By Joe Boyles
Monday was my birthday, or should I say, the 64th anniversary of my birth. It might also be called surrender day for two important events in our nation’s history.
On April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia essentially ending the Civil War. Prior to that, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, the principle army of the Confederacy was bottled-up by Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac at Petersburg. Badly outnumbered and starving, Lee broke out to the west in an attempt to dash to the mountains and then into North Carolina to join Joe Johnston’s army. Over the period of about a week, Grant sent his cavalry units in pursuit to cut off the remnants of Lee’s once mighty force.
Lee’s army was finally blocked from crossing the Appomattox River, cutting off their escape. General Lee, the great tactician, had finally run out of options. He no longer had the means to resist. It was time to end this deadly game that had cost the lives of more than two-thirds of a million Americans. He agreed to meet the union commander at the McLean House near Appomattox.
Lee arrived resplendent in his best ceremonial uniform with one aide. Wilmer McLean had cleared his family from their home which now was overrun by Yankee soldiers. After a lengthy wait, the commanding general of the Union Army arrived in a muddy, slovenly uniform. Grant apologized for his appearance and recalled an earlier meeting with Lee years before during the Mexican War. Lee was much senior and didn’t recall meeting the younger Grant.
After a few formalities, they got down to the business at hand – ending the great Civil War. Grant was extremely lenient with his terms of surrender and ensured that the starving Confederates were provided rations to ease their hunger. When the southern units surrendered their arms and lowered their flags, the conquering Union Army saluted them with “present arms.”
This drama is all well-told at the beginning of Bill O’Reilly’s best seller “Killing Lincoln.” If you haven’t read O’Reilly’s book, I recommend it. It is a good “who dunnit” told in active voice.
Seventy-seven years later on April 9, 1942, the largest surrender of the American Army to a foreign power took place in the Bataan Peninsula of The Philippines when Major General Edward King surrendered his troops to the conquering Japanese. Nearly ten thousand Americans and many more Philippines laid their weapons down and were taken prisoner. The remaining Americans under General Jonathon Wainwright surrendered at Corregidor a month later.
Surrender is a particularly bitter pill for any fighting man to swallow, but the surrender in The Philippines was particularly hard. The prisoners of war were treated to a long and torturous death march where many perished. Those responsible for the death march were held to account at the war’s end. This surrender didn’t mark the end of a war like Appomattox had; instead, this was the beginning of the war and much suffering lay ahead.
In some respects, the surrender at Bataan shouldn’t have happened, at least, like it did. The peninsula was defendable had food, ammunition and other war supplies been stockpiled there like the plan called for, but the commanders like MacArthur botched the job and the troops were left inadequately supplied. The fact that they hung on for four months and delayed the Japanese was testament to their fighting spirit. The courage of the defenders of Bataan rallied a new nation at war.
Like all boys when I was growing up, I was proud of my birthday, even if I didn’t understand its significance in American history. Of course, a couple of my birthdays have fallen on Easter Sunday which makes me feel doubly blessed.