We “hung upon Lee’s rear like a BloodHound after his Victim,” wrote a New York infantryman about those fateful days in the spring of 1865. It was no exaggeration, for during the numbing Confederate retreat, Grant’s troops had shown no mercy and no letup in their relentless pursuit of Lee’s beleaguered forces. And so, just six days after the fall of Richmond, the Army of Northern Virginia was brought to bay near Appomattox Court House, a small village less than 100 miles west of Petersburg. As one Rebel remembered, “[We] were in the same fix…all pugnacious qualities knocked sky high.” The end came quickly for the Southern commander and the troops he had diligently led since the early summer of 1862. By the late afternoon of Sunday, April 9, the formal surrender was completed, and only the implementation of the agreement remained. Between those two points in time, a once formidable army disappeared into the pages of history and into the memories of those who served in it.
Today the most tangible symbols we have of that simple yet momentous closing, besides the Court House site itself, are the paroles given to Lee’s men to permit them to pass safely home. They are, as one author has suggested, the “melancholy certificates of graduation from the most brutal and heartbreaking of schools.” At a quick glance, these small scraps of paper do not appear to hold much interest or value. But they contain a deeper meaning, and their inherent importance may lie in the fact that these paroles signified a first step toward reconciliation between the North and South. This was the idea harbored by Ulysses S. Grant when he allowed such generous terms to his defeated foe, Robert E. Lee, saying: “The war is over. The Rebels are our countrymen again.”
By his own account, General Lee had 7,892 soldiers (though he would later revise this to a far more accurate count of 25,000) armed and prepared for duty on the morning of the capitulation, out of the approximately 60,000 who had defended the Richmond-Petersburg lines a week earlier. Eventually, as stragglers caught up and deserters “came out of their holes,” the final muster rolls of his army indicated 28,231 individuals were eligible for parole at Appomattox, with perhaps 7,000 to 10,000 more qualifying at nearby Farmville, Lynchburg and Burkeville. Concerning the missing or those “who took to the woods,” a corporal of the 23rd South Carolina made a generous assessment of these tardy comrades as his regiment swelled from 17 men on April 9 to over 100 the following day: “All without doubt did the best they could, so charity covers the doings of the weaker ones.”
To properly send off and care for the soldiers who had remained for the most part loyal and steadfast to the end, Lee agreed to a second conference with Grant on the morning of April 10. This informal meeting took place just northeast of the village and less than 24 hours after their initial deliberations in Wilmer McLean’s parlor. One of the topics of their discussion was later revealed by Maj. Gen. John Gibbon, head of the U.S. XXIV Corps. Calling Gibbon over to where the two commanders sat on horseback, Grant said, “General Lee is desirous that his officers and men should have on their persons some evidence that they are paroled prisoners, so that they will not be disturbed.” When Grant finished, Lee added that “he desired to do simply what was in his power to protect his men from anything disagreeable.” Gibbon replied, saying he thought that could be arranged, as he “had a small printing-press and could have blank forms struck off which could be filled in and one given to each officer and man of the [Confederate] army, signed by their officers and distributed as required.”
Lee agreed to this, but sometime following this meeting he contacted Gibbon with an objection to having Confederate officers sign the paroles, as he thought it might lead Federal authorities to ignore their content. Gibbon’s answer was that due to time constraints it was impracticable to do otherwise. When faced with a similar question two days afterward, Brig. Gen. Joshua Chamberlain explained that it had been done as “a matter of mercy and humanity, for if we should keep all their men there till every individual could sign his parole, half of them would be dead of starvation before their turn came.” Probably because of these concerns, Gibbon issued a general order from his headquarters on April 11, instructing all U.S. forces to respect Lee’s men as paroled prisoners, the evidence of that status being “the fact of his possessing a printed certificate…dated at Appomattox Court-House, Va., April 10, 1865.”
