The Surrender of Robert E. Lee

Lee's army got a one-day jump on Grant's Army of the Potomac, abandoning Petersburg for Danville, Virginia, where Jefferson Davis hoped to reinstate the Confederate government and keep the war going. Lee knew the continuation of hostilities was futile, but as a professional soldier, he couldn't bring himself to question his commander-in-chief.

Flight and Pursuit

On the night of April 3, 1865, Lee's army found itself in Amelia Court House, a little more than twenty miles from Petersburg. Lee had hoped to find rations for his starving men, but there wasn't a single morsel to be had. Desperate to move on, he had no choice but to remain an extra day while scouts foraged the countryside in search of food. This cost Lee his one-day head start and placed him and his men in great jeopardy. The area was swarming with Union troops. Following very close behind were three corps of Union infantry, marching a few miles south of Lee on a parallel course. On the night of April 4, some of Sheridan's cavalry made a tentative move into Amelia Court House. Lee knew he couldn't stay; to do so would have been folly.

The forage wagons upon which Lee had pinned his hopes returned nearly empty on April 5. This meant his men would have to march on empty stomachs, something they had been forced to do for far too long. After another brief delay so that additional Confederate forces under General George Thomas Anderson and General Richard Ewell could join him, Lee ordered his dwindling Army of Northern Virginia to move out — only to find his path blocked by Union infantry and cavalry.

Wilmer McLean's home was located near Manassas, Virginia, directly in the path of the First Battle of Manassas. The man was so shaken by the battle that he decided to move as far away from the war as possible, settling his family in Appomattox. But the war came back and ended in his parlor, where Lee formally surrendered to Grant.

Rather than directly face the larger Federal force, Lee shifted west toward Farmville, where he hoped to receive food and provisions for his men from nearby Lynchburg. The night march there took a heavy toll on Lee's hungry, exhausted men, many of whom stumbled out of the walking columns and were never seen again. And as always, Federal forces continued to harass the Confederates as they slowly made their way. Grant dogged Lee with unflagging determination, pressing closer and closer, unwilling to let his esteemed foe escape again. The end was close, and both men knew it.

Disaster at Sayler's Creek

On April 6, Union forces overwhelmed John Gordon's divisions, which were covering the Confederate wagon trains, at Sayler's Creek. During that battle, Union soldiers captured the majority of Lee's supply wagons and, even more heartbreaking, decimated the corps led by Anderson and Ewell. Lee's army lost more than 7,000 men. He was left with just 15,000 soldiers armed with only muskets and sabers. Opposing them were 80,000 Union infantry and cavalry.

Could Robert E. Lee have continued the war despite being nearly surrounded at Appomattox?

Some of his officers suggested the army disperse to the hills and wage a guerilla war against the Union armies. Lee dismissed the idea, saying he was personally too old and guerilla warfare would cause as much harm to the South as to Union forces.

The following day, Lee's army stumbled into Farmville, where he and his men received food for the first time in many days. Once they had eaten their fill, Lee pressed on, crossing the Appomattox River and burning the bridges behind him. But even that failed to hold back Grant's forces, and Lee continued to feel the Union commander's presence just miles behind him. That evening, Lee received an invitation from Grant to surrender, an offer he quickly refused. A tiny ray of hope remained: if Lee could get his men to Appomattox Station on the rail line to Lynchburg, he could feed them from supply trains there, then swing south to Danville.

On April 8, Grant's army forced Lee into another rear-guard action to protect his remaining wagons. As Lee's men fought for their survival, Sheridan's cavalry and infantry under E. O. C. Ord quickly moved past Lee's southern flank and drove into Appomattox Station, where they captured Lee's supply railroad cars and placed themselves across his line of march. That evening, Lee's army entered Appomattox Court House a few miles from Appomattox Station and saw the extent of Sheridan's force. The Confederates were greatly outnumbered by heavily armed Union cavalry and infantry, far too many for them to engage. An assault would have been suicide, and all knew it. The end had finally come for Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.

Total Confederate and Union deaths attributed to the Civil War from both battle and disease is approximately 623,000. At least 471,400 more were wounded. The total casualty list for the war is about 1,094,400.

The following day, April 9 — Palm Sunday — Lee put on his best dress uniform, including a red silk sash, a jeweled sword given to him by women in England, red-stitched spurred boots, and long gray gloves, known as gauntlets. He planned to meet with Grant to discuss surrender terms and wanted to look his best if Grant took him prisoner. It was an agonizing decision for Lee, who told Gordon he would rather “die a thousand deaths.” But he had no choice. If he didn't surrender, thousands more would die needlessly.

Surrender at the McLean House

Grant and Lee were an exercise in contrast when they shook hands in Wilmer McLean's parlor in Appomattox Court House. Lee looked resplendent in his finest dress uniform, and Grant, who had been nursing a severe headache that morning and hadn't had time to clean up, appeared mudspattered and disheveled. Grant arrived alone and found Lee standing with two aides. He removed his gloves and extended his hand to the man he had pursued for so long. The two officers then sat down as six of Grant's generals entered the room and stood behind their commander.

Grant did no gloating that day. He told Lee that his officers and men would have to surrender, then be paroled and disqualified from taking up arms again unless properly exchanged with Northern prisoners (which, of course, was never contemplated). All arms, ammunition, and supplies were to be delivered up as captured property. After a request from Lee, Grant promised to “let all the men who claim to own a horse or mule take the animals home with them to work their little farms.” Grant also authorized all of the provisions Lee needed to feed his starving men. Lee was very appreciative of Grant's kind gesture, noting, “This will have the best possible effect on the men. It will be very gratifying and will do much toward conciliating our people.”

After signing the declaration of surrender, Lee stood up and shook Grant's hand one more time. He bowed to the other men in the room and walked silently out the door. On the porch, Lee put his riding gloves on and gazed for a moment toward the hillside where his ragtag army awaited his return. He absently drove his right fist into his left hand three times, then mounted his beloved horse Traveller and rode away to deliver the difficult news to his men.

The first soldier buried at Arlington National Cemetery was a Confederate prisoner of war who died in a local hospital. In all, more than 200 other Southerners would be interred there. Most of the early plots were located in what had been Mary Lee's rose garden; Union brigadier general Montgomery Meigs wanted to make it impossible for the Lees to return to their prewar residence.

Three days later, on April 12, what was left of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia relinquished their weapons and received their paroles, which allowed them to return home. Though a handful of minor battles would be fought in the weeks ahead, the war was virtually over, and the Confederate States of America, so eager to prove its independence, no longer existed. On April 14, General Robert Anderson raised the American flag over Fort Sumter — the same flag he had been forced to lower exactly four years earlier. Later that evening, Lincoln was killed at Ford's Theatre by John Wilkes Booth. Others would die in skirmishes over the next few weeks, but in many ways, Lincoln was the final casualty in a war that took so many.

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