This month marks the 150 anniversary of the end of the American Civil War. After Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9th, 1865, Ulysses S. Grant charged Joshua Chamberlain, the former Bowdoin College professor and hero of Gettysburg, with the duty of conducting the formal arrangements of the surrender ceremony. Chamberlain thought long and hard about the formalities. He knew that three brigades would line the sides of a long road and that the Army of Northern Virginia would pass until they came to an open field to stack their arms and relinquish their battle flags. Chamberlain guessed that more than 25,000 men would pass and that the ceremony would take the better part of the entire day. Once it was over, the rebels would have their parole papers guaranteeing them safe passage home in exchange for their pledge to bind themselves in peace to the Union. Chamberlain badly wanted to do justice to the solemn occasion.
At six o’clock on the morning of April 12th, 1865, the line of gray started in silence past the Federal troops with General John Gordon leading the march astride a white horse. He had taken a disfiguring wound below the left eye at Sharpsburg and he must have cut a forlorn figure at the head of the procession. His men marched behind him, defiant even in their famished weariness and defeat. Keeping their eyes to the front, they refused to return the stares of Federal soldiers who craned their necks to catch a glimpse of the men that had tried so hard for so long to kill them.
As Gordon came even with him, Chamberlain gave the order for a call to carry arms, the marching salute. Catching the sound of shifting arms in the ranks of blue, Gordon recognized the gesture as a show of respect from one army to another. In reply, Gordon put a spur to his horse, wheeling him about toward Chamberlain, rearing slightly as he did so. In one graceful motion, Gordon drew his sword and brought it to the tip of his boot as man and horse bowed their heads to acknowledge the tribute. As Gordon moved off to the side, he sent word along the line of gray to answer honor with honor.
Think for a moment about the terms of this poignant scene. These were men who had lost a great deal, both the “winners” and the “losers.” They had suffered horribly at each others hands in a war where the technology of killing vastly outstripped the antiquated military tactics. War had a new face, and these men had seen it. In that moment, Joshua Chamberlain rose to Lincoln’s call to find the “better angels of our nature” by honoring the shared losses and sufferings of that terrible struggle. Gestures can be little things, but I suspect that on that day and at that moment, Joshua Chamberlain’s gesture meant a great deal to a great many.