April 9th, 1865, was the end of the Civil War for General Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. For Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant and tens of thousands of Federal and Confederate troops fighting further south, the war stretched out for several more months. After Appomattox, however, only the most zealous and desperate could pretend the Union was not already victorious and the Confederacy was destined to end.
As the sun rose on April 9th in Appomattox, General Lee still clung to the belief his war was not over. 8,000 men from Maj. General John B. Gordon’s Second Corps, along with Lee’s nephew Fitzhugh Lee and what remained of the Confederate cavalry, were lined up for battle just west of the village of Appomattox Court House. Robert E. Lee hoped there was only a thin line of Union cavalry ahead of him that he could smash through, find supplies and rations, and then turn south to march to North Carolina to continue the fight. For a week Grant thwarted Lee’s plans to turn south. He actively blocked Lee’s movements and tried to surround his forces. As a result of these efforts, Grant’s forces had finally gotten ahead of Lee at Appomattox. Lee was in the middle of the fight, his headquarters was east of the village near the center of his army. Gordon’s Second Corps and the Cavalry were west of the village readying for a fight, and Longstreet’s command, the First Corps and Third Corps of the ANV, were in the east guarding the rear. Lee knew more Federal troops were approaching from the east and perhaps the south, and he hoped he could move his army before the Federal reinforcements arrived. Lee’s hopes were dashed by the arrival of thousands of Union infantry, including United States Colored Troops, who had marched most of the night to block the way. By 8:00a.m., Gordon’s men retreated toward the village, Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry was fleeing toward the west, and Lee knew his war was over. Read more about the Battle of Appomattox Court House here.
Grant had ridden west all morning toward the fighting, knowing he was drawing near to the end of the Army of Northern Virginia. On April 7th, after the Confederates had suffered a catastrophic defeat at the Battle of Sailor’s Creek, Grant asked Lee to surrender and declared any “further effusion of blood” was solely Lee’s responsibility. Lee, still believing he could escape Grant, declined to surrender but did ask about the possibility of a peace agreement. Grant tactfully replied that he could not discuss a peace agreement, but he could consider a military surrender. As he realized his army was cornered, Lee asked to discuss terms of surrender on April 9.
After getting word of Gordon’s retreat and the arrival of Federal forces to his rear, Lee rode east, believing Grant would be there to meet him. When Lee arrived at his rear lines, Maj. General Gordon sent word to him that Grant was on the move and could not be reached immediately. Lee sent out two letters to Grant, one through Meade’s lines in the east and one through Sheridan’s lines to the southwest of the village. Grant had been riding all morning to reach Sheridan’s forces and was south of Lee’s army in the outskirts of Appomattox County when the message intercepted him. Grant wrote in his memoirs that the migraine, or “sick headache”, he had been suffering from all night, immediately disappeared when he received Lee’s letter agreeing to surrender. Grant sent a reply with one of his staff officers, Orville Babcock, agreeing to meet and telling Lee to select a meeting site.
After some difficulty and confusion, Babcock crossed into Confederate lines under a flag of truce, and he found Lee resting in an apple orchard near the village, by the Appomattox River. From a distance, Babcock bore a resemblance to Grant, so soon after news of the surrender started going around many thought Babcock’s visit to Lee was the surrender meeting. This confusion led to one of many myths surrounding the surrender at Appomattox, and it caused many soldiers to chop down many of the apple trees in the orchard and cut them into souvenirs of the “surrender.”
Lee read Grant’s letter and sent his aide, Charles Marshall, into the village to find a suitable home for the meeting. Marshall’s account, written years later, is sparse on details, but it seems likely the McLean House was picked simply because Wilmer McLean was the first property owner Marshall encountered. It may be that McLean was also the only property owner who had not fled the village to avoid the fighting from that morning and the evening before. McLean showed Marshall an abandoned, unfurnished building first, but Marshall rejected it as unsuitable. Only then did McLean offer the use of his home.
Lee arrived at the McLean House sometime after one o’clock and waited there with Marshall and Babcock. Grant and his staff arrived at McLean’s parlor half an hour later from the west after riding dozens of miles around the two armies that morning. Grant was uncertain how to bring up the subject of surrender, so after introducing his staff and the army commanders with him, he brought up the Mexican War and the brief meeting the two men had then. Eventually Lee said they should get to the business at hand. In his order book, Grant quickly wrote out the terms, which had already been outlined for Lee in the letters the two generals exchanged over the two previous days. Contrary to many visitor’s expectations, there is no formal surrender document. The surrender was conducted through an exchange of two short letters. Grant’s was a mere five sentences long and Lee’s reply was only three very short, terse sentences.
Aside from Grant and Lee, only Lt. Colonel Marshall and perhaps a half dozen of Grant’s staff officers were present for most of the meeting. Approximately a dozen other Union officers entered the room briefly, including Captain Robert Todd Lincoln. Few besides Grant left detailed accounts of what transpired and while some accounts disagree on the details, there are many key consistencies.
The heart of the terms was that Confederates would be paroled after surrendering their weapons and other military property. If surrendered soldiers did not take up arms again, the United States government would not prosecute them. Grant also allowed Confederate officers to keep their mounts and side arms. Some accounts mention that Grant glanced at Lee’s dress sword before including that line, and Grant indicated he included it to avoid any unnecessary humiliation for the Confederate officers. Stories soon circulated that Lee offered and Grant refused Lee’s ornate sword, but Grant dismissed them all as “pure romance”.
