The Battle of Appomattox Court House

Map showing the locations of armies during the Battle of Appomattox Court House
Appomattox Court House Battle Map

American Battlefield Trust

From April 2nd and the Fall of Petersburg to April 9th and the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House, Confederate and Federal armies engaged in skirmishes and battles, including a major battle at Sailor’s Creek. The Confederates were desperate to get to Lynchburg for supplies and to break out to join Confederate forces in North Carolina. The Federals sought peace as Lincoln envisioned it, starting with the destruction or surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia.

The armies confronted each other on the gently rolling terrain in and around Appomattox Court House at dawn on April 9th (G. Gallagher, 2000). Confederates of the Secord Corps, under the leadership of Major General John B. Gordon, swept forward across the ridgelines to clash with the Federal cavalry of Major General Philip Sheridan. Initial assaults were successful, but Federal infantry from Major General Charles Griffin’s Fifth Corps and Major General John Gibbon’s Twenty Fourth Corps arrived after a forced march. These men, including some 5,000 United States Colored Troops, blocked Lee’s army from accessing roads to Lynchburg and Danville (E. R. Varon, 2018, p. 259).

Confederates under the command of Lieutenant General James Longstreet could not provide support for Gordon because the Federal Second Corps of Major General Andrew A. Humphreys advanced against Longstreet’s troops (P. Schroeder, 2015). Grant, in a letter from April 7, had asked Lee to accept the “hopelessness of further resistance.” With his army surrounded, Lee now agreed with Grant’s assessment and ordered his officers to offer a white flag of truce.

Lee and Grant exchanged letters regarding the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia. Grant’s terms, reflecting Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address and Lincoln’s recent guidance provided at City Point, Virginia, required a promise to surrender arms and not engage in further conflicts against the United States (H. Porter, 2000). Grant did not ask for unconditional surrender (J. Waugh, 2012, p. 325). Lee accepted the terms.

Sergeant Major William McCoslin, serving in the 29th Regiment USCI, declared in a May 1865 letter that “We the colored soldiers, have fairly won our rights by loyalty and bravery” (as cited in Varon, 2018). In contrast, Brigadier General Armistead Lindsay Long from the Army of Northern Virginia communicated that “It is impossible to describe the anguish of the troops when it was known that the surrender of the army was inevitable. Of all their trials, this was the greatest and hardest to endure” (as cited in Neal, 2016). On April 9, Colonel Elisha Hunt Rhodes, who served as part of the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry, chronicled that the “Rebels are half starved, and our men have divided their rations with them . . . . We did it cheerfully” (as cited in Gallagher, 2000). Brevet Major General Joshua Chamberlain stated that “Brave men may become good friends,” but Chamberlain further reported that a Confederate officer was more uncertain: “You’re mistaken, sir . . . . You may forgive us but we won’t be forgiven. There is rancor in our hearts . . . which you little dream of” (1993, p. 201).

On the evening of April 9, Pvt. Hiram W. Harding, who served in the 9th Virginia Cavalry Company D, described this poignant occasion in his diary: the “noble army of Northern Virginia was surrendered to day at ten Oclock & the Cavalry ordered to Buckingham courthouse there to be disbanded” (as cited in Janney, 2018). Federal officials printed parole passes for Confederate soldiers beginning on April 10th from the Clover Hill Tavern; the formal ceremony of the stacking of arms took place April 12th. The American myth of Appomattox, Grant, and Lee and their individual and nuanced symbolism sparked simultaneously with the surrender (H. Howard, 2015).

Written by Russ Wood, Appomattox Court House NHP Volunteer


The Battle of Appomattox Court House started during the early morning hours of April 9, 1865. By the afternoon of the same day, General Robert E. Lee, commander of all Confederate forces, surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. Grant’s Federal Army of the Potomac, Army of the James, and Army of the Shenandoah’s combined operations had backed Lee’s forces into a corner.
References

Chamberlain, J. L. (1993). The Passing of the Armies: An Account of the Final Campaign of the Army of the Potomac, Based Upon Personal Reminiscences of the Fifty Army Corps. New York, NY: Bantam.
Gallagher, Gary W. 2000. “`There Is Rancor in Our Hearts... Which You Little Dream of’.” Civil War Times Illustrated 39 (2): 52. http://search.ebscohost.com.ezcvcc.vccs.edu:2048/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ahl&AN=2929579&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
Grant, U. S. (1903). Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant. New York, NY: De Vinne Press.
Howard, H. 2015. “The Complex Legacy of Appomattox. Civil War Times (54 (3): 38-45. http://search.ebscohost.com.ezcvcc.vccs.edu:2048/login.aspx?direct=true&db-ahl&AN=101632158&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
Janney, C. E. (2018). We Were Not Paroled: The Surrender of Lee's Men beyond Appomattox Court House. In C. E. Janney (Ed.), Petersburg to Appomattox: The End of the War in Virginia (pp. 192-219). Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press.
Neal, J. (2016). “We Were Surrendered”: Civil War Prisoners and the Trauma of Capture. essays in history, 49. Retrieved from http://www.essaysinhistory.com/we-were-surrendered-civil-war-prisoners-and-the-trauma-of-capture/
Porter, Horace C. 2000. “The Surrender at Appomattox.” Civil War Times Illustrated 39 (2): 26.
http://search.ebscohost.com.ezcvcc.vccs.edu:2048/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ahl&AN=2929555&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
Schroeder, P. 2015. “One of the ‘Checker-Board.’” Civil War Times 54 (2): 60–63. http://search.ebscohost.com.ezcvcc.vccs.edu:2048/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ahl&AN=100419196&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
Varon, E. R. (2018). The Last Hour of the Slaveholders’ Rebellion African American Discourse on Lee’s Surrender. In C. E. Janney (Ed.), Petersburg to Appomattox: The End of the War in Virginia (pp. 254-284). Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press.
Waugh, J. (2012). “I Only Knew What Was in My Mind”: Ulysses S. Grant and the Meaning of Appomattox. The Journal of the Civil War Era 2(3), 307-336. doi:10.1353/cwe.2012.0070.

Written by Russ Wood, Appomattox Court House NHP Volunteer

Last updated: July 20, 2020

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