The Appomattox Campaign
At daybreak the Army of Northern Virginia launched its last offensive, designed to push the Federal cavalry off the road from Appomattox Court House to Appomattox Station. After their long ride and fight of the previous evening Custer's troopers had been relieved and two other Union cavalry brigades held the position astride the road.
Initially the rebel infantry were successful driving the outnumbered Union horseman back but then, at the last possible moment, General Ord's infantry arrived, having marched more than thirty miles in twenty-four hours, sealing off the escape route and with Custer riding rapidly to the scene. The end had come.
In his memoirs, Edward Porter Alexander recounts meeting with Lee who told him of his plans to surrender. General Alexander recommended Lee instead order the army to scatter and make their way to either join General Johnston in North Carolina or report to their state governors for assignment. He describes verbatim and at length both his argument and Lee's response which, since the memoir was written 30 years after the event is unlikely to be word for word accurate. Nonetheless, the commander's response, as described by Alexander, is very much what we would have wanted the Lee of our imagination to say:
Suppose I should take your suggestion & order the army to disperse & make their way to their homes. The men would have no rations & they would be under no discipline. They are already demoralized by four years of war. They would have to plunder & rob to procure subsistence. The country would be full of lawless bands in every part, & a state of society would ensue from which it would take the country years to recover. Then the enemy's cavalry would pursue in the hopes of catching the principal officers & wherever they went there would be fresh rapine & destruction.On hearing Lee's response, Alexander writes that he "was so ashamed of having proposed to him such a foolish and wild cat scheme".
And, as for myself, while you young men might afford to go to bushwhacking, the only proper & dignified course for me would be to surrender myself & take the consequences of my actions.
But it is still early in the spring, & if the men can be quietly & quickly returned to their homes there is time to plant crops & begin to repair the ravages of war. That is what I must now try to bring about.
Shortly thereafter, Lee received Grant's response to his letter of the previous evening; the note that had caused Grant's aide such consternation and of which Alexander, who only saw the text years later, remarked "I must say that I think this letter somewhat difficult to understand, & I could easily imagine Gen. Grant taking it only for a ruse to gain time":
Your note of yesterday is received. I have no authority to treat on the subject of peace. The meeting proposed for 10 A.M. today could lead to no good. I will state, however, that I am equally desirous for peace with yourself, and the whole North entertains the same feeling. The terms upon which peace can be had are well understood. By the South laying down their arms, they would hasten that most desirable event, save thousands of human lives, and hundreds of millions in property not yet destroyed. Seriously hoping that all our difficulties may be settled without the loss of another life, I subscribe myself, etc.,Lee replied immediately:
U.S. Grant, Lieutenant-General
I received your note of this morning on the picket-line whither I had come to meet you and ascertain definitely what terms were embraced in your proposal of yesterday with reference to the surrender of this army. I now ask an interview, in accordance with the offer contained in your letter of yesterday, for that purpose.Now the mechanics of passing the messages and trying to arrange a cease-fire across a battlefield where the armies were in close contact over an area of several square miles, became extremely important. Scattered fighting continued until between 10 and 11 A.M. Several Confederate commanders sent out officers with truce flags. At some locations Federal officers rode out from their lines and cease-fires took hold. At another location a Confederate officer approached General Custer, who knowing nothing of the Lee-Grant letter exchange rejected the truce offer. Shortly thereafter Custer, accompanied by only one orderly, rode into the Confederate lines and encountering General Longstreet demanded he unconditionally surrender his command and threatened to attack if he did not do so. Longstreet's response to Custer is variously reported as "Pitch in as much as you like" or "go ahead and have all the bloodshed you want" and had him escorted back to the Union lines.
Around noon, Grant received Lee's note and he later remarked that the migraine headache he'd had since the prior day immediately lifted.
Lee's aides selected the home of Wilmer McLean for the meeting with Grant. McLean was a wholesale grocer who, in 1861, owned a home in Manassas, Virginia, which served as headquarters for General Beuregard, commander of the Confederate Army, at the Battle of Bull Run, the first major battle of the war. Deciding to move his family to safer ground he settled in 1863 at Appomattox Court House. EP Alexander, who had met McLean in 1861, wrote:
The first hostile shot I ever saw strike, went through his kitchen. The last gun was fired on his land and the surrender took place in his parlor . . . (McLean House)
Lee arrived at the McLean house around 1 P.M. dressed in a new, clean uniform. When asked by one of his officers why he was dressed so well, Lee replied "I have probably to be General Grant's prisoner, and I must make my best appearance".
