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American Civil War: Surrender at Appomattox

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American Civil War: Surrender at Appomattox

McLean House, Appomattox, VA

Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

Appomattox - Background:

Having been forced from Petersburg on April 2, 1865, General Robert E. Lee retreated west with his Army of Northern Virginia. With his situation desperate, Lee sought to re-supply before moving south into North Carolina to join with General Joseph Johnston. Marching during the night of April 2/3, the Confederates intended to rendezvous at Amelia Court House where supplies and rations were expected. As Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant was forced to pause to occupy Petersburg and Richmond, Lee was able to put some space between the armies.

Arriving at Amelia on April 4, Lee found trains loaded with munitions but none with food. Forced to pause, Lee sent out forage parties, asked the local populace for aid, and ordered food sent east from Danville along the railroad. Having secured Petersburg and Richmond, Grant pushed forward forces under Major General Philip Sheridan to pursue Lee. Moving west, Sheridan's Cavalry Corps and attached infantry fought several rearguard actions with the Confederates and rode ahead in an effort to cut the railroad in front of Lee. Learning that Lee was concentrating at Amelia, he began moving his men towards the town.

Appomattox - Disaster at Sayler's Creek:

Having lost his lead on Grant's men and believing his delay to be fatal, Lee departed Amelia on April 5 despite securing little food for his men. Retreating west along the railroad towards Jetersville, he soon found that Sheridan's men had arrived there first. Stunned as this development precluded a direct march to North Carolina, Lee elected not to attack due to the late hour and instead conducted a night march to the north around the Union left with the goal of reaching Farmville where he believed supplies to be waiting. This movement was spotted around dawn and Union troops resumed their pursuit (Map).

The next day, Lee's army suffered a crushing reverse when elements were badly defeated at the Battle of Sayler's Creek. The defeat saw him lose around a quarter of his army, as well as several generals, including Lieutenant General Richard Ewell. Seeing the survivors of the fight streaming west, Lee exclaimed, "My God, has the army dissolved?" Consolidating his men at Farmville early on April 7, Lee was able to partially re-provision his men before being forced out by early afternoon. Moving west, Lee hoped to reach supply trains that were waiting at Appomattox Station.

Appomattox - Trapped:

This plan was dashed when Union cavalry under Major General George A. Custer arrived in the town and burned the trains. As Lee's army concentrated at Appomattox Court House on April 8, Union cavalry assumed blocking positions on a ridge southwest of the town. Seeking to end the campaign, Grant had three infantry corps march through the night to be in position to support the cavalry. Hoping to reach the railroad in Lynchburg, Lee met with his commanders on April 8 and decided to attack west the next morning with the goal of opening the road.

At dawn on April 9, Major General John B. Gordon's Second Corps began assaulting Sheridan's cavalry. Pushing back the first line, their attack began to slow as they engaged the second. Reaching the crest of the ridge, Gordon's men were discouraged to see the Union XXIV and V Corps deployed for battle. Unable to advance against these forces, Gordon informed Lee, "Tell General Lee I have fought my corps to a frazzle, and I fear I can do nothing unless I am heavily supported by Longstreet's corps." This was not possible as Lieutenant General James Longstreet's corps was coming under attack by the Union II Corps.

Appomattox - Grant & Lee Meet:

With his army surrounded on three sides, Lee accepted the inevitable stating, "Then there is nothing left for me to do but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths." While most of Lee's officers favored surrender, others did not fearing that it would lead to the end of the war. Lee also sought to prevent his army from melting away to fight on as guerrillas, a move that he felt would have long term harm for the country. At 8:00 AM Lee rode out with three of his aides to make contact with Grant.

Several hours of correspondence ensued which led to a ceasefire and a formal request from Lee to discuss surrender terms. The home of Wilmer McLean, whose house in Manassas had served as Confederate headquarters during the First Battle of Bull Run, was selected to host the negotiations. Lee arrived first, wearing his finest dress uniform and awaited Grant. The Union commander, who had been suffering a bad headache, arrived late, wearing a worn private's uniform with only his shoulder straps denoting his rank.

Overcome by the emotion of the meeting, Grant had difficulty getting to the point, preferring to discuss his previous meeting with Lee during the Mexican-American War. Lee steering the conversation back to the surrender and Grant laid out his terms. Grant's terms for the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia were as follows:

"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."

In addition, Grant also offered to allow the Confederates to take home their horses and mules for use in the spring planting. Lee accepted Grant's generous terms and the meeting ended. As Grant rode away from the McLean house, the Union troops began to cheer. Hearing them, Grant immediately ordered it stopped, stating he did not want his men exalting over their recently defeated foe.

Appomattox - The Surrender

The next day, Lee gave his men a farewell address and talks moved forward regarding the formal surrender ceremony. Though the Confederates wished to avoid such an event, it moved forward under the guidance of Major General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Led by Gordon, 27,805 Confederates marched to surrender two days later. During their procession, in a moving scene, Chamberlain ordered the Union troops to attention and "carry arms" as a sign of respect for the vanquished foe. This salute was returned by Gordon.

With the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, other Confederate armies began to surrender around the South. While Johnston surrendered to Major General William T. Sherman on April 26, other Confederate commands remained operational until capitulating in May and June.

Selected Sources

  • National Park Service: Appomattox Court House
  • The Battle of Appomattox Court House
  • CWPT: Appomattox Court House
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