American Iliad

Grant and Lee at Appomattox

Posted 1/21/2020 By Mark Grimsley
Library of Congress
The McLean House in Appomattox Court House, Virginia, where Robert E. Lee met with Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865, to discuss terms of surrender.

In the minds of most Americans, the Civil War came to an end at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 9, 1865. Strictly speaking, that isn’t true. The conflict’s last military engagement was more than two months later at Palmito Ranch, Texas. (It was, ironically, a Confederate victory.) And the last mass capitulation of Confederate troops occurred on May 26, 1865, when Lieutenant General Simon B. Buckner surrendered the Trans-Mississippi Department to Major General Peter J. Osterhaus. A few minor skirmishes sputtered on even later. The Confederate raider CSS Shenandoah, for example, knew nothing of the surrender until December 1865. Until that time it continued its depredations against the northern whaling fleet in the waters off Alaska. And President Andrew Johnson did not officially declare the rebellion ended until April 2, 1866.[1]
 

These caveats are trivial, but it is also true that the Appomattox surrender was not even when the largest number of Rebel soldiers laid down their weapons. About 28,000 Confederates stacked arms under the Union terms agreed upon at Appomattox. But over 80,000 did so on April 26, when General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered to Major General William T. Sherman near Durham, North Carolina.[2]
 

And yet it’s Appomattox that claims our imagination—just as it did in 1865, when Americans North and South both considered it the death knell of the Confederacy. Why does Appomattox occupy such a central place in the American Iliad? First, the Appomattox surrender entailed the demise of the Army of Northern Virginia, universally acknowledged as the Confederacy’s most formidable field army. Second, it was the moment when the South’s greatest chieftain, General Robert E. Lee, confronted his opposite number in the North, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. Here, then, was the greatest event in the conclusion of the Civil War—and the one with mythical resonance. Everything else trails off into anti-climax.
 

The surrender took place after a weeklong retreat in which Lee was forced to abandon the Richmond-Petersburg entrenchments—a belt of fortifications his army had defended for 10 months—and march westward in a bid to resupply his men in Lynchburg, Virginia, before swinging southward to join up with Joe Johnston’s army, which was then facing Sherman in central North Carolina. If the two armies had been able to unite, the war could have continued, as the Confederate government intended. But it was not to be. On April 6, Union forces managed to capture a considerable chunk of Lee’s army at the Battle of Sailor’s Creek. And by April 8, Union cavalry had cut off Lee’s further retreat to the west. Grant wrote Lee with a summons to surrender. The Confederate general demurred for as long as there seemed a chance to break out and continue the retreat. But when one key subordinate assured him that the situation was hopeless, Lee said sadly, “Then there is nothing left me but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths.”[3]
 

Appomattox Court House surrender
Library of Congress
Grant, Lee, and members of their staffs gather in the parlor of the McLean House in this 1867 lithograph of the Appomattox surrender meeting.

The next step was to agree upon a place for the rival commanders to meet, a decision made by aides serving under both generals—Colonel Charles Marshall for Lee and Colonel Orville E. Babcock representing Grant. They soon agreed upon a spacious three-story house owned by Wilmer McLean, one of a scattering of dwellings that comprised the village of Appomattox Court House. (Tourists often suppose that the surrender occurred at the courthouse itself, but in the 19th century “Court House” was often part of a county seat’s proper name.) As it happened, in July 1861 McLean had lived on the Bull Run battlefield, but he had relocated far away to avoid any more fighting—only to have the war come to an end in his front parlor.
 

Lee, Marshall, and Babcock were the first to arrive, Lee resplendent in his best dress uniform and ceremonial sword. The trio conversed awkwardly while awaiting Grant, with Babcock frequently peering out the window to see if he was coming. After half an hour, the Union general-in-chief arrived, accompanied by several staff officers and a few combat generals, most notably Major General Philip H. Sheridan, whose aggressive pursuit had played a crucial role in bringing Lee’s army to bay. Grant sat at a writing desk opposite Lee. His entourage quietly found places around the room’s periphery.
 

Grant was self-conscious about his appearance. Without his own dress uniform at hand, he was obliged to wear his field attire: a private’s uniform with the three stars of his rank sewn on—and mud-spattered to boot. Grant feared that Lee might take his attire as a studied insult. Lee seems not to have noticed it (although the contrast is sometimes invoked to symbolize an encounter between vanquished southern chivalry and grimy northern modernity).
 

