Fall of the South: Lee Surrenders
We're covering the final days of the Civil War exactly 150 years later. This is the eighth installment of the series.
April 9, 1865: Lee Surrenders
The Union breakthrough at Petersburg on April 2, 1865 spelled the end of the Southern rebellion – but there would be one more week of bloodshed before the sentence was delivered, as Confederate general-in-chief Robert E. Lee retreated west with his beleaguered Army of Northern Virginia in one last, desperate attempt to evade the tragic climax. This meant seven more days of death and misery for his exhausted soldiers, now in the final extremity of privation.
As the Confederate defenses around Petersburg collapsed on April 2, Lee ordered his remaining army, now numbering fewer than 30,000 men, to withdraw along roads northwest of the city, following the Appomattox River into central Virginia. If they could just reach the Allegheny Mountains in western Virginia, there was still a chance –however slim – of shaking Grant and joining forces with Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of the South, now retreating northwest towards Raleigh, North Carolina, with William Tecumseh Sherman in pursuit.
It was not to be, as Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant pounced on the retreating rebel force, determined that Lee would not slip away again. Harried relentlessly by Philip Sheridan’s Union cavalry, Lee’s army was also weighed down by the wagon train holding the Confederate government’s (now meaningless) official documents, which made slow going over unpaved roads transformed into quagmires by spring rains. Incompetent to the last, the fleeing Confederate government also sent a train full of crucial supplies to the wrong destination, depriving his troops of rations. One Southern officer, Edward Sylvester Ellis, recalled their pathetic condition:
Nearly all were barefoot; they were in rags, were living on a few grains of corn apiece, were worn out, and in the dismal hours of early morning had turned their backs on their capital and the enemy which they had beaten times without number… When his troops withdrew from their entrenchments, two days before, they were without rations, and during the interval that had passed since had not secured a single meal apiece; they were actually undergoing the pangs of starvation…
On April 5, Sheridan’s forces intercepted a letter from Confederate officer W.B. Taylor to his wife, which said it all: “Our army is ruined, I fear.”
But still the fighting continued. On April 6, 1865 disaster struck at Sailor’s Creek, a small tributary of the Appomattox about 45 miles west of Petersburg. As the Confederates retreated Sheridan’s Union cavalry maneuvered alongside them, harrying them with constant hit-and-run attacks that eventually forced part of the Confederate army to stand and fight. As three rebel army corps turned to face their tormentors at Sailor’s Creek, another Union cavalry force under the bold (and ill-fated) George Armstrong Custer charged in behind them, cutting them off from the rest of Lee’s army long enough for the Union infantry to arrive and finish the encirclement.
Sheridan’s forces took 7,700 prisoners at Sailor’s Creek, including Lee’s son Custis Lee, reducing the rebel army by a quarter. For the captured soldiers it was probably an act of mercy. Indeed, according to Ellis the rebel soldiers could barely fight at Sailor’s Creek: “A large number staggered from weakness, and were barely able to keep their feet; many were so worn out that they would drop the guns which they had just loaded and discharged, and, regardless of the firing, sink down upon the ground and fall asleep.” For his part Lee saw the writing on the wall and wrote to President Jefferson Davis in Danville, Virginia, warning, “a few more Sailor's Creeks and it will all be over.”
On April 7 Grant wrote Lee a letter delivered under flag of truce, pointedly putting the blame for continued death on Lee’s shoulders:
The result of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia in this struggle. I feel that it is so, and regard it as my duty to shift from myself the responsibility of any further effusion of blood by asking of you the surrender of that portion of the Confederate States Army known as the Army of Northern Virginia.
Ever courteous, and still hoping to win some concessions through a negotiated armistice, Lee replied:
I have received your note of this date. Though not entertaining the opinion you express of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia, I reciprocate your desire to avoid the useless effusion of blood, and therefore before considering your proposition, ask the terms you will offer on condition of its surrender.
However Grant was under orders from President Lincoln to demand unconditional surrender. As Custer’s cavalry captured much-needed Confederate supply trains at Appomattox Station on April 8, Grant replied to Lee’s previous letter stating, “there is but one condition that I insist on, namely, that the men and officers surrendered shall be disqualified for taking up arms against the Government of the United States…” Meanwhile the remaining rebel army, now encamped at the village of Appomattox Courthouse, (below, a Union camp at the courthouse following the surrender) found itself encircled from the east by Union infantry from the Army of the James under Andrew Humphreys and George Wright, and from the west by Sheridan’s cavalry.
On the evening of April 8, 1865, Lee held a war council with his top commanders, who decided they had no choice but to make a last-ditch effort to break out of the encirclement and reach the last remaining supplies at nearby Lynchburg. One member of Lee’s staff, Charles Marshall, described the melancholy scene around the campfire:
Somebody had a little cornmeal, and somebody else had a tin can, such as is used to hold hot water for shaving. A fire was kindled, and each man in his turn, according to rank and seniority, made a can of cornmeal gruel and was allowed to keep the can until the gruel became cool enough to drink… This was our last meal in the Confederacy. Our next was taken in the United States.