Later on that Monday, the 10th, as Gibbon and five other appointed officers (two from the Army of the Potomac, three from the Army of the James) met at McLean’s house to finalize the surrender agreement, Gibbon’s corps press “was at once set to work to print off the requisite number of blank paroles.” Finding that the few men employed as printers would soon be overwhelmed by the task of striking off nearly 30,000 forms, several additional men were detailed from the ranks to help. Relays had to be employed because Gibbon was told that the small field press was “to be run all night and probably all the next day.” Although the evidence is scanty, there is reason to presume that an additional press, or presses, was used to speed up the process.
Printing of the parole passes was conducted under the direct supervision of the army’s assistant provost marshal, Brig. Gen. George H. Sharpe, who established his headquarters in the village’s 46-year-old Clover Hill Tavern. There, the process, which began on the afternoon of the 10th, continued well into the next day and possibly longer. After each printed sheet of paper slid off the press and dried, it was cut into three or four individual certificates, each, noted an artilleryman, “about the size of a blank check.” The stacks of paroles were then bundled up for couriers who would hand-carry them to the waiting battalion and regimental commanders. As Private Percy Hawes recalled on the morning of April 11, “bright and early, there was a race between the cavalry, artillery, and infantry couriers to see which branch of the service should first get its parole and start home.” Subsequently, once the passes were delivered, each commanding officer would fill in (often with help) and then sign the slips.
While waiting for the certificates, all commanders were kept busy completing the final unit muster rolls, from which evidence the paroles would be issued. Chamberlain said this task was not undertaken for “red tape” reasons, “but for clear and explicit personal and public record.” In at least one case, specific instructions were sent with the passes. Those carried to Lt. Col. William Owen of the Washington Artillery included the directive: “Colonel: I send up a sufficient number of paroles for your command….You must sign for all except your own….One is to be given to each man. No duplicates are to be made. Send back any blanks you don’t need, as we are very short.”
The cavalry and artillery regiments—those still present, at least—were paroled first on April 11 (though it’s possible that some were paroled on April 10) due to the wretched condition of their animals. Most of the foot soldiers were not handed their certificates until late the next day because all infantry units were ordered to relinquish their weapons, accoutrements and colors at a formal surrender ceremony on April 12.
Once the formal surrender parade was over and the muster rolls were finished, many commanders began issuing the paroles to their men. Paroles were still being issued on the 13th and probably even the 14th. In some instances passes were retained and handed out miles from Appomattox, a decision exercised by officers determined to keep their men under discipline as long as possible. The certificates quickly took on great prestige with the soldiers of Lee’s army. Not only did the passes protect against arrest and harassment on the journey home, if needed they enabled destitute men to obtain rations and transportation from Federal authorities along the way. The small slips were also proof to citizens of the Southern states that the unarmed soldiers who bore them were not deserters. The importance of the parole passes cannot be overemphasized. For many ex-Confederates the trip home covered hundreds of miles of territory and many weeks of travel, and at every turn they might encounter Union patrols and be detained. But as one Southerner explained, the certificates “were respected by all pickets and guards as much as they would have been had they been signed by Gen. Grant himself.” A.S. Drewry of Purcell’s Virginia Battery agreed, saying, “We marched with them [the Northerners], rode on the same cars, and had all the privileges that our paroles called for….”
As time elapsed and the conflict faded slowly into memory, the paroles dispensed at Appomattox, Greensboro, N.C., and other large surrender sites became significant beyond being mere “prisoner passes.” In the early years following the war, the value of a parole certificate could have been defined in the manner a deserter from the Army of Northern Virginia outlined it to a New York correspondent he met in Richmond in 1865. Speaking confidentially to the reporter, the North Carolinian summarized his situation by saying, “they’ll be pretty hard on a man round here if they knew he didn’t go plum through to the surrender.”
