Robert E. Lee’s Surrender
Facts, information and articles about the surrender of Robert E. Lee
Robert E. Lee’s Surrender summary: General Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, is often called the end of the American Civil War. Actually, several other Confederate armies remained in the field, including the remnants of the Confederacy’s second-largest, the Army of Tennessee under the command of Gen. Joseph “Joe” Johnston, which was contending with the Union army led by Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman in North Carolina.
Lee’s surrender of the largest Southern army, however, signaled no hope remained for Confederate victory. Making the decision to meet with Grant and seek terms was painful for Lee, but the time had come when he realized further resistance on his part was futile and would only result in an unnecessary loss of lives.
He had, in fact, communicated with Grant in early March, seeking a an interview “as to the possibility of arriving at a satisfactory adjustment of the present unhappy difficulties by means of a military convention.” He offered to meet with Grant at a place and time of Grant’s choosing.
Grant forwarded the request to the War Department. President Abraham Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, and Secretary of State William Seward discussed the matter and ordered Grant, “to have no conference with General Lee unless it be for the capitulation of Gen. Lee’s army, or on some minor or purely military matter … Meanwhile you are to press to the utmost your military advantages.”
Grant did indeed press his military advantages, and when his troops broke through Confederate lines around Petersburg at the Battle of Five Forks on April 1, Lee marched westward with the Army of Northern Virginia. He hoped to resupply and then turn south to link up with Joe Johnston’s army in North Carolina. Failing that, he would continue west toward Lynchburg.
Federal cavalry under Maj. Gen. Phillip “Phil” Sheridan beat him to the supply trains and artillery reserve waiting for him at Appomattox Station. Sheridan had sent a message to Grant on April 7 informing him that Sheridan intended to seize the rations at Appomattox. Upon reading that message, Grant sent one to Gen. Lee asking him to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia.
Lieutenant General James Longstreet, Lee’s “Old War Horse,” was with Lee when Grant’s message arrived. “Not yet,” he counseled Lee. Without saying anything in return, Lee replied to Grant with a message that contained the words, “Before considering your proposition, (I must) ask the terms you will offer.”
Grant responded that he would insist on only one condition, that Lee’s men and officers not take up arms again against the United States government until properly exchanged. Since prisoner exchanges had already been discontinued for quite some time, this meant Lee’s Confederates could never return to the fight.
The exchange of messages continued, carried by couriers. Lee informed Grant that he not proposed surrendering, only meeting for a discussion that might “tend to a restoration of peace.”
The following morning, April 9, Palm Sunday, Lee ordered hard-hitting Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon to break through the line of Sheridan’s dismounted troopers entrenched between his dwindling army of 12,000 and the rations at Appomattox Station. Gordon broke through, only to discover nearly 30,000 Union infantry waiting beyond.
“There is nothing left for me to do but go and see General Grant,” Lee said, “and I would rather die a thousand deaths.” Once more, a courier set off between the lines.
Robert E. Lee dressed in a new gray uniform, a red sash around his waist, over which he buckled a sword with ornate scabbard and handle, and had his boots brightly polished. He reportedly told a member of his staff, “I have probably to be General Grant’s prisoner, and thought I must make my best appearance.”
Instead, Grant’s reply told him that the Union general would meet him at a site of Lee’s choosing. Unlike Lee, he arrived at the chosen town of Appomattox Court House, a little northeast of Appomattox Station, in a mud-spattered uniform he had worn for days, having left behind the wagon carrying his personal effects.
The men met in the first-floor parlor of a house owned by Wilmer McLean, who ironically had moved to this far corner of Virginia to escape the war after a cannon shell crashed into his home near Manassas during the first major battle of the war. When Grant arrived, he and Lee greeted each other cordially, then Lee returned to the chair where he had been waiting near an unlit fireplace, and Grant chose a chair in the middle of the room. Lee’s face remained impenetrable, making it impossible for his blue-clad counterpart to know what he was thinking.
Grant, who later said he found himself rather depressed over the downfall of such a valiant enemy, attempted small talk. He reminded Lee they had met once during the Mexican War; Lee, who had enjoyed a higher rank and a staff position in that war while Grant had been a quartermaster, did not recall the meeting.
Ultimately, it was Lee who had to bring the discussion around to the matter at hand. Grant extended the same condition mentioned in his earlier message, and Lee asked that the terms be written down, “so that they may be formally acted upon.”
Writing in a dispatch book laid on a small, round marble table, Grant wrote a generous surrender agreement of less than 200 words. Lee, when he finished reading it, looked up and remarked, “This will have a very happy effect upon my army.” He asked only if the provision allowing officers to keep their private mounts extended to all soldiers in his army, for the cavalry and artillery had to supply their own horses and mules. Surprised by this information, Grant did not change the written terms but said he would instruct his officers to allow those men who claimed a horse or mule to take the animals home with them “to work their little farms.”
“This will have the best possible effect upon the men. It will be very gratifying and will do much toward conciliating our people,” Lee replied. He then informed Grant that the Confederate soldiers had been living on parched corn for several days. As with the matter of the animals, he did not ask for anything; he merely informed Grant of the situation and waited. Grant asked if he thought 25,000 rations would be sufficient.
Yes, Lee said, he thought it would, “And it will be a great relief, I assure you.”
They concluded their business around 4:00 that afternoon. When Lee’s horse, Traveller, was brought to him, he reportedly mounted slowly and gave an audible sigh. Grant raised his hat in salute, and his officers followed suit; Lee lifted his own in return and rode away.
The two men met again the following day on horseback between the lines. Grant asked Lee to meet with President Lincoln in Washington to assist in restoring peace, but Lee politely declined.
Prior to the meeting at McLean’s house, one of Lee’s officers had suggested that instead of surrendering, he send the army into the woods and mountains to fight on as guerillas. Lee rejected the idea out of hand, saying, “We must consider the effect on the country as a whole … If I took your advice, the men would be without rations and under no control of officers They would be compelled to rob and steal in order to live. The would become mere bands of marauders, and the enemy’s cavalry would pursue them and overrun many sections they may never have occasion to visit. We would bring on a state of affairs it would take the country years to recover from.”
For Lee, that country was the South, and especially his beloved Virginia.