The White Towel of Appomattox
Longstreet would recall in his memoirs, "From Manassas to Appomattox,"
As my troops marched to form the last line a message came from General Lee saying he had not thought to give notice of the intended ride to meet General Grant, and
asked to have me send his message to that effect to General Gordon, and it was duly sent by Captain Sims, of the Third Corps staff, serving at my head-quarters since the fall of A.P. Hill.
After delivering the message, Captain Sims through some informality, was sent to call the truce. The firing ceased. General Custer rode to Captain Sims to know his authority,
and, upon finding that he was of my staff, asked to be conducted to my head-quarters, and down they came in fast gallop, General Custer's flaxen locks flowing over his shoulders,
and in brusk, excited manner, he said, - 'In the name of General Sheridan I demand the unconditional surrender of this army.'
He was reminded that I was not the commander of the army, that he was within the lines of the enemy without authority, addressing a superior officer, and in disrespect to General Grant as well as
myself; that if I was the commander of the army I would not receive the message of General Sheridan.
He then became more moderate, saying it would be a pity to have more blood upon that field. Then I suggested that the truce be respected, and said, -
'As you are now more reasonable, I will say that General Lee has gone to meet General Grant, and it is for them to determine the future of the armies.' He was satisfied and rode back to his command."1
General Gordon recalls in a 1901 lecture,
"I called for my chief of staff and said: 'Take a flag of truce and bear this message to the Union commanders quick.'
He soon informed me we had no flag of truce. 'Oh, well,' I said, 'take your handkerchief and tie it on a stick, and go.' He said, 'General, I have no handkerchief.'
I ordered: 'Tear your shirt and put that on a stick and go.' He looked at his shirt, and then at mine, and said: 'I have on a flannel shirt; I see you have; there is not a white
shirt in the whole army.' I said, 'Get something, sir get-something, and go'; and he got a rag and rode to the front, and soon he returned, and with him one of the most superb
horsemen who ever sat upon a saddle, and as I looked into his flashing eyes, with his long curls falling to his shoulders, I found myself in the presence of that afterwards great Indian fighter,
that man who ought forever to hold a place in every American heart, the gallant Custer. With a wave of his sword, which embodied all the graces of the school, he said to me:
'General Gordon, I bring you the compliments of General Sheridan.' Very fine, wasn't it? He added, however, 'I also bring, sir, General Sheridan's demand for your immediate and unconditional surrender'
- which was not quite so fine. I replied You will please return, General, my compliments to General Sheridan, and say to him that I shall not surrender.'"2
Gordon relates a similar story in his 1913 book Reminiscences of the Civil War
The confusion that Whitaker was Custer occurred early on, an account by an "officer of Gordon's corps," that was published in several newspapers in 1865 reported,
"Subsequently an officer, said to be General Custar (sic), of the Yankee cavalry, entered our lines with a flag of truce.
Whether his appearance was in response to a request from Gen. Lee, or he was the bearer of a formal demand for the surrender initiated by General Grant, we are not informed."3
Whitaker in a 1901 letter to Chamberlain states,
Do not be disturbed by any of the statements of General Gordon early or late.
He dare not confront me with a denial of any of my statements.
I furnished him with a copy of my first public statement on this matter,
and have twice invited him to compare notes and correct errors in his
lecture, and he has never attempted to dispute me. General Longstreet admits
his error in putting General Custer in my boots, and I suppose we must
excuse both him and General Gordon for bad memory "on the details" as the
latter puts it in a letter to me "on account of momentious excitement and
responsibility" of the occasion.4
For a comparison of Chamberlain's accounts of the flag of truce see, Appomattox
For a letter by Whitaker to the Hartfort Courant see: Meriden Daily Republican. May 18, 1897