April 10 marks the anniversary of General Robert E. Lee's "General Order No. 9", an address to his troops given the day after Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court house that effectively ended the Civil War.
The speech is brief, but it still contains some interesting vocabulary that conveys just how long and bitter the battle had been, and its tone communicates Lee's gratitude and hints at his uncertainty as to what comes next.
Learn more vocabulary from Lee's "General Order" here.
Right from the start, Lee lets his soldiers know that he is aware that this fight has been anything but easy:
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.
Arduous is an adjective from the 16th century, which comes from a Latin word meaning "high" or "steep" but took on the figurative meaning it has here, "difficult to accomplish" and "attended to with much labor."
To accomplish arduous tasks, it helps if one has fortitude. Fortitude is from Latin fortitudo, "strength, force, manliness." It is evident from the first sentence of this address that Lee had tremendous respect for his troops, and the conditions of his surrender reinforce this impression. Besides the fact that his men would serve no jail time on charges of treason, Lee also negotiated that the men could keep their weapons, horses and mules. Lee also persuaded Grant to give the opposition food, as many of them were verging on starvation. It is a testament to the humanity of both Lee and Grant that after such a bloody, almost animalistic, conflict, such a humane settlement could be agreed upon.
In the preceding passage Lee uses the phrase "has been compelled," which contains the present perfect tense. No one can be sure why Lee (or Colonel Charles Marshall, who actually prepared the order for Lee's editing and approval) chose exactly this wording, but notice how the present perfect serves to avoid mentioning the enemy outright. A phrase which mentions the North, such as "the North has compelled us to yield" would have worked just as well to communicate the facts, but the chosen verb tense perhaps displays a certain rhetorical finesse, in that it serves to soften to blow to his audience of defeated and exhausted soldiers.
Lee continues his address by providing a rationale for surrender at this point, characterizing any further battle as fruitless and simply filled with more pointless death:
I need not tell the survivors of so many hard fought battles, who have remained steadfast to the last, that I have consented to the result from no distrust of them.
But feeling that valour and devotion could accomplish nothing that could compensate for the loss that must have attended the continuance of the contest, I have determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen.
Lee praises his men in the highest possible military terms. Steadfast means "secure in position, steady, firm in its place." The -fast element is the same use as in the saying "hold fast" meaning "stay firm or solid" or, more simply, "hold on." Incidentally, this use of -fast predates the modern sense of "quick" by about three hundred years.
Related to both value and valiant, valour has to do with strength and courage, which is often the measure of one's value in a military setting. Here, the men who stuck by Lee's side and demonstrated their courage in battle are to be esteemed as having the highest valour.
Lee concludes the address in a very interesting way. In a time when what these men had fought for was lost, Lee chooses to emphasize that which endures, namely the attributes that made these men committed soldiers:
With an unceasing admiration of your constancy and devotion to your Country, and a grateful remembrance of your kind and generous consideration for myself, I bid you an affectionate farewell.
The combination of unceasing and constancy in the preceding sentence, two words about things staying the same forever, goes against everything these men know about their world at this moment, which is a world filled with uncertainty and doubt. On one level these words echo the previous characterizations of the soldiers as loyal and brave, but Lee's choice of words here also may accomplish something else. The idea that these soldiers had something they could depend on, namely General Lee's undying affection for them, might have been a comfort in a dark time.
General Lee's surrender in April of 1865 was a monumentally important event in American history. We should however, not just examine the military strategy and the events leading up to surrender, but also the words that were used to end the conflict. By carefully examining the nuanced language of the major figures in history, we get a sense of just how complex our history really is.
Adam Cooper studied linguistics at Brandeis University and The University of Chicago. Since 2010, he has been working with The Endangered Language Alliance in New York City on documentation and preservation projects.Click here to read other articles by Adam Cooper
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