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The Passing of the Armies by Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

The Passing of the Armies by Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain
August 6, 2009 Jennifer Boylan

Yesterday, at a party for Maine Writers and Publishers, former Maine governor Angus King read the following memoir extract of Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who started out the Civil War as a college professor and ended it as a general.  It was Chamberlain whom Grant selected to receive the surrender of the Confederate army after Appomattox, and in this short piece, Chamberlain gave his account of the southern divisions surrendering their arms. Chamberlain ordered his troops to give the Confederates a full military salute as they did so, knowing full well that he would be deeply criticized for this later.  But–according to the governor–this moment helped begin the healing of the wars’ wounds.  I heard this read by Gov. King yesterday on the porch of the house he shares with his wife, Mary Hermon, and as he read, the seagulls cried overhead and the ocean roared:

from “The Passing of the Armies” by Joshua Lawrence Chamberlian

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 carefully as precious things, then slowly forming ranks as for unwelcome duty. 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 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. 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 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. 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 soldiers 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!

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. And only the Flag of the Union greets the sky!

What visions thronged as we looked into each others eyes! Here pass the men of Antietam, the Bloody Lane, the Sunken Road, the Cornfield, the Burnside-Bridge; the men whom Stonewall Jackson on the second night at Fredericksburg begged Lee to let him take and crush the two corps of the Army of the Potomac huddled in the streets in darkness and confusion; the men who swept away the Eleventh Corps at Chancellorsville; who left six thousand of their companions around the bases of Culps and Cemetery Hills at Gettysburg; these survivors of the terrible Wilderness, the Bloody-Angle at Spottsylvania, the slaughter pen of Cold Harbor, the whirlpool of Bethesda Church!

Here comes Cobbs Georgia Legion, which held the stone wall on Maryes Heights at Fredericksburg, close before which we piled our dead for breastworks so that the living might stay and live.

Here too come Gordons Georgians and Hokes North Carolinians, who stood before the terrific mine explosion at Petersburg, and advancing retook the smoking crater and the dismal heaps of dead–ours more than theirs–huddled in the ghastly chasm.

Here are the men of McGowan, Hunton, and Scales, who broke the Fifth Corps lines on the White Oak Road, and were so desperately driven back on that forlorn night of March 31st by my thrice-decimated brigade.

Now comes Andersons Fourth Corps, only Bushrod Johnsons Division left, and this the remnant of those we fought so fiercely on the Quaker Road two weeks ago, with Wises Legion, too fierce for its own good.

Here passes the proud remnant of Ransoms North Carolinians which we swept through Five Forks ten days ago,– and all the little that was left of this division in the sharp passages at Sailors Creek five days thereafter.

Now makes its last front A. P. Hills old Corps, Heth now at the head, since Hill had gone too far forward ever to return: the men who poured destruction into our division at Shepardstown Ford, Antietam, in 1862, when Hill reported the Potomac running blue with our bodies; the men who opened the desperate first days fight at Gettysburg, where withstanding them so stubbornly our Robinsons Brigades lost 1185 men, and the Iron Brigade alone 1153,–these men of Heths Division here too losing 2850 men, companions of these now looking into our faces so differently.

What is this but the remnant of Mahones Division, last seen by us at the North Anna? its thinned ranks of worn, bright-eyed men recalling scenes of costly valor and ever-remembered history.

Now the sad great pageant–Longstreet and his men! What shall we give them for greeting that has not already been spoken in volleys of thunder and written in lines of fire on all the riverbanks of Virginia? Shall we go back to Gaines Mill and Malvern Hill? Or to the Antietam of Maryland, or Gettysburg of Pennsylvania?–deepest graven of all. For here is what remains of Kershaws Division, which left 40 per cent. of its men at Antietam, and at Gettysburg with Barksdales and Semmes Brigades tore through the Peach Orchard, rolling up the right of our gallant Third Corps, sweeping over the proud batteries of Massachusetts–Bigelow and Philips,–where under the smoke we saw the earth brown and blue with prostrate bodies of horses and men, and the tongues of overturned cannon and caissons pointing grim and stark in the air.
Then in the Wilderness, at Spottsylvania and thereafter, Kershaws Division again, in deeds of awful glory, held their name and fame, until fate met them at Sailors Creek, where Kershaw himself, and Ewell, and so many more, gave up their arms and hopes,–all, indeed, but manhoods honor.

With what strange emotion I look into these faces before which in the mad assault on Rives Salient, June 18, 1864, I was left for dead under their eyes! It is by miracles we have lived to see this day,–any of us standing here.

Now comes the sinewy remnant of fierce Hoods Division, which at Gettysburg we saw pouring through the Devils Den, and the Plum Run gorge; turning again by the left our stubborn Third Corps, then swarming up the rocky bastions of Round Top, to be met there by equal valor, which changed Lees whole plan of battle and perhaps the story of Gettysburg.

Ah, is this Picketts Division?–this little group left of those who on the lurid last day of Gettysburg breasted level cross-fire and thunderbolts of storm, to be strewn back drifting wrecks, where after that awful, futile, pitiful charge we buried them in graves a furlong wide, with names unknown!

Met again in the terrible cyclone-sweep over the breast-works at Five Forks; met now, so thin, so pale, purged of the mortal,–as if knowing pain or joy no more. How could we help falling on our knees, all of us together, and praying God to pity and forgive us all!

Thus, all day long, division after division comes and goes, surrendered arms being removed by our wagons in the intervals, the cartridge-boxes emptied in the street when the ammunition was found unserviceable, our men meanwhile resting in place.


  1. russell golkow, md 12 years ago

    Thank you for this posting – I have always wished to read General Chamberlain’s account of this occasion. I would recommend this passage to those among my fellow Americans who are prone to excessive and showy displays of love of country. That so great a warrior and commander was so enlightened, wise and gentle, should remind us of the difference between dignity and vanity. This is the America I love.


    Dr. Russell Golkow, New York

  2. Ronald Scribner 12 years ago

    One of the most sublime moments in our history.

  3. Don Lawrence 9 years ago

    Much appreciated, this precept of General Chamberlain’s memoirs! Although I am a Canadian I have always been interested in the Civil War, and I even have a framed print of General
    Chamberlain on the wall of my den in a place of honor, to this great American! I have ordered
    a copy of his book and look forward to reading same, and adding it to my small library of
    books and publications on the Civil War


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