ALL AROUND HIM, his soldiers were ragged and hungry. Desperate attempts in the last week to feed, clothe and arm them had been thwarted at every turn. Half his troops had been captured, killed or wounded—or had just left. Enemy armies surrounded him now; decision time had come.
Robert E. Lee huddled with his commanders by a low bivouac in the south central Virginia countryside, the rooftops of the village of Appomattox Court House just visible above the tree line. “There was no tent there, no table, no chairs, and no camp-stools,” Maj. Gen. John Brown Gordon recalled. “On blankets spread upon the ground or on saddles at the roots of the trees we sat around the great commander….No tongue or pen will ever be able to describe the unutterable anguish of Lee’s commanders as they looked into the clouded face of their beloved leader and sought to draw from it some ray of hope.”
In the week since the fall of Petersburg and Richmond on April 3, Lee had been frantic to resupply his famished troops. Ultimately he hoped to combine the Army of Northern Virginia with Gen. Joseph Johnston’s Army of Tennessee, now being tormented by William T. Sherman’s Union forces in North Carolina. Lee went first to Amelia Court House, a stop on the Richmond & Danville Railroad, where he expected supplies from Richmond. But when food rations didn’t appear, he headed for Jetersville to collect 200,000 rations sent from Danville. Federal troops got there first, however, so Lee opted for Farmville on the South Side Railroad. Intermittent fighting, fatigue and hunger, and the collapse of starving animals depleted his fighting force, which had numbered nearly 60,000 as they left Richmond and Petersburg.
The Battle of Sailor’s Creek on April 6 took a particular toll, costing more than 8,000 troops in three engagements. Most were now prisoners of the Federals. Among them were a half-dozen general officers, including Richard Ewell and Lee’s oldest son, Custis. “My God!” the elder Lee exclaimed as he saw survivors straggling from the fight, “has the army been dissolved?”
That was two days ago. Tonight, he didn’t know what had become of Custis—or his youngest son, Rob, who had been captured as well. And yesterday, General Grant had invited Lee to surrender and avoid “further effusion of blood.” Though he was unwilling to concede to Grant’s opinion of the “hopelessness” of his cause, he wanted to keep his limited options open. He asked Grant for terms—not for surrender, but for peace—yet continued his retreat toward Danville. Supplies from Lynchburg were headed for Appomattox Station; once his men had some food, there might still be a chance to reach Johnston. Reserve artillery commanded by Brig. Gen. Reuben Lindsay Walker, halted near Appomattox Station to draw rations, was moving to Lynchburg; Walker’s 100 guns were an impediment to a fleeing army.
But the Federals heard about Lee’s supply trains, and Maj. Gen. George Custer descended with his cavalry on Appomattox Station—where he found four trains and Walker’s artillery. Surprised and disorganized, the Confederates were stubborn nonetheless. By nightfall, however, the Federals had captured 1,000 more of Lee’s dwindling forces, three of the supply trains, 25 guns, scores of wagons and up to 300,000 (accounts vary) of the Rebels’ precious food rations. Most of Walker’s artillery escaped to the north and west, but were scattered and therefore useless.
To Lee’s further consternation, Federal cavalry rushed onto the Lynchburg–Richmond Stage Road and charged into nearby Appomattox Court House, cutting off Lee’s escape route. Everywhere he looked, there were Federals. Today he had asked Grant for a conversation.
I cannot…meet you with a view to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia, but as far as your proposal may affect the C.S. forces under my command, and tend to the restoration of peace, I should be pleased to meet you at 10 a.m., to-morrow; on the old stage road to Richmond, between the picket-lines of the two armies.
He still hoped he could persuade Grant to discuss peace rather than surrender, but so far had no reply—or much encouragement Grant would see things his way.
Now, from his makeshift headquarters just northeast of the village, Lee knew he had only two choices: attack the Federals at dawn and try to break out, or surrender. He and his commanders—including Gordon, James Longstreet and Lee’s nephew Fitzhugh—rested by the fire and considered each.
Maybe only Union cavalry stood between his army and escape. If he could break out, could the Confederate armies keep fighting until war-weary Northerners let the Southern states go? If he surrendered, what would the fate of Southern people be?
