for his next crop.
A few lucky souls took advantage of functioning railroads and steamships. Four years of war severely taxed Virginia’s transportation infrastructure, but many of the lines remained intact even if their tracks had been worn down for military purposes. Lee’s Chief of Artillery, General Edward P. Alexander, took advantage of a railroad linking City Point, Petersburg, and Burkeville on what was to be the first stage of a long journey to Brazil, where he intended to join the military in its war against Paraguay. Private Edgar Warfield, who served in the 17th Virginia Infantry, reached Richmond by April 15 and attempted to secure transportation home to Alexandria in northern Virginia. Although the provost marshal was unable to help, Warfield managed to purchase a ticket on the steamship Kelso for the final leg of his journey.
Crowded country roads, limited supplies, and thousands of men desperate to return to families as quickly as possible all contributed to a breakdown in discipline and increased tension and violence. A chaplain who observed, “more stealing in camp than I ever knew,” acknowledged the breakdown in discipline almost immediately following the surrender at Appomattox.
More severe lapses in authority could be found in places such as Lynchburg and Danville in the immediate aftermath of Appomattox. Lynchburg’s close proximity to Appomattox made it an obvious destination for renegade Confederates and newly paroled soldiers seeking transportation and supplies for their journeys home. The large influx of soldiers taxed the town’s infrastructure and economy, which had been in decline throughout the war. Fearful of riots and plundering local business owners shut their doors and city services were suspended.
News of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on April 14 presented ex-Confederates with the likelihood of more severe retribution from the federal government as well as immediate repercussions amongst a saddened and even vengeful Federal army. Edgar Warfield learned of Lincoln’s assassination while waiting for a steamship in Richmond for the final leg of his journey to Alexandria. He stood amongst a large crowd of white and black (“but mostly black”) Union soldiers: “A feeling of uneasiness crept over us as we momentarily expected something unpleasant to happen.” Edward P. Alexander noted that, “The passion & excitement of the crowds were so great that anyone on the street recognised merely as a Confederate, would have been instantly mobbed & lynched.”
News filtered throughout Virginia slowly and was filled with rumor. Not until April 20 did Samuel Howard learn Lincoln had “been shot & killed his son wounded, and Seward desperately wonded [sic].” While William Grove’s diary entry includes a note indicating Lincoln had been shot and “Seward mortally wounded” as late as April 25 he was also contemplating more recent news that both Ulysses S. Grant and Horace Greeley had been assassinated. It is almost impossible to find an accurate account of events in Washington among returning soldiers. This is not surprising given the state of communications in the immediate post-Appomattox period. Lincoln’s assassination was an ongoing event for these men, the scale of which could not be properly understood.
Virginia’s veterans were confronted with more ominous signs of the Confederacy’s demise. There was no clearer evidence of this than the abrupt end of slavery, and by 1865 both slave and non-slaveowners understood its significance on a daily basis as they traversed the roads home.
Upon their return home, the veterans from slaveowning families experienced the loss on a personal level by having to make the shift from working on fields of battle to fields of corn and other crops – work that had been done previously by slaves and which in turn reinforced white notions of liberty. Young Carlton McCarthy’s experience on a farm outside of Richmond would have been sufficient to drive home the intimate connection between defeat and emancipation for any former veteran. Rather than head directly into Richmond, McCarthy and a companion chose to work on a plantation in exchange for lodging and cash. The experience left an indelible imprint on McCarthy’s memory. Writing in 1882, he recalled: “The negro men and women in the neighborhood, now in the full enjoyment of newly-conferred liberty, and consequently having no thought of doing any work, congregated about the garden, leaned on the fence, gazed sleepily at the toiling soldiers, chuckled now and then, and occasionally explained their presence by remarking to each other, ‘Come here to see dem dar white folks wuckin.’” Similar scenes took place throughout Virginia and served to remind white southerners that their labor system had been subverted and that their perceptions of blacks as obedient and faithful servants were perhaps misplaced.
The historical record is filled with joyous accounts of reunions for countless numbers of returning soldiers. Further removed from our popular memory of the initial postwar period, however, are the accounts of soldiers who experienced a profound crisis of confidence and depression or were unable to cope with the demands of a post-emancipation world and who fervently believed that defeat was somehow to be explained by a vengeful God. Others missed the predictable rhythms of camp life and the excitement of battle. Many anticipated a dark future. Nineteen-year-old William Selwyn Ball rode home to his family’s estate in Fairfax County, Virginia only to find the home completely destroyed. He immediately noticed his brother and cousins, who had also served in Lee’s army “sprawled out on the lawn…dazed and unable to realize that actually all was lost.” Though his older brother was eventually able to begin a law practice, Ball was unable to regain his confidence and sense of purpose; with the loss of the war, “the world seemed to…come to an end” and left him with “no ambition.”
The experiences of these men along the roads and paths leading away from Appomattox served as the foundation from which they would have to proceed to rebuild their lives and collective identities as white southerners. More importantly, the experience of defeat in its various forms provided many with the impetus eventually to challenge occupation forces as well as the steps that the slave population had taken to secure their own freedom.