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On April 16, 1950, historian Douglas Southall Freeman addressed 20,000 spectators in Appomattox, Va. His audience crowded the little village where, fourscore and five years earlier, two generals had met to end the war. As a warm breeze fluttered the flags near the speaker’s podium—including many “Stars and Bars” battle flags—Freeman recounted the Army of Northern Virginia’s final days.

The nine-month siege of Petersburg had ended in early April 1865. During General Robert E. Lee’s last week in uniform, Freeman pointed out, the Virginian had pursued a strategy “to form a junction with the army of General Joseph E. Johnston in North Carolina.” Wherever Lee turned, however, his scouts brought him word: “there’s a blue line ahead of us.”

The author of a Pulitzer Prize–winning two-volume biography of the South’s greatest commander, Freeman was regarded as the preeminent authority on Lee in 1950. His account of the Confederacy’s last days was also buttressed by the passion of a partisan: His father, Walker Burford Freeman, had stood with Lee at Appomattox at age 22, and his memoirs included his own account of the waning hours of Lee’s army. Walker recalled that on April 8—hungry, exhausted and without a tent to shelter in—he had climbed a hill close to Appomattox Court House. The sight of countless Federal campfires, seen from atop that hill, made him realize “maybe even General Lee couldn’t get out of that trap.”

Douglas Freeman delivered his speech near the Wilmer McLean House, where Lee had surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant. The centerpiece of the Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, the McLean House looked new in 1950—and indeed the paint was barely dry on a meticulous reconstruction engineered by the National Park Service. Congress had appropriated the funds for the site to commemorate the reuniting of the country, and Freeman duly addressed the gathering as a “reunion of brothers.” The event marked the official opening of the McLean House to the public.

In the audience that day were two individuals with a special interest in Freeman’s remarks: retired Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant III, a veteran of both world wars; and 25-year-old Robert E. Lee IV, who would wield the scissors in the ceremony’s closing moments, cutting a red-white-and-blue ribbon.

The National Park Service continued its work in Appomattox after 1950, restoring many other buildings to their wartime appearance. Still, the surrounding landscape looked much different than it had in the 1860s. Instead of cultivated fields, much of the area was now forested, for example, making it hard for visitors to imagine exactly where the soldiers had been positioned during the war’s final hours.

Recent scholarship on Appomattox—the place as well as the events that unfolded there—suggests just how problematic memory can be. For example, the significance of Appomattox, as seen in Douglas Southall Freeman’s eyes, was colored by emotional “truths,” and also by regional subjectivity and selectivity. Looking back today at the facts and the ways in which events would be interpreted long after the war ended makes it clear that the past is hardly a fixed destination.


A “sick headache” kept Grant awake the night of April 7–8. The pain hung over him like a miasma despite all the remedies he tried, including applying mustard plasters to his neck and immersing his feet in hot water.

It didn’t help Grant’s migraine any knowing that Robert E. Lee had so far refused to accept the inevitable. The Union commander had dispatched a short note to Lee late in the afternoon of the 7th: “The results of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance. I…regard as my duty to shift from myself the responsibility of any further effusion of blood by asking of you the surrender of…the army of Northern Virginia.” While Lee rejected Grant’s assessment that the Confederate army’s situation was hopeless, he didn’t rule out negotiation. The Southern commander wrote back, “I reciprocate your desire to avoid the useless effusion of blood, & therefore before considering your proposition, ask the terms you will offer on condition of its surrender.”

On Saturday morning Grant wrote again, stating his sole condition: “The men and officers [of the Army of Northern Virginia] surrendered shall be disqualified from taking up arms again against the Government of the United States.” Lee’s soldiers would not be imprisoned; once paroled, they could go home to restart their lives.

Lee responded with another deflection. Though he affirmed his willingness to continue the conversation about “the restoration of peace,” he refused to give up, writing, “I do not think the emergency has arisen to call for the surrender of this Army.”

