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

         Gen–

See the previous entry here. See all entries here.

15 Convenient Products That Are Perfect for Summer

First Colonial/Lunatec/Safe Touch
First Colonial/Lunatec/Safe Touch

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1. CARSULE Pop-Up Cabin for Your Car; $300 (20 percent off)

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This tent connects to your hatchback car like a tailgate mobile living room. The installation takes just a few minutes and the entire thing stands 6.5 feet tall so you can enjoy the outdoors from the comfort of your car.

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Kinkoo

If you just so happen to be one of those unlucky souls who attracts a suspicious amount of mosquitos the second you step outside, you need this repellent lamp to help keep your arms and legs bite-free. It uses a non-toxic combination of LED lights, air turbulence, and other methods to keep the pests at bay.

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10 Facts About The Blue Lagoon On Its 40th Anniversary

Christopher Atkins and Brooke Shields star in The Blue Lagoon (1980).
Christopher Atkins and Brooke Shields star in The Blue Lagoon (1980).
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Brooke Shields was just 14 years old when she filmed The Blue Lagoon, the infamously sexy and slightly salacious island-set romance that capitalized on burgeoning hormones in a big way. The film was shocking when it debuted on July 5, 1980—but even 40 years later, it can still make jaws drop. Here’s a look at some of its more compelling tidbits, complete with undiscovered iguanas and a nifty trick to cover up nudity.

1. The Blue Lagoon is based on a trilogy of books by Henry De Vere Stacpoole.

Although the film closely follows the events of the first book in Henry De Vere Stacpoole’s series, also called The Blue Lagoon, the film’s sequel (1991’s Return to the Blue Lagoon) breaks with the storyline presented in the 1920s-era trilogy to essentially re-tell the original story (read: more tanned teens falling in love on a tropical island). Stacpoole’s books were far more concerned with the culture of the South Seas population, particularly as it was being further influenced by the arrival of European cultures.

2. The Blue Lagoon was adapted into a film twice before.

In 1923, director W. Bowden crafted a silent version of the story. More than a quarter-century later, British filmmaker Frank Launder made a very well-received version for the big screen in 1949, starring Jean Simmons and Donald Houston. The film was immensely popular, becoming the seventh-highest grossing domestic film at the U.K. box office that year.

3. The Blue Lagoon's costume team came up with a clever trick to keep Brooke Shields covered up.

Brooke Shields was just 14 years old when she filmed The Blue Lagoon, which led to some challenges for the production team, especially as Shields’s Emmeline is frequently topless. So the costume designers hatched an ingenious (and, really, just kind of obvious) way to keep her covered up at all times: they glued her long-haired wig to her body.

4. Brooke Shields’s age was an issue for a long time.

Even after The Blue Lagoon was long wrapped, completed, and released into theaters, issues related to Shields’s age at the time of filming still lingered. Years later, Shields testified before a U.S. Congressional inquiry that body doubles—of legal age—were used throughout filming.

5. The Blue Lagoon was nominated for an Oscar.

Cinematographer Néstor Almendros was nominated for his work on The Blue Lagoon. And while he lost out to Geoffrey Unsworth and Ghislain Cloquet for Tess, he already had one Oscar at home for his contributions to Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven (1978). The skilled DP, who passed away in 1992, was also nominated for Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) and Sophie’s Choice (1982).

6. A new species of iguana was discovered when it appeared in The Blue Lagoon.

Parts of the film were lensed on a private island that is part of Fiji, one of the habitats of the now-critically endangered Fiji crested iguana. The iguana appeared throughout the film, and when herpetologist John Gibbons caught an early screening of the feature, he realized that the animal that kept popping up on the big screen wasn't a familiar one. So he traveled to Fiji (specifically, to the island of Nanuya Levu), where he discovered the Fiji crested iguana, an entirely new Fijian native.

7. The Blue Lagoon won a Razzie.

Despite its stellar source material and Oscar-nominated camerawork, The Blue Lagoon wasn’t beloved by everyone: The Razzies foisted a Worst Actress award on Shields. The actress won (lost? hard to tell?) over an extremely mixed bag of other nominees that somehow also included Shelley Duvall for The Shining. Come on, Razzies.

8. The Blue Lagoon director Randal Kleiser hatched a plan to get his stars to like each other.

Because the chemistry between the two leads was vital to the success of The Blue Lagoon, director Randal Kleiser (who also directed Grease) came up with the idea to get star Christopher Atkins feeling a little lovestruck with Shields by putting a picture of the young starlet over Atkins’s bed. Staring at Shields every night apparently did rouse some feelings in Atkins; the duo had a brief romance while filming. "Brooke and I had a little bit of a romantic, innocent sort of romance in the very beginning of the film," Atkins told HuffPost. “It was very nice—we were very, very close friends."

9. Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins's affection didn’t last for long.

Despite their early attachment, Shields and Atkins soon began bickering nonstop. “Brooke got tired of me,” Atkins told People in 1980. “She thought I took acting too seriously. I was always trying to get into a mood while she would be skipping off to joke with the crew.” Still, Kleiser even capitalized on that, using the tension to fuel the more frustrated scenes, lensing the tough stuff while his leads were tussling.

10. The Blue Lagoon's film shoot basically took place on a desert island.

Kleiser was desperate to capture authenticity for the film, going so far as to live like his characters while making it. "To shoot this kind of story, I wanted to get as close to nature as possible and have our crew live almost like the characters," Kleiser said. "We found an island in Fiji that had no roads, water, or electricity, but beautiful beaches. We built a village of tents for the crew to live in and had a small ship anchored in the lagoon for our camera equipment and supplies. This filming approach was quite unusual, but it just seemed right for this project."

This story has been updated for 2020.