While many ex-Confederates were forced to conceal or accept a less-than-perfect military record, the bravest combatants did not. The men who served the cause with fidelity and integrity could rely on the testimonials of their comrades and the folded certificates in their pockets to gain popular esteem. By this simple evidence, the staunch dedication with which they had supported their country’s struggle became apparent to all. The ideal of faithful service was important to Southerners at Appomattox Court House and continued to be significant for decades afterward. Captain James Smith of the 41st Virginia understood this concept early on. In a letter home on April 11, Smith expressed the “satisfaction of knowing that I stood by the wheel to the last. Thank God that none of our family deserted the cause in her last hour of need. What stings of conscience the men must have who have left us. Better we who have stood by our colors to the last are and will be more respected even by our enemies than the deserters.” On this subject, the words of Brig. Gen. James A. Walker were even more severe. On April 9 he called the deserters of his division “sulking cowards!” and warned his loyal soldiers to “beware of them….If you meet them in the social circle, avoid them, if on the walks of business, distrust them, and if at the altar of your God, turn from them. For the man who would forsake his country and her cause in the hour of greatest need would sell his God.”
The strong sentiments displayed by many Confederates about their paroles is illustrated in any number of references. Brigadier General John B. Gordon first noticed it at Appomattox, but saw it endure after the war ended: “They carefully preserved their paroles, and were as proud of them as a young graduate is of his diploma, because these strips of paper furnished official proof of the fact that they were in the fight to the last. This fact they transmit as a priceless legacy to their children.” A.W. Moise of the 24th Georgia kept his parole safe long after Appomattox, calling it “the most sacred relic of his war service.” Artilleryman Edward Moore described his certificate as a “valued little paper,” and in the same vein Private Edgar Warfield of the 17th Virginia “carefully preserved [his], valuing it as a priceless relic, as it furnishes official proof that I was present with the army to the last.” Grace Meredith, the wife of Lieutenant George Newbill of the 4th Alabama, was very precise in describing what the parole meant to her husband. In recalling the many and varied aspects of his life, she particularly remembered how he cherished the little slip of paper, saying simply, it was “more valued than all else.”
There were soldiers with good war records who, through no personal fault, were absent from the large formal surrenders at Appomattox and elsewhere. Many of these resolute soldiers regretted this lost opportunity. A case in point was that of John B. Polley, a wounded veteran of the 4th Texas Infantry. Having missed the final campaign with the Army of Northern Virginia, he later said that the men who possessed Appomattox paroles all held “patents incontestable that they fought for the right as they saw it, as long as there was a hope to encourage it.”
Of all Civil War paroles, the unambiguous wording on the Appomattox certificate made it especially exclusive. This concept emerged due to the generous terms offered to General Lee in the McLean house on April 9. In plain language General Grant pronounced that the Confederates would be accorded protection “not to be disturbed by the United States authorities so long as they observe their paroles, and the laws in force where they reside.” The “practical simplicity” of Grant’s phraseology and the charity of his language impressed not only the leadership but also the rank and file of Lee’s army, making it easier to accept defeat and the inevitable integration into the old Union. Those few, simple and unobjectionable words “gave an amnesty to every surrendered soldier for all political offences,” explained Brig. Gen. E. Porter Alexander.
The parole certificates or blanks were generally printed on common foolscap, a lined writing paper of the period that came in various colors and sizes. The majority of the passes now extant were printed on a cream-colored stock, but there have been examples encountered on light-blue stationary, and even on what appears to be low-quality Confederate Army paper perhaps captured during the retreat. Although the printed portion of the parole was always the same size, there were slight differences in the paper slips, the average being 8 by 31⁄4 inches. In the original certificates photographed for this article, there are some interesting variations. In the Marsh parole, on P. 38-39, the lined foolscap is plain to see, as is the printed parole text and the filled-in portions pertaining to Private Marsh and his company commander, Lieutenant Reuben DeJarnette. Featured on the left side is one of the three patterns of ornamentation that always decorated an Appomattox parole. An oval government docket and a written endorsement are visible, which bled through from the back of the slip. Similar stamps and handwritten notations are prevalent on both sides of paroles where the Confederate soldier reported to a U.S. provost marshal’s office or a quartermaster department facility seeking rations, transportation or to take the Oath of Allegiance. The Coleman parole on P. 40 is noticeably dissimilar. The design is obviously unlike the previous example, as are the added words “Paroled Prisoner’s Pass” and the comma after the abbreviation “Va.” Here, the commander of the regiment, rather than the company, validated the slip. Concerning the two samples, it was correct to have either officer approve the certificates. This was due to one of the terms specified by General Grant at the surrender that “each company or regimental commander [will] sign a like parole for the men of their commands.”