Lt. Col. Horace Porter, Grant’s aide-de-camp, recorded his commander’s reaction to that message: “The general shook his head, expressive of his disappointment, and remarked, ‘It looks as if Lee still means to fight; I will reply in the morning.’” Still suffering from his migraine, the exhausted Grant—in full uniform save for his jacket and boots—lay down on a sofa in the farmhouse where he was headquartered. But he could not sleep.

‘Not Yet’

For Lee, these were the worst days of his military career. After his retreat from Petersburg and Richmond’s fall, he heard that a worshipful mob of freedmen had greeted President Abraham Lincoln as he toured the former Southern capital. Then on April 6, Lee lost 8,000 men at Sailor’s Creek, most of them taken prisoner. Among them was his eldest son, Maj. Gen. George Washington Custis Lee. As he watched the throng of Confederates retreating at sunset that evening, their commander was overheard wondering aloud, “My God, has the army dissolved?” His force now consisted of just two corps, and as it marched southward the once proud Army of Northern Virginia grew ever smaller. At every country crossing demoralized soldiers turned toward home.

The next morning, after a long night in the saddle, Lee was resting in the shade of a pine tree when Brig. Gen. William Pendleton rode up. Pendleton told Lee that he and several other officers had reached the hard conclusion that “in their opinion, the struggle had reached a point where further resistance was hopeless.”

Lee still resisted the notion even with members of his inner circle. When he had read Grant’s first note recommending surrender, he passed it wordlessly to the man he called his “Old War Horse,” Lt. Gen. James Longstreet. Handing it back, Longstreet spoke for both of them: “Not yet.” They both still cherished a flickering hope that they could consolidate with the Army of Tennessee and other forces under General Johnston.

Capitulation was alien to Lee’s character. The Confederate army lurching toward Appomattox numbered perhaps 30,000 effectives, little different from the number he had led after the Battle of Antietam three years earlier. The general clung to the belief that what remained of his army might somehow break through the Union armies closing in on him.

Palm Sunday

Lee’s message of April 9 banished Grant’s headache. As he remembered years later, “The instant I saw the contents of the note I was cured.”

Through Saturday night into Sunday morning the Federal infantry had outmarched Lee’s weary soldiers, and Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan’s forces captured Confederate supply trains at nearby Appomattox Station. Fighting early on the morning of the 9th went badly for the Southerners. At that point Lee, like Walker Freeman, came to the realization that no good escape route remained. He initiated an exchange of messages, carried by couriers under flags of truce. Lee’s words were: “I now request an interview in accordance with the offer contained in your letter of yesterday.” Once a cease-fire was agreed to, both commanders rode toward the tiny village of Appomattox Court House.

Lee arrived first, riding his prized horse Traveller and accompanied by Colonel Charles Marshall and an orderly. Marshall inquired of resident Wilmer McLean—who in one of history’s oddest coincidences had also inhabited a plantation on Virginia’s Bull Run battlefield, site of the war’s first major clash in July 1861—whether he knew of a suitable meeting place. McLean told him his own parlor might make a good venue.

General Lee walked into McLean’s parlor and sat down, placing his hat and gauntlets on a marble-topped table in front of him. Then he waited. After 39 years—at West Point, in the U.S. Army and, for the last four, in service to the CSA—his military career was approaching its end. Half an hour later, the man who was responsible walked through the door and shook hands with him.

Both Grant and Lee wore full beards, but there the resemblance ended. Lee, known for his courtly demeanor, had donned a fresh dress uniform with a gold silk sash and ceremonial sword. Grant was dressed for the field, wearing a mud-splattered soldier’s blouse of blue flannel. His trouser legs were stuffed into ordinary boots, and he wore neither spurs nor sword.

