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Walter J. Lord, a native of Irving, Texas, who will soon be celebrating his 82nd birthday, recently submitted to the AMERICAN EXPERIENCE "Share Your Story" feature. In response to the question "Who is the Greatest Civil War General?" he attached a scanned image of a yellowed piece of paper with Appomattox Court House, Va printed across the top and an official looking seal on the left. "What can you tell me about this pass?" Lord wrote. "Is it real?"
I decided to investigate and contacted Mr. Lord. "My great-grandfather, Phillip Lord, was in the 18th Georgia Volunteers, C Company, during the Civil War," Lord told me in an email. Phillip Lord and his fellow soldiers fought with Lee until he surrendered on April 9, 1865. After the war ended it took him six months to return home, and he died two months later. "[The family] had already lost [Phillip's] father, Major Lord, and [my] Uncle John at Fredericksburg," Lord told me over the phone.
Walter Lord found the Parole Pass in the family records when he moved to Texas in 1995. After Philip Lord died, Walter Lord's cousin, Col. Robert Park inherited the document. Col. Park decided to pass the parole pass onto Walter Lord's brother, Philip in the 1950s. Or so the family story goes. Lord told me in another email, "I find my family [history] after the Civil War [to be] a comedy of truths, half truths and per chance many lies." In fact, Mr. Lord wondered if this parole pass was real at all. "I had heard that fake documents of this sort had possibly been handed out to Confederate soldiers after the war," said Lord.
I found information on parole passes through the National Historic Park museum at the Appomattox Courthouse. During the fateful meeting between Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant on the morning of April 9, 1865, the men agreed that Confederate officers would be paroled on the condition that they relinquish their arms. According to an article written by General Horace Porter at the time on the surrender, Grant, in a merciful gesture, allowed the Confederate men to keep their horses as well, which they owned themselves and would need later for farming. During the surrender talks, Grant arranged for 25,000 rations to be sent to the hungry Confederate soldiers, who were with Lee.
On the second day of the meeting, April 10, Lee requested parole passes for his men that would serve as evidence that the men had laid down their arms at the Appomattox Courthouse and had a right to return home. They were prisoners of war of the North, but Grant never planned on holding the men. According to Lee's Last Retreat: The Flight to Appomattox by William Marvel, Union General John Gibbon was put in charge of producing the passes. He and a number of experienced printers in the ranks of the Union soldiers printed passes throughout the night on the Union's portable printing press. A total of 28,231 Confederate soldiers were given parole passes between April 10 and 12.
Believing that Mr. Lord's document could very well be authentic, I contacted Joe Williams, the Curator of the Appomattox Court House National Historic Park. "Though people may have tried to create forgeries of such documents in the last 50 years or so," Williams told me, "forgeries were probably not created at the time." Williams checked the Parole Pass list at the Appomattox Court House, which verified that a soldier of the name Phillip Lord, Walter Lord's great-grandfather, was present at the surrender. These names, in fact, are also available to the public in the book The Appomattox Paroles April 9-15, 1865 by William G. and Ron Wilson.
After forwarding the scanned copy of Walter's parole, Williams confirmed that the pass appeared to be legitimate. He noted the blue lines (like a notebook) across the document that matched with other verified documents, and the fact that Lord was recorded in the database as having been present. When Williams offered the pass a home at the National Park Service's museum at the Appomattox Court House, Lord accepted, telling me in an email.
The experience of Walter Lord was exciting for me to investigate and left me wondering whether I may one day come across a historic relic in my family attic. Have you come across any family artifacts that connect you to historical events that have shaped America? Has that made you appreciate history in a new way?
Eliana Dockterman is a Humanities Major at Yale University and was a summer 2011 intern at AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.