Grant’s concern to preserve his opponent’s dignity was further underscored by his reluctance to get immediately to the matter at hand. Instead he remarked that he had once met Lee during the Mexican War: “I have always remembered your appearance, and I think I should have recognized you anywhere.” Lee responded that he, too, recalled meeting Grant on that occasion, though he confessed that while he had often tried to remember how Grant looked, “I have never been able to recall a single feature.”[4] Grant continued to make small talk about the Mexican War until Lee felt obliged to draw his attention to the matter at hand.
 

Robert E. Lee Appomattox
Library of Congress
Lee departs the McLean House after surrendering to Grant in this sketch by Alfred R. Waud.

This preliminary exchange set the tone for the entire meeting, with Lee the embodiment of dignified rectitude and Grant trying hard to avoid any sign that might humiliate his adversary. The primary surrender terms called upon Lee’s men to be paroled: They would not be made captives, but instead allowed to go to their respective homes provided they did not take up arms again unless properly exchanged. Officers would be permitted to keep their private horses, baggage, and sidearms. When Lee informed Grant that the Confederate army did not issue most soldiers their horses, and that they provided their own, Grant quickly agreed to a codicil whereby any Rebel who claimed to own a horse would be permitted to take it with him. “This will have the best possible effect upon the men,” Lee said. “It will be very gratifying and will do much toward conciliating our people.”[5]
 

Grant concluded by ordering the Union army to issue 25,000 rations to feed its half-famished adversaries, an amount Lee estimated would be more than enough to do the job. One of Grant’s staff officers then wrote out an official copy of the correspondence, and the two generals signed it. It was 3:45 p.m. Lee rose from his desk, shook hands with Grant, bowed gravely to the other assembled Federal officers, then stepped out on the porch and summoned his orderly to bring his horse, Traveller. Lee mounted up. Grant followed him out into the yard and silently removed his hat. The other Union officers did the same. Lee raised his own hat, then wordlessly turned and rode off to convey the news of the surrender to his men. Word soon reached Federal soldiers as well, and understandably some artillerists touched off cannon in salute to the victory. But Grant lost no time in sending staff officers to quash the celebration. “The war is over,” he said. “The rebels are our countrymen again.”[6]
 

In all of this there is not a hint of the struggle between slavery and freedom that lay at the heart of the Civil War. The Appomattox story thus fits perfectly into a central theme of the American Iliad: the moral equivalence of the Union and Confederate sides. The mutual respect and gallantry shown by Grant and Lee drove home this point more firmly than almost anything else one can imagine. For that reason, this episode occupies a cherished place in the American album. It was more than a surrender ceremony. It was almost a pageant of sectional reconciliation.


 

MARK GRIMSLEY, A HISTORY PROFESSOR AT THE OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY, IS THE AUTHOR OF SEVERAL BOOKS, INCLUDING AND KEEP MOVING ON: THE VIRGINIA CAMPAIGN, MAY–JUNE 1864 (2002) AND THE HARD HAND OF WAR: UNION MILITARY POLICY TOWARD SOUTHERN CIVILIANS, 1861–1865 (1995). HE HAS ALSO WRITTEN MORE THAN 50 ARTICLES AND ESSAYS.

 

This article appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of The Civil War Monitor.

 

Notes:

 

1. E.B. Long with Barbara Long, The Civil War Day by Day: An Almanac, 1861–1865 (Garden City, NY, 1971), 670–671, 688, 690, 695, 696–697.

 

2. David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, eds., Encyclopedia of the American Civil War, 5 vols. (Santa Barbara, CA, 2000), 1: 72, 212. These figures encompass not just the troops actually present on the day of the respective surrenders, but rather all troops legally included under the surrender terms.

 

3. A.L. Long, Memoirs of Robert E. Lee (reprint; Secaucus, NJ, 1983), 421.

 

4. Douglas Southall Freeman, R. E. Lee: A Biography, 4 vols. (New York, 1935), 4: 135–136.

 

5. Freeman, Lee, 4: 139.

 

6. Horace Porter, Campaigning with Grant (Bloomington, 1956), 486.

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