#ThrowbackThursday: The night they drove Old Dixie down


There are two things I love in this world: the Civil War and good ‘60s rock.

One of my favorite songs from the 1960s is “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” by The Band. On this day, April 9, 2015, that song could not be any more appropriate.

Today marks the last 150th military anniversary of the Civil War. The days leading up to April 9, 1865, seemed filled with despair for the army and nation of the Confederacy.

On April 1, 1865 General Robert E. Lee and his forces were defeated at Five Forks and Union Generals Ulysses S. Grant and George Meade hoped to deliver a final blow to the rebels.

The Confederate forces dug into Petersburg and awaited the Union assault. On April 2, 1865 their fears were realized.

Grant ordered a frontal assault upon the Confederate front line.

Even with the Johnny Rebs under General A. P. Hill, their numbers were no match for the Union XI Corps under General Horatio Wright. When Captain Charles Gould of the 5th Vermont broke the Confederate line, all hell broke loose.

During the confusion, C.S.A. General A. P. Hill was shot and killed. Lee’s army was taking a beating and could not afford any more casualties if he hoped to fight another day.

That night of April 2, 1865, Lee ordered the evacuation of Petersburg and Richmond. C.S.A president Jefferson Davis and the rest of the Confederate capital quickly evacuated the city of Richmond.

After almost a year of siege warfare, the Confederate capital had fallen. Lee was beginning his march to the end.

The next day, troops under the command of General Edward H. Ripley [Union Class of 1862], became the first Union soldiers to formally enter the city.

At 8:30 a.m., Ripley received word to enter the city, something almost every general in the Union Army had been trying to do for the entire war.

Along with claiming the title to be the first general to march into Richmond, Ripley was given military control of the city until order could be restored.

In the city of broken bricks and burned building, a rather important friend joined Ripley.

On April 4, 1865 Abraham Lincoln along with his son Tad toured the city until April 7, 1865. While there, Lincoln visited the former house of Jefferson Davis and happily enjoyed the Confederacy president’s chair.

While Lincoln took in the fallen city, Ripley received word that an assassination attempt may unfold.

With a lack of protection, Ripley pleaded with the president to use more caution; to which Lincoln replied that he wanted to ease hostiles and that no extra amount of protection could save him from an assailant.

While General Ripley was busy bringing order to Richmond another Union alum was busy helping the war come to an end.

After several days of small skirmishes and failed escapes from the city of Appomattox, VA it became clear to Lee the war was over.

Lee expressed to Grant; “To be frank, I do not think the emergency has arisen to call for the surrender of this army, but, as the restoration of peace should be the sole object of all, I desired to know whether your proposals would lead to that end.”

The communication between Lee and Grant lasted for two days and many of the letters were carried by Major Charles E. Pease, a Union alum of the Class of 1856.

On April 9, 1865 Major C. E. Pease delivered possibly one of the most important letters of the American Civil War to General U. S. Grant.

While hastily riding on his new black steed, Pease delivered this letter, “HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA, April 9, 1865, Lieut. Gen. U. S. GRANT: I have received your letter of this date containing the terms of surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia as proposed by you. As they are substantially the same as those expressed in your letter of the 8th instant, they are accepted. I will proceed to designate the proper officers to carry the stipulations into effect.R. E. LEE, General.”

The two titans of the War agreed to meet in the Wilmer McLean house at Appomattox Courthouse.

Shortly after 1:00 p.m., Lee arrived at the house and was met by Grant a half hour later. Grant informed Pease to wait on the porch.

Upon signing the terms of surrender two and half hours later, Grant informed Pease to escort Lee back to his headquarters to inform his 30,000 men of the news of the surrender.

The chaos of the war was not quite done.

Six days later, Union alum Henry Rathbone and his wife Clara Harris, whose father was a member of the Class of 1824, joined the Lincoln family to see “Our American Cousin” being performed at Ford’s Theater.

Following the death of the president on April 15, 1865 at 7:22 a.m., Phineas Gurley, one of the brightest students from the Union Class of 1837, was given the duty to inform Mary Todd and Tad Lincoln of the death of their beloved husband and father.

Four days after Lincoln’s death, Gurley delivered his funeral sermon for the fallen president and proclaimed, “I felt as though I had been engaged all night in a terrible battle and had just strength enough to drag myself off the field.”


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