Grant arrived, rumpled and dirty, about a half hour later, having ridden eighteen miles since the morning with no chance to change his uniform.
After some small talk, Grant sat down to write the terms of surrender. He was known to be a remarkably fast and precise draftsman and this is what he handed Lee:
Headquarters, Armies of the United States(Original draft of surrender terms; preserved by Ely S Parker of Grant's staff)
Appomattox Court House, Va., April 9, 1865
General R.E. LEE
Commanding C.S. Army
In accordance with the substance of my letter to you . . . I propose to receive the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia 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 to be 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 are to be parked and stacked, and turned over to the officers appointed by me to receive them. This will not embrace the side-arms of the officers, nor their private horses and baggage. This done, officers and men will be allowed to return to their homes, and not be disturbed by United States authority so long as they observe the their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.
Lieutenant - General
Upon reading the terms Lee remarked to Grant, "This will have a very happy effect upon my army".
Lee had only one additional request, pointing out to Grant that many of his non-officer cavalrymen and artillerymen owned their own horses which they had brought into service and would need for spring planting. Although Grant did not want to alter the written terms, he instructed his officers to allow all Confederates to keep their mounts when they left after the formal surrender.
Lee wrote out his acceptance of the terms, both commanders signed the papers, saluted each other and then Lee and his subordinates left the McLean house a little after 3 P.M.
Upon hearing the news, the Union troops erupted with cheers and the artillery fired salutes. Hearing this Grant ordered the celebrations stopped saying "The Confederates are now our prisoners, and we do not want to exult over their downfall".
In his remarkable Personal Memoirs (a classic of American literature), written on his deathbed twenty years later, U.S. Grant reflected upon the day:
I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.Edward Porter Alexander wrote - with special emphasis:
For all time it will be a good thing for the whole United States, that of all the Federal generals it fell to Grant to receive the surrender of Lee.Alexander also remarked on the importance of the last sentence in Grant's surrender terms allowing the Confederates to "not be disturbed by United States authority" as long as they abided by the terms of their paroles:
I've always been particularly impressed with the last sentence, which in such few & simple & unobjectionable words, practically gave an amnesty to every surrendered soldier for all political offences. The subject had not been discussed, nor referred to in any way. Nor did there seem, at the time, any likelihood that there would ever be any vindictive desire to hang or punish our prominent men for treason. Nor would there have been had Mr. Lincoln lived. But after his death there came a time when even Gen. Lee's blood was specially thirsted for, and when this provision enabled Gen. Grant to protect him even against President Johnson & with him every paroled soldier in the South. For the terms given by Gen. Grant were followed in the surrender of all the other armies [for more, see The Largest Confederate Surrender]. Gen. Horace Porter has told me personally of President Johnson's insisting that "the hanging should begin" & of Gen. Grant's threatening to resign from the command of the army if the protection he had promised to the surrendered were violated in a single instance.Alexander was right in recognizing this sentence's importance. It meant no prison, no treason trials, no penalties for those who surrendered. Arguably, Grant exceeded his authority by writing terms of peace, not just of capitulation for an army. Fortunately, his personal prestige was such that later political attempts to alter the terms failed.
The formal surrender of the nearly 30,000 men of the Army of Northern Virginia was scheduled for April 10 (cavalry), April 11 (artillery) and April 12 (infantry).
While Lee and Grant were inside the McLean House, George Armstrong Custer was nearby renewing acquaintances with old Confederate friends. After Lee and Grant left, General Sheridan paid Wilmer McLean $20 for the pine table on which the surrender documents were written. He gave it to Custer for him to give to his wife, Libby, along with a note penned by Sheridan:
My dear Madam, I respectfully present to you the small writing table on which the conditions for the surrender of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia were written by Lieutenant General Grant, and permit me to say, Madam, that there is scarcely an individual in our service who has contributed more to bring this about than your very gallant husband.Libby Custer, who outlived her husband by nearly 57 years, cherished the table, which is now in the Smithsonian Museum.
(Replica of table at which Grant wrote surrender terms & given to Libby Custer)