Lee appeared relieved by the terms. Grant said he could not tell what Lee was thinking, but some indication of his anxiety might be inferred. When Lee dressed in his finest uniform that morning, he indicated to his staff that he expected to be taken prisoner and wanted to be in proper form and “make his best appearance”.
Although Lee agreed to the terms, he asked if his men could keep their horses and mules in the cavalry and artillery. The Confederate army provided weapons and military property but the men provided their own mounts. Grant indicated he would not amend the terms but would issue a separate order allowing that to happen. Lee said he thought that would have a happy effect on his men. Lee and Grant also agreed to appoint three officers from each army to act as “commissioner” for the surrender who would work out the details of issuing parole passes, returning Union prisoners the Confederates had captured along the retreat, and sending rations from Union lines to Confederates. Over the next few weeks, additional Confederate forces surrendered using Grant’s terms for Lee as a template.
Marshall penned Lee’s formal letter of acceptance, and Grant’s longtime friend Lt. Colonel Ely S. Parker, a Seneca leader from the Tonawanda Reservation in New York, penned the formal copy of Grant’s letter. In one account of the meeting, General Lee is reported to have recognized Parker as a Native American, extended his hand and said, “I am glad to see one real American here,” to which Parker reportedly replied, “We are all Americans.” Another account reported that Lee appeared offended by Parker’s presence, presumably due to his dark skim. Grant doesn’t mention any interaction at all between Lee and Parker.
By 3:00p.m., the formal copies of the letters indicating the terms and acceptance of the surrender were signed and exchanged, and General Lee left the McLean House to return to his camp. Horace Porter, one of Grant’s staff officers recorded that Lee paused at the top of the stairs and energetically “smote” his hands together three times. Grant and his staff followed him and removed their hats as a respectful, farewell gesture which Lee returned in kind before riding down the stage road.
Grant met with his staff and commanders briefly before also leaving for his temporary headquarters a short distance down west of the village. Grant sent a message via the newly repaired telegraph lines at Appomattox Station to President Lincoln that Lee had surrendered. Within hours the news was being shouted in the streets in Washington, D.C. Coincidentally, Grant’s encampment was just a short walk away from the home of Dr. Samuel Coleman, where Hannah Reynolds, the only civilian casualty of the fighting in Appomattox lived. Reynolds, an enslaved woman, was mortally wounded a few hours early by a Confederate artillery shell. Union surgeons treated her wounds, but she died three days later as a free woman, officially emancipated when Lee surrendered.
The six commissioners for the surrender met that evening in the McLean House and had to bring a table with them, since the room had been largely stripped bare by Union officers purchasing or otherwise acquiring souvenirs from the McLean’s home. In this "commissioners' meeting," they worked out the details of supplying the Confederates, printing and signing paroles, and the format for the formal surrender of weapons, flags, and other military property. Under the supervision of Maj. General George Sharpe, around 30,000 parole passes were printed in the Clover Hill Tavern and 28,231 paroles were issued to the Confederates between April 10th and April 15th.
The next day, April 10th, Grant met briefly with Lee on the eastern edge of the village. Grant apparently hoped to persuade Lee to influence other Confederate forces to surrender, but Lee refused. Grant left Appomattox to continue the work of ending the war. Lee returned to his headquarters where he attempted to remain isolated, refusing to meet with most of the Union officers who wanted to speak with him.
Also, on April 10th, Lee directed Lt. Colonel Marshall to write a farewell address to the Army of Northern Virginia, what became General Order No. 9. In this final formal address to the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee took responsibility for making the decision to surrender to spare further suffering to his men, who he then praised for their “constancy and devotion” to the Confederacy. Lee attributes the Confederacy’s defeat to being “compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources.” Lee was unapologetic for fighting his war and he only seems to have regretted letting his men down. Lee stayed in Appomattox until April 12th, the day of the formal infantry surrender ceremony and the fourth anniversary of the first shot at Fort Sumter that started the conflict.
The war ended for Abraham Lincoln three days later when he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth on the evening of April 14th. For the rest of American, the war lingered through a series of surrenders and the capture of Jefferson Davis in the spring and summer, leading to many competing claims for the “true” end of the war. With each ending there was a new beginning into an uncertain peace and an even more uncertain movement for freedom and equality for the millions of African Americans who were finally free by law, though local practices ensured continued discrimination and slavery in other forms.
Contemporary historians like Dr. Elizabeth Varon in Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War and Dr. Heather Cox Richardson in West From Appomattox have explore changes resulting from Appomattox. Appomattox led to the collapse of the Confederate government and the beginning of systematic “Reconstruction” across the entire South. Lee’s General Order No. 9 may have been the beginning of the “Lost Cause” apologist movement that sought to erase the institution of slavery as a fundamental cause for secession and the war. Perhaps more than being an end or a beginning, the surrender at Appomattox should be viewed as an intersection of change. Most events in human history rarely have neat and tidy beginnings and endings, and the surrender at Appomattox is no exception.
Written by Joe Servis, Teacher at Appomattox County High School
Last updated: August 6, 2020
Appomattox Court House National Historical Park
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