“I met you once before, General Lee,” Grant began, “while we were serving in Mexico.” Lee—who admitted meeting Grant but apparently hadn’t recognized him—was 16 years older than his opposite number. During the Mexican War, Grant had been an infantry lieutenant, while Captain Lee was a fast-rising aide on General Winfield Scott’s staff. They spoke briefly of other matters before Lee asked that Grant commit to paper the proposed surrender terms. In fewer than 200 words, the Union general elaborated only slightly on his previous proposal. The Southern soldiers would stack their rifles and artillery, then sign parole agreements promising not to take up arms against the U.S. government. Officers would be allowed to keep their private horses, side arms and baggage.

Lee then asked whether the troops might also be permitted to retain their horses. Recognizing this would be essential during the spring plowing, Grant agreed to that condition as well. “This will have the best possible effect upon the men,” Lee said, adding, “It will be very gratifying and will do much toward conciliating our people.” In an hour and a half, they had reached an understanding.

Grant reportedly treated his opponent with dignity throughout the proceedings. His terms served to advance the cause of reconciliation, displaying generosity in victory, as Lincoln had instructed him to do at a recent conference at City Point, Va. The terms also honored the president’s own words, spoken during his Second Inaugural Address barely a month before: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive…to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Though some Confederates were still fighting—Joe Johnston in North Carolina, Richard Taylor in Alabama and Edmund Kirby Smith in Texas—the remainder of the Southerners would soon follow Lee’s lead. For practical purposes, the war ended that day at Appomattox.

Simultaneously, however, the remembering—and the misremembering—commenced.

Now You See It, Now You Don’t

By the time newspaper reporters got to Appomattox, within days of the surrender, they found the “surrender room” empty of not just people but furnishings. John Dennett, a reporter for The Nation, noted of his own visit to the McLean House that “tables, chairs, vases, fans, pens, books, everything small and great that could be removed from the room [had been] eagerly bought, or appropriated without purchase, by enthusiastic visitors.”

General Sheridan had paid $20 in gold for the table where Grant wrote the terms of surrender. Sheridan then gave it to Brev. Maj. Gen. George Armstrong Custer as a compliment to Mrs. Custer, and bystanders recalled seeing the yellow-haired officer riding out of town with it slung over his shoulder. Maj. Gen. Edward O.C. Ord is said to have paid $40 for the parlor table at which Lee sat. Grant’s and Lee’s chairs went to different buyers, as did a stoneware inkstand and a pair of candlesticks.

No one photographed the famous surrender parlor at the time, but numerous artist’s impressions of the surrender meeting soon rolled off the presses—including one illustration that was promoted by Wilmer McLean. Speculations in sugar had kept McLean prosperous during the conflict, but he found himself facing hard times after the war. Hoping that selling a surrender picture could mend his fortunes, he wrote to Lee asking “…If you will grant me, two, or three sittings, for one of the first Artists of N.Y. to get a life like likeness of yourself.” Even after Lee declined, McLean persisted in his plan, borrowing money to commission and print an illustration. As it turned out, not only did “Room in the McLean House at Appomattox C.H.” fail to provide the bonanza that McLean had envisioned, but he failed to recoup his investment.

McLean’s print—reproduced by engravers Major & Knapp of New York—more closely resembled the event than most others. While he managed to get the architectural particulars of his own house correct, McLean confused the cast of characters. Lee and Grant are pictured with Lee’s aides and Union Generals Sheridan, Ord, Meade and Custer—though Meade and Custer were some distance away at the time. And the wrong clerk is shown writing out the terms of surrender.

A few illustrators were truer to the facts. Alfred Waud, whose wartime illustrations appeared regularly in Harper’s Weekly, had been standing outside the McLean House on that Palm Sunday, and watched Lee emerge and gesture to his orderly to bridle his horse. Waud sketched the scene as Lee left, trailed by Colonel Marshall and watched by a crowd of faceless Union soldiers. A polished version of Waud’s drawing would be widely reproduced.

Another vignette comes down to us through first-person accounts. Some observers claimed that as Lee was leaving, Grant—standing on the porch—lifted his hat in a salute. And that Lee did the same before riding away.