The newer ornamentation and the addition of Paroled Prisoner’s Pass to the document remain somewhat of a mystery. Logically, we may assume that in the beginning of the process one style of certificate was printed, and subsequently different and better designs were adopted, superseding the first. However, if this were the case, one would probably discover that most of the first patterns were issued to members of Lee’s artillery and cavalry units, since they received passes prior to the infantry. Yet when we inspect a cross section of Appomattox paroles, no evidence emerges to suggest such a hypothesis. What is apparent is that three different types of certificates are indiscriminately scattered throughout the multitude receiving paroles, including general and staff officers, as well as officers and enlisted men from line units in all three branches of service. This could have been what Captain John C. Haskell meant when he wrote a curious sentence in an April 10 letter included with the passes sent to Lt. Col. Owen: “There is a difference in the form, but they are all the same.” Hence, at least two conclusions can be reached. The first theory suggests that more than one printing press was churning out all three varieties at the same time. This contradicts Gibbon’s statement of a single press in operation at Clover Hill Tavern. A second supposition is that the total run of certificates, of the different designs, was finished on one machine. Then, at the completion of the project, the blanks were delivered to the couriers in unison, resulting in a blending of the forms when they were dispatched to the units.
Recalling Haskell’s quote, “Send back any blanks you don’t need, as we are very short,” a novel style of certificate is featured in the parole carried home by Private David Secrist, 42nd Virginia (P. 40). This unusual document is not a copy but the original manuscript penned at Appomattox in the handwriting of Lieutenant James L. Tompkins. It is a perfect exemplification of the problem faced by having to print nearly 30,000 slips and deliver them quickly to so many commands. These script versions of the Appomattox parole are periodically encountered today, indicating that when officers were faced with a shortage of printed forms, they improvised to help their men along.
Perhaps the most unique of all Appomattox certificates is that issued to Sergeant Benjamin H. Woodford of the 62nd Virginia Mounted Infantry (P. 40), a regiment not in the Army of Northern Virginia and therefore absent from the surrender at Appomattox Court House. It is a real curiosity. In outward appearance the pass is similar to the other varieties, but upon closer examination important distinctions in design, lettering and size are visible. Apparently whichever military office, post or district struck off this form took great care to copy the original in detail. To this date the origin of Sergeant Woodford’s certificate remains unclear, but many of Woodford’s comrades were paroled in locations administered by General W.S. Hancock’s Middle Military Division headquartered in Winchester, Va.
As hostilities waned across the South, every effort was pushed forward to parole the thousands of Confederates covered by the various mass surrenders taking place from Virginia to Texas. So by and large during this turbulent time the majority of Southern soldiers still in service received some sort of final parole certificate that generally complied with terms given to the Army of Northern Virginia.
What once may have seemed like a worthless scrap of paper was eventually transformed for many into a priceless relic. To family, friends and comrades, an end-of-the-war parole came to signify a veteran’s steadfast loyalty in a lost battle for independence. And the gold standard of that measure was, and still is, the Appomattox parole.
Gregory A. Coco is a park ranger at Gettysburg NMP and the author or editor of several Civil War books. He would like to thank Appomattox Court House historian Patrick A. Schroeder for his generous assistance in preparing this article.
Originally published in the April 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.