On the morning of April 9, ragged rebel infantry and cavalry under John Gordon and Fitzhugh Lee drew themselves up outside Appomattox Courthouse. Ellis remembered that the men looked “like moving skeletons. They were too weak to carry their muskets. The three thousand cavalry looked as if riders and horses should be in the hospital.”
This bedraggled force struck west against Sheridan’s cavalry, and at first seemed to be succeeding, as the surprised Union cavalrymen gave ground – but then Union infantry rushed forward and halted the advance. One Union officer, Frederic Cushman Newhall, painted a dramatic picture of the infantry counterattack that Sunday morning:
As the chimes of the early church-bells at home pealed their sweet matins, which clashed harmoniously in mid-air like cymbals, these fields trembled under the sounding peals of war’s clangor, which met discordantly and were hurled in gruff rumblings far over the hills… The undulating lines of the infantry, now rising the crest of a knoll, now dipping into a valley or ravine, pressed on grandly across the open; for here at last we were out of the woods in the beautiful clear fields stretching away to the horizon, and here, if the rebellion should crumble, all who fought against it might see its fall.
At the limit of their strength, the rebels simply collapsed. The Battle of Appomattox Courthouse would be the last fought by the Army of Northern Virginia. After a further exchange of letters, at 10am Lee met with Grant at the McLean House, a brick farmhouse on the outskirts of town owned by Wilmer McLean (below).
Marshall recalled the dramatic, yet oddly casual, moment when the generals finally met:
General Lee was standing at the end of the room opposite the door when General Grant walked in. General Grant had on a sack coat, a loose fatigue coat, but he had no side arms. He looked as though he had had a pretty hard time. He had been riding and his clothes were somewhat dusty and a little soiled. He walked up to General Lee and Lee recognized him at once. He had known him in the Mexican war. General Grant greeted him in the most cordial manner, and talked about the weather and other things in a very friendly way. Then General Grant brought up his officers and introduced them to General Lee.
The generals sat at two separate tables, surrounded by their officers, reviewing and amending the document in which Lee agreed to surrender. Grant’s gracious decision to allow the Southern officers to keep their swords – a traditional point of honor – was well received, with Lee remarking: “That will have a very happy effect.” Grant also agreed to allow former cavalrymen to keep their horses (most had supplied their own animals, and would need them to resume farming when they returned home). Finally the Union officers arranged for 25,000 rations to be delivered to Lee’s starving army, while Union prisoners of war held by the rebels – starving along with their captors – were immediately released to be fed by their compatriots. Importantly, the instrument of surrender didn’t cover Johnston’s Army of the South, still holding out in North Carolina.
Lee and his officers then departed. According to one Union general, Horace Porter, Grant and his staff gave them a chivalrous sendoff:
Lee signaled to his orderly to bring up his horse, and while the animal was being bridled the general stood on the lowest step, and gazed sadly in the direction of the valley beyond, where his army lay-now an army of prisoners. He thrice smote the palm of his left hand slowly with his right fist in an absent sort of way, seemed not to see the group of Union officers in the yard, who rose respectfully at his approach, and appeared unaware of everything about him. All appreciated the sadness that overwhelmed him, and he had the personal sympathy of every one who beheld him at this supreme moment of trial. The approach of his horse seemed to recall him from his reverie, and he at once mounted. General Grant now stepped down from the porch, moving toward him, and saluted him by raising his hat. He was followed in this act of courtesy by all our officers present. Lee raised his hat respectfully, and rode off at a slow trot to break the sad news to the brave fellows whom he had so long commanded.
The scene that followed at the farmhouse was considerably less dignified, as Union officers began buying everything in the room where the surrender was signed as a keepsake – finding the objects’ owner, Wilmer McLean, very amenable to offers of Union gold to replace his worthless Confederate paper money. Porter recalled:
Then relic-hunters charged down upon the manor-house, and began to bargain for the numerous pieces of furniture. Sheridan paid the proprietor twenty dollars in gold for the table on which General Grant wrote the terms of surrender, for the purpose of presenting it to Mrs. Custer and handed it over to her dashing husband, who galloped off to camp bearing it upon his shoulder. Ord paid forty dollars for the table at which Lee sat… General Sharpe paid ten dollars for the pair of brass candlesticks; Colonel Sheridan, the general's brother, secured the stone ink-stand; and General Capehart the chair in which Grant sat… Captain O’Farrell of Hartford became the possessor of the chair in which Lee sat…
Meanwhile Lee faced the difficult task of telling his loyal soldiers that the long fight was over. His farewell message to his army, written by General Bradley T. Johnson at his command, read in part:
After four years of arduous service, marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yeild [sic] to overwhelming numbers… You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from the consciousness of duty faithfully performed, and I earnestly pray that a merciful God will extend to you His blessing and protection – With unceasing admiration of your constancy and devotion to your country, and a grateful remembrance of your kind and generous consideration of myself, I bid you an affectionate farewell.
R. E. Lee