On April 9, 1865, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee met with U.S. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to discuss the terms of the surrender of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
That evening Lee dictated a farewell letter to his troops that has become one of the most famous letters in American history.
It began, “After four years of arduous service marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources.”
Thursday night, Dalton area residents got to see one of the few remaining copies of that letter, which was on display at the Dalton Freight Depot, along with a rare copy of another letter by Lee informing Confederate President Jefferson Davis that Gen. Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson had been wounded at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Jackson would die a few days later from those wounds.
“These items are historically significant not only because they bear Robert E. Lee’s signature but also because they are directly related to two of the most important events in the life of the Army of Northern Virginia,” said Jim Burran, chairman of the Dalton-Whitfield Civil War 150th Commission.
The letters are part of the permanent collection of the Chieftains Museum Major Ridge Home in Rome. Ridge was one of the Cherokee Nation’s most influential leaders before their land was taken from them by the state of Georgia.
Ruth Demeter, chairman of the museum’s board, said most of its collection is focused on the Cherokee but the letters were donated by Dean Jeffries, one of the descendants of Joseph Addison Jones who lived in the house during the 1860s.
“The family had a large historical collection. A lot of it was family history, but because of the role Mr. Jones played in the Civil War, a lot of it related to the war,” she said.
Jones served as a courier for the Confederate Army and was sent to deliver the letters.
“But another courier reached the recipients earlier than Jones, so Jones didn’t deliver either letter. He stuck the letters into his Bible, and that’s how the museum ended up with these historic documents,” she said.
During the Civil War, copies of important documents were often sent by multiple couriers to make sure they got through.
Demeter said she did not know exactly how many original copies of the letters still exist. But according to an Aug. 22, 2001, article in the Walker County Messenger, when the letters were discovered in the museum’s collection, only eight other original copies of Lee’s final letter to his troops existed and the museum’s copy of the letter to Jefferson Davis is the only one that exists.
Jeffries’ son Jon attended the display.
“My father actually lived in the Chieftains Museum when he was a child,” Jeffries said.
Jeffries said his father made copies of all the material he donated to the museum for his family.
The Chieftains Museum and the Community Foundation of Northwest Georgia sponsored the viewing.
“These letters make history come alive,” said Community Foundation President David Aft.
The foundation is helping restore the letters through a grant from the Bill and Linda Blackman Charitable Fund. Linda Blackman made the grant to honor her husband on his birthday because of his interest in Civil War history.
“I’m really pleased that she did that, and the Community Foundation deserves a lot of thanks. They make things like this happen,” Bill Blackman said.