The South Surrenders

General Grant gave General William Tecumseh Sherman full command of the West, while he himself moved east to lead Meade's Army of the Potomac against General Lee's Confederate forces. His strategy: attack the South's strong armies rather than take key Southern cities. While Grant would focus on Lee, Sherman's march through Georgia went after General Joe Johnston's force of 45,000 men. While en route, he hoped to destroy much of the Confederate infrastructure, especially the vital rail and industrial strength of Atlanta. On September 1, 1864, Sherman succeeded in his mission, sending a telegram to the president that “Atlanta is ours.” The capture did much to solidify Lincoln's re-election.

Meanwhile, Lee's Army of Northern Virginia spent much of the fall and winter of 1864–65 hunkered down in trenches. Grant tried to cut off Lee's resources. With fewer supplies making it to the front lines, and with Confederate soldiers deserting the ranks, Lee knew he had to make a move. In March 1865, he decided to attack the Union's Fort Stedman long enough to divert Grant and, he hoped, effect an escape to join Joseph E. Johnston's forces farther south. But the attempt failed, and with Grant commandeering Lee's last rail supply line, Lee advised Jefferson Davis to move his Confederate government out of Richmond. Nonetheless, Lee took his dwindling troops toward Lynchburg, but the Rebel lines collapsed at Sailor's Creek. Finally, desertion, disease, near-starvation, and the Union's relentless attacks brought the Confederacy to its knees.

In a quiet country village near a rail stop, General Robert E. Lee brought his weary regiments into the Appomattox Courthouse. His men didn't even resemble warriors. Their supplies captured, they could no longer fight, especially with a wall of Union soldiers surrounding them.

Calling a truce, Lee asked for a meeting with Grant to discuss surrender terms. On the afternoon of April 9, 1865, the two generals met at the home of Virginian Wilmer McLean. While they chatted about the Mexican War initially, Grant knew that whatever they discussed regarding the Civil War's end would have a profound effect on the country's restoration. Grant, a man of Lincoln's choosing and, so it appeared, beliefs, decided not to humiliate the Confederate side. In his offer to Lee, he stated that Confederate forces could keep their own horses, baggage, and sidearms, returning home with the assurance that U.S. authorities would not harm them. Grant even made arrangements to feed Lee's troops before the two parted.

Lee's army stacked its arms and surrendered battle flags on April 12, 1865, though it took until June for all Confederate forces to lay down their arms. When the Union forces gloated over their victory with artillery salutes, Grant demanded they stop. Later he wrote, “We did not want to exult over their downfall. The war is over. The rebels are our countrymen again.”

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