“If all that was said and felt at that meeting could be given it would make a volume of measureless pathos,” Gordon wrote. “In no hour of the great war did General Lee’s masterful characteristics appear to me so conspicuous as they did in that last council. We knew by our own aching hearts that his was breaking. Yet he commanded himself, and stood calmly facing and discussing the long-dreaded inevitable.”
After discussing both distasteful options, they decided to attack at daybreak. If it didn’t work, then…
Many visitors don’t realize there was fighting at Appomattox, says Patrick Schroeder, historian for Appomattox Court House National Historical Park. On a sunny autumn afternoon, Schroeder and other members of the park’s staff are deep in preparations for the thousands of visitors anticipated during the sesquicentennial this spring. Five days of events are planned, including talks, tours, living history demonstrations and other activities. But Schroeder takes time out to tell a visitor about the nine days of events that brought the armies here.
“This campaign really is amazing because these troops are marching and fighting on a daily basis. It’s unlike any other campaign, really,” he observes. “This campaign doesn’t have a Gettysburg, it doesn’t have an Antietam, but there are smaller battles every day: Sutherland Station. Namozine Church. Amelia Court House. Sailor’s Creek. High Bridge. Cumberland Church. Here at Appomattox Station and then at Appomattox Court House. And in the course of the week Lee’s army, which started out with about 60,000 men, has 30,000 men when it reaches Appomattox. Lee has lost half of his army in that weeklong march…and that is unparalleled in Civil War history.”
That’s roughly 10,000 killed or wounded, 10,000 captured—mainly at Sailor’s Creek—and 10,000 deserters.
The Union army had been busy too, marching up to 30–35 miles per day—10 miles more than Stonewall Jackson’s famed marchers—to cut Lee’s army off before it could escape. By nightfall on April 8, Federal cavalry dug in less than a mile from the courthouse. Two cannon lobbed shells into the Confederate camp. Gordon’s troops were just west of the village, preparing for the morning’s do-or-die advance.
Early the next morning, Gordon’s troops moved forward in wheel formation and scored initial success—capturing the two guns that had plagued the Rebels the night before, as well as some Yankee artillerymen. They hadn’t counted on the appearance of infantry from the Union Army of the James, however, and as Gordon’s forces were outmanned, the tide began to turn. As more and more Federal troops concentrated at Appomattox, Gordon sent a desperate message to his commander. “Tell General Lee that my command has been fought to a frazzle,” he said, “and unless Longstreet can unite in the movement, or prevent these forces from coming upon my rear, I can not long go forward.”
Longstreet, however, “was assailed by other portions of the Federal army,” Gordon recalled. “He was so hardly pressed that he could not join, as contemplated, in the effort to break the cordon of men and metal around us.”
Lee, according to his aide-de-camp Charles Venable, knew he was finished. “There is nothing left me but to go and see General Grant,” he conceded, “and I had rather die a thousand deaths.”
In the meantime, he had finally heard from Grant:
I have no authority to treat on the subject of peace; the meeting proposed for 10 a.m. to-day could lead to no good. I will state, however, general, that I am equally anxious for peace with yourself, and the whole North entertains the same feeling. The terms upon which peace can be had are well understood. By the South laying down their arms they will hasten that most desirable event, save thousands of human lives, and hundreds of millions of property not yet destroyed. Seriously hoping that all our difficulties may be settled without the loss of another life, I subscribe myself, &c.,
He sent for Longstreet, who found his commander dressed “in a suit of new uniform, sword and sash, a handsomely embroidered belt, boots, and a pair of gold spurs. He stood near the embers of some burned rails, received me with graceful salutation, and spoke at once of affairs in front and the loss of his subsistence stores…and, closing with the expression that it was not possible for him to get along, requested my view,” Longstreet recalled. “I asked if the bloody sacrifice of his army could in any way help the cause in other quarters. He thought not. Then, I said, your situation speaks for itself.”
Lee resigned himself to the task at hand.
Lieut. Gen. U.S. GRANT:
I received your note of this morning on the picket-line, whither I had come to meet you and ascertain definitely what terms were embraced in your proposal of yesterday with reference to the surrender of this army. I now ask an interview in accordance with the offer contained in your letter of yesterday for that purpose.
Grant, who had been nursing a headache since the day before, was riding a 22-mile circuit around the armies that morning. “I proceeded at an early hour in the morning, still suffering with the headache, to get to the head of the column. I was not more than two or three miles from Appomattox Court House at the time, but to go direct I would have to pass through Lee’s army, or a portion of it. I had therefore to move south in order to get upon a road coming up from another direction.
“When the officer reached me I was still suffering with the sick headache, but the instant I saw the contents of the note I was cured. I wrote the following note in reply and hastened on:
Your note of this date is but this moment (11.50 A.M.) received, in consequence of my having passed from the Richmond and Lynchburg road to the Farmville and Lynchburg road. I am at this writing about four miles west of Walker’s Church and will push forward to the front for the purpose of meeting you.
After delivering Grant’s message, Union Lt. Col. Orville E. Babcock escorted Lee and his aide, Lt. Col. Charles Marshall, into the village of Appomattox Court House. Marshall, sent ahead to find a suitable place for the meeting, soon happened on Wilmer McLean—a sugar speculator who had left his home in Manassas after the two battles there and was living in the village. McLean first showed him to an empty building, but when Marshall passed on that venue, McLean offered his home.
Lee arrived at the McLean House at about 1 p.m. to surrender the depleted remainder of his army—an army once proud and defiant, and not without reason. They had scared George McClellan off the Virginia Peninsula, humiliated Ambrose Burnside at Fredericksburg and flustered Joe Hooker at Chancellorsville. Nobody could say they hadn’t taken their best shot. But now, so many were gone. Stonewall. Jeb. And just last week, A.P. Hill.
Lee stepped into Wilmer McLean’s parlor and waited.
Although many original Appomattox Court House structures remain, some have been lost and some—the courthouse and the McLean House itself—have been restored. The courthouse burned in 1892, destroying records and prompting residents to build a new structure at Appomattox Station, now known simply as Appomattox. But during the Civil War centennial, the former courthouse was rebuilt and now serves as the visitor center for the national park. The McLean House, vacated by the McLeans in 1867, was sold in 1891 to a Niagara Falls, N.Y., development firm to be dismantled and moved to Washington for permanent display. But a financial panic—and the company’s resulting bankruptcy—quashed those plans, and the building materials remained on the property until the park service rebuilt the house in the late 1940s. When it was dedicated in 1950, Ulysses Grant III and Robert E. Lee IV attended.
Grant and Lee found a village boasting activity that can only be imagined now. The Clover Hill Tavern had a dining wing that has since disappeared. There were two general stores, only one of which remains, and some offices (two are left), and the northeast side of the Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road was lined with the shops of the Rosser family enterprises.
“Lee comes up here, he gets here about 1 o’clock…Grant arrives about a half-hour later,” Schroeder explains. “People like to make a big deal about ‘Grant was all mud-splattered’ and stuff like that. Well, the thing is, you’ve got to understand the situation. Lee had put on a new uniform and rode a little over a mile from his headquarters. Grant rode 22 miles over Virginia roads in April, after it’s been raining a lot. Not only was Grant mud-splattered, his whole staff was mud-splattered.
“Grant was never a fancy dresser to begin with, but that was the situation at hand. He told Lee that he didn’t have time to go to his baggage wagon…but Lee said that he was glad he came when he did. Because [Lee] had to sit there and think over things by himself. Many people write about what he was thinking…but we don’t know what Lee was thinking about.”
There was, of course, much to contemplate. Lee had met Grant before, during the Mexican War. But in this war, Grant had established a fearsome reputation as “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. Or, among those repulsed by the body count in his wake, “Grant the Butcher.” And he was the only Union general who pursued Lee with such tenacity. Lee could be forgiven for whatever anxiety he felt.
Grant arrived at around 1:30 p.m. “We greeted each other, and after shaking hands took our seats,” Grant recalled. “What General Lee’s feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassible face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result, and was too manly to show it. Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought.
“…We soon fell into a conversation about old army times. He remarked that he remembered me very well in the old army; and I told him that as a matter of course I remembered him perfectly, but from the difference in our rank and years (there being about sixteen years’ difference in our ages), I had thought it very likely that I had not attracted his attention sufficiently to be remembered by him after such a long interval. Our conversation grew so pleasant that I almost forgot the object of our meeting. After the conversation had run on in this style for some time, General Lee called my attention to the object of our meeting.
Lee asked Grant to put his terms in writing; Grant asked for writing materials, then composed a concise proviso.
GEN: In accordance with the substance of my letter to you of the 8th inst., I propose to receive the surrender of the Army of N. Va. on the following terms, to wit: Rolls of all the officers and men to be made in duplicate. One copy to be given to an officer designated by me, the other to be retained by such officer or officers as you may designate. The officers to give their individual paroles not to take up arms against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged, and each company or regimental commander sign a like parole for the men of their commands. The arms, artillery and public property to be parked and stacked, and turned over to the officer appointed by me to receive them. This will not embrace the side-arms of the officers, nor their private horses or baggage. This done, each officer and man will be allowed to return to their homes, not to be disturbed by United States authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.
“When I put my pen to the paper I did not know the first word that I should make use of in writing the terms,” Grant wrote in his memoirs. “I only knew what was in my mind, and I wished to express it clearly, so that there could be no mistaking it. As I wrote on, the thought occurred to me that the officers had their own private horses and effects, which were important to them, but of no value to us; also that it would be an unnecessary humiliation to call upon them to deliver their side arms.…When he read over that part of the terms about side arms, horses and private property of the officers, he remarked, with some feeling, I thought, that this would have a happy effect upon his army.”
After some brief clarifications, it was Lee’s turn to compose a response.
GENERAL:—I received your letter of this date containing the terms of the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia as proposed by you. As they are substantially the same as those expressed in your letter of the 8th inst., they are accepted. I will proceed to designate the proper officers to carry the stipulations into effect.
E. LEE, General.
Lee had one more bit of business to transact: His men were hungry. Phil Sheridan’s cavalry, after all, had captured his rations. Grant told him to send his quartermaster to get all the provisions needed. “After that a general conversation took place of a most agreeable character,” Marshall recalled. “I cannot describe it. I cannot give you any idea of the kindness, and generosity, and magnanimity of those men. When I think of it, it brings tears into my eyes.
“After having this general conversation we took leave of General Grant, and went off to appoint commissioners to attend to the details of the surrender.”
“As General Lee rode back to his army the officers and soldiers of his troops about the front lines assembled in promiscuous crowds of all arms and grades in anxious wait for their loved commander,” Longstreet wrote in his memoirs. “From force of habit a burst of salutations greeted him, but quieted as suddenly as they arose. The road was packed by standing troops as he approached, the men with hats off, heads and hearts bowed down. As he passed they raised their heads and looked upon him with swimming eyes. Those who could find voice said good-by, those who could not speak, and were near, passed their hands gently over the sides of Traveller. He rode with his hat off, and had sufficient control to fix his eyes on a line between the ears of Traveller and look neither to right nor left until he reached a large white-oak tree, where he dismounted to make his last Headquarters, and finally talked a little.”
After tending to some clerical details, Grant sent a telegram to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton:
General Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia this afternoon on terms proposed by myself. The accompanying additional correspondence will show the conditions fully.
U. S. GRANT,
Grant and Lee met again the following day. Grant attempted to persuade Lee to surrender all Confederate armies. “But Lee said that he could not do that without consulting the President first,” Grant remembered. “I knew there was no use to urge him to do anything against his ideas of what was right.”
Neither commander participated in the formal surrender, leaving their subordinates to carry out the details. Grant sped to Washington, with his assistant adjutant Captain Robert Todd Lincoln—the president’s eldest son—close behind, “with a view to putting a stop to the purchase of supplies, and what I now deemed other useless outlay of money.”
He would also meet with the president, and get an invitation to the theater. Chilly relations between Julia Grant and the First Lady would prompt the Grants to decline.
Lee remained in the vicinity of Appomattox for a few more days. Eventually he broke camp and climbed onto Traveller for the long ride back to Richmond.
Tamela Baker is a former editor of America’s Civil War.
This article originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of America’s Civil War