Did that actually happen? It’s hard to say. The anecdote was often repeated, and over time came to symbolize a reconciliation between North and South in a larger sense. But some writers altered the story, claiming that Lee had surrendered to Grant under an apple tree or that during their meeting he had tendered his sword to Grant, who then refused it. Neither of those tales is true.

The view of Appomattox as showcasing Yankee magnanimity and Confederate honor no doubt served the “Lost Cause” reading of the conflict. The myth of the Lost Cause began taking shape soon after the war ended, via the book The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates, by Edward Pollard, editor of the Richmond Examiner. Pollard rushed his book to press in 1865 and 1866. Essential throughout his narrative was Pollard’s view of Grant as a man of “course [sic], heavy obstinacy…[with] no spark of military genius.” He saw Lee as a “genius,” describing his battlefield strategies as “masterly.”

In subsequent generations, Lost Cause historians continued to shape their version of the war, explaining Lee’s defeat as a consequence of the North’s vastly superior resources of men and materiel. In one memoir published in 1878, Lee’s adjutant Colonel Walter Taylor asserted that the Southern commander was outnumbered 6-to-1. Yet a close examination of manpower during the Appomattox Campaign points to the fact that, although Lee was as usual outnumbered, the disparity wasn’t as significant as some early writers had claimed. Recent calculations by historian Chris Calkins suggest that when the Appomattox Campaign began in late March Confederate strength amounted to some 58,000 men, while the Union count was roughly 76,000.

The Lost Cause view also held that Lee was nearly infallible, and his troops were unfailingly devoted. By 1865, however, Lee had doubts of both his own leadership and his men’s selflessness. On April 20, 1865, he reported to Jefferson Davis that in the preceding months “the troops were…not marked by the boldness and decision which formerly characterized them. Except in particular instances, they were feeble; and want of confidence seemed to possess officers and men.” That Lee’s men fought less boldly than they once had, he allowed, was only part of the problem. His army, he told Davis, had “begun to disintegrate, and straggling in the ranks increased up to the surrender.”

Whatever the shifting palette of interpretation and recollection over time, the meeting of Grant and Lee at Appomattox clearly established a common expectation, hope for the future and—above all—for reunification. Lee, who could have opted to continue the conflict as a guerrilla war, as one of his officers had suggested, rejected that idea, saying that his men “would become mere bands of marauders” and the result would be “a state of affairs it would take the country years to recover from.” Grant put it more simply on the evening of April 9, telling his men, “The war is over; the rebels are our countrymen again.”

In recent years, a reexamination of documents and data pertaining to the war’s end has discredited some aspects of the Lost Cause view that Douglas Southall Freeman accepted. But if he were alive today, Freeman might well have approved of the more complex reading of the Confederacy’s end that the current generation of historians puts forward. Though he was a Virginian just like his father, he was also a journalist, trained to report on facts. In fact, he edited the Richmond Times-Dispatch for 34 years. We can only wonder what he would say about documents exhumed by the likes of Virginia-born historian Charles Dew, a descendant of Confederate soldiers and the proud recipient, on his 14th birthday, of Freeman’s Lee and His Lieutenants. To his surprise, Dew unearthed secession documents giving the lie to Lost Cause arguments that “paint the Civil War as a mighty struggle over differing concepts of constitutional liberty.” Dew closed his 2002 book Apostles of Disunion with the assertion that a close reading of these documents “[lays] to rest, once and for all, any notion that slavery had nothing to do with the coming of the Civil War. To put it quite simply, slavery and race were absolutely critical elements in the coming of the war.”

In 1950 Freeman told his audience that the Civil War was a “brother’s war”—which amounted to an implicit denial of slavery as its principal cause. In light of what we now know, his viewpoint seems less than complete.

But we live in times far removed from Reconstruction and Freeman’s era of a segregated South. In the wake of the Civil War, notions of a virtuous cause and a perfectible hero were perhaps reassuring. Today we are learning to embrace complexities more willingly.

Originally published in the June 2015 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.