I stood at this site and relived a powerful moment in the healing of a nation. General Robert E. Lee chose to surrender to the Union Army at Appomattox Courthouse in April 1865. At this site, on the road outside Appomattox, the following occurred. The text is from the historical marker there:
On April 12, 1865, Union Brig. Gen. Joshua Chamberlain watched the distant ridge as the Confederates prepared for the surrender. They formed into column, marched into the valley, then up the Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road toward the village. As the column approached this knoll, Chamberlain ordered his men to honor them. The Federals snapped to “carry arms” – the “marching salute.”
A surprised Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon instantly ordered his men to return the salute. Until now, the drama at Appomattox had been played out by major figures. But here was a profound expression of respect by the armies’ common soldiers. They, more than anyone else, would blaze the path to reconciliation in the years that followed.
Not only was this a moving way to begin reconciliation, but the characters involved were remarkable.
General Grant gave very generous terms of surrender, and would not allow the Union soldiers to cheer their victory. General Lee's efforts at reconciliation are recorded so well in Charles Bracelen Flood's book, Lee: The Last Years.
But the two players on the stage road deserve special mention:
Joshua Chamberlain, an exemplary Christian and college professor (fluent in nine languages in addition to English: Greek, Latin, Spanish, German, French, Italian, Arabic, Hebrew, and Syriac), had distinguished himself in defending Little Round Top at Gettysburg. After the war he served as Governor of Maine, and later as president of Bowdoin College. In his early years as a student at Bowdoin he came under the influence of a spiritual awakening among the students there. (See Chamberlains' early letters on the Bowdoin College site.)
John Brown Gordon likewise was an outstanding soldier and Christian. He had been present, and wrote about, the revival among the troops in the winter of 1863/64 on the Rapidan River (at the base of Clark's Mountain in Orange County, while the Federal troops were camped in Culpeper County). Read about this in chapter 16 of his Reminiscences of the Civil War. After the war he, too, had a political career, serving as a senator from Georgia.
Lee, Grant, Chamberlain, and Gordon all exemplified the beauty of reconciliation, or in Chamberlain's terms, "honor answering honor".
Below, Chamberlain (left) and Gordon.
Postscript. Here is how Chamberlain retold the event in later years:
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 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!
— Joshua L. Chamberlain, Passing of the Armies, pp. 260-61