In every era and in every generation there are crucial moments when a decisive decision has to be made and the consequences of that decision can changed the course of history. Many times the full impact of such a decision does not become clear at once, but in the long run things will never be quite the same. In Days of Destiny I will attempt to write a dramatization of events leading up to such a decision. The following stories are fictional, but based on historical facts.
9 April 1865
It was close to midnight when the conference came to an end. General’s Fitzhugh Lee, John Brown Gordon and their staff officers mounted and rode into the soft April night. General James Longstreet settled in by the campfire with his head on his saddle and covered with the saddle blanket. He wanted to catch a little sleep before the action began before dawn.
Longstreet had started to drift off when one of Gordon’s staff officers rode up and asked to see the commanding General. Lt. Colonel William Taylor met with the officer and escorted him into the Commander’s tent. Taylor parted the tent flaps and looked in at a trim, gray haired man in uniform sitting at a field desk, pen in hand. Taylor said,
“General, Major Bevins has come from General Gordon and needs to speak with you.”
“Thank you William, show him in.”
The officer stood at attention and said,
“General, General Gordon wishes to know where you would have him halt his advance this morning.”
The general looked up from his paper, removed his wire rimmed glasses and rubbed his eyes. He looked at the officer and replied,
“Major, you may tell General Gordon that he must halt for the night after crossing the Tennessee State line.”
The young Major appeared stunned by the answer and finally managed to sputter,
“But, General, that’s over 175 miles from here.”
The older man smiled and replied,
“Yes, I believe that is so.” and returned to his writing.
Taylor closed the tent flap and led the Major to his waiting horse. He smiled at the officer and said,
“Major, you may tell General Gordon to advance as far as he can.”
An hour or so later, General Longstreet and his staff rode off to block the expected reaction to Gordon’s attack and the commanding general blew out his lamp and lay on his field cot. After an hour or so he arose from the cot and began to prepare for the field. He put on his very best uniform, complete with a red silk sash and stood near the dying embers of the fire. He was standing in deep thought when his artillery commander stepped into the firelight and said,
“Good morning, General, you are certainly well dressed for breakfast.”
The General smiled and replied,
“Before this day is done I shall probably be General Grant’s prisoner and thought I must make my best appearance.”
General William Pendleton, who had been an Episcopal priest before the war replied,
“May God be with you,” and quietly walked away.
It was nearly 3:00am when the sound of artillery fire announced the beginning of Gordon’s attack. The General summoned Lt. Col Taylor and quietly said,
“Summons the staff, we are moving up to observe Gordon’s advance.”
“Yes Sir, Taylor replied and soon the small group of mounted officers rode toward the sound of the guns. They didn’t have far to ride, the entire Army of Northern Virginia was strung out along a single road and was less than four miles from rear guard to Gordon’s small Corp.
When the entourage reached the ridge just behind Gordon’s attack the sky in the east began to shed the night. The valley before them was still filled with early morning fog and the smoke of the supporting artillery. The general waited until almost 8:00 and finally summoned Lt. Col Charles Venable and said,
“Colonel, ride forward, assess General Gordon’s situation and report back as soon as you can.”
Venable rode down into the valley and followed the path of Gordon’s attack through the Village of Appomattox Courthouse and over a breastwork that Gordon’s infantry had taken. Venable rode less than a half mile and found Gordon and his division fighting large bodies of Federal infantry on three fronts and could see a large force of Union cavalry moving to cut their line of retreat. He rode next to Gordon and asked,
“General, do you have news for the General?”
“You may tell him that I have fought my Corp to a frazzle and I fear we can do no more unless heavily reinforced.”
When Venable returned to the ridge and made his report General Robert E. Lee sat silently on Traveler, then turned to his staff and said,
“There is nothing left for me to do but go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths.