After four years of service, on April 9, 1865, the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered to the U.S. Army at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Within days its men had all turned in their arms, been paroled, and headed off on sometimes very long treks home. Although its surrender did not mark the ending of all fighting in the Civil War at that point, most Southerners knew and accepted that their bid to establish an independent nation was over. The army came together as volunteer units in 1861 to defend this new would-be Confederate States of America, and fought a hard-pressed war for that purpose. Yet within days of surrendering no physical trace of the army remained.
The legacy of that army did not die. Famed twentieth-century novelist William Faulkner, son of a regimental commander in the Army of Northern Virginia, suggested that for every Southerner of his generation time would always be stopped at that point just before Lee gambled by sending two divisions straight into Union lines at Gettysburg. Today, thousands of costumed men armed with copies of period weapons throughout the world reenact units and battles of that army. So, too, were the actions fought by the Army of Northern Virginia studied by future military historians and theorists for years thereafter. Lee's army was remarkable in its ability to confuse and defeat superior forces in the field time after time. West Point instructors point to Chancellorsville, where Lee not only had considerably fewer men available to him than did his enemy commander, but he even split that smaller number to obtain a stunning victory, as one of history's most perfect battles.
The Army of Northern Virginia, created out of volunteer civilians with a smattering of trained, professional soldiers in command positions, was by its nature an army of individuals. Therefore this account not only discusses the campaigns and battles of the army, it also stresses the individuals from the wellknown generals such as Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson, “Jeb” Stuart, and the rest, down to the rifleman in the ranks who did not hesitate to offer his opinion on everything the army and his superiors did. There were many controversies within the army's ranks. Who lost the Battle of Gettysburg? Should Lee have struck after the Union army's failed assault at Fredericksburg? Why did Jackson, who had done so well in the Valley of Virginia, behave so sluggishly on the Peninsula? While answers were no clearer then than now, proud Southerners held their positions on them strongly. The top level of command was riddled with feuding generals. A.P. Hill and James Longstreet fell out over press reports after the Peninsula Campaign. Hill also feuded with Jackson, who actually placed him under arrest. Notwithstanding all this, added to generally poor, amateurish staff work for much of the war, the Army of Northern Virginia fought long and well until finally totally overwhelmed and forced to surrender. The army's legacy, however, lives on to this very day.
Devon, Pennsylvania, February 2003