150 Years Ago Today: Civil War Ends With Lee’s Surrender at Appomattox
America’s Civil War came to its practical end 150 years ago today with Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.
At least 618,000 Union and Confederate soldiers had died during the four years leading up to their historic meeting. In a remarkable exchange of letters in the days and hours leading up to the surrender, both Grant and Lee expressed a desire to see no more bloodshed.
“General R.E. Lee, Commanding C.S.A.:
5 P.M., April 7th, 1865.
The results of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia in this struggle. I feel that it is so, and regard it as my duty to shift from myself the responsibility of any further effusion of blood by asking of you the surrender of that portion of the Confederate States army known as the Army of Northern Virginia.
U.S. Grant, Lieutenant-General”
“April 7th, 1865.
General: I have received your note of this date. Though not entertaining the opinion you express of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia, I reciprocate your desire to avoid useless effusion of blood, and therefore, before considering your proposition, ask the terms you will offer on condition of its surrender.
R.E. Lee, General.”
The exchange of letters continued into April 9, until the two leaders agreed to meet. The location would be the home of Wilmer McLean. It was Palm Sunday.
Lee arrived first. Followed by Grant. The physical contrast between the men could not be more stark: The Army of the Potomac’s General Ulysses S. Grant, 43, five-feet eight inches in height, brown hair, disheveled, splattered with mud, fighting off a fierce headache. The Army of Northern Virginia’s General Robert E. Lee, 58, six-feet tall, erect and elegant, hair and beard a silver gray, sporting a crisp new Confederate uniform.
Grant remarked the two had met while officers in the U.S. Army serving in Mexico. “I have always remembered your appearance,” Grant said, “and I think I should have recognized you anywhere.”
“I have often thought of it and tried to recall how you looked,” Lee responded, “but I have never been able to recall a single feature.”
After some more chat about the days when they shared the same uniform, the two turned to the somber business at hand. Their discussion would last two and a half hours. At Lee’s request, Grant wrote out the terms of surrender. His eye caught the glint of Lee’s handsomely crafted sword. The general realized it would be an unnecessary humiliation to make Lee and his officers surrender their swords. He added a line to the terms: “This (surrender) will not embrace the side-arms of the officers, nor their private horses or baggage.”
(You can see Grant’s draft here.)
Lee reviewed the terms. He acknowledged they were generous. Lee asked if his calvary and artillery men could also keep the horses they owned. Grant agreed. Lee then dictated his own letter, formally accepting the terms of surrender.
Grant’s aide-de-camp, Lt. Col. Horace Porter, described what happened next:
“At a little before 4 o’clock General Lee shook hands with General Grant, bowed to the other officers, and with Colonel Marshall left the room. One after another we followed, and passed out to the porch. Lee signaled to his orderly to bring up his horse, and while the animal was being bridled the general stood on the lowest step and gazed sadly in the direction of the valley beyond where his army lay — now an army of prisoners. He smote his hands together a number of times in an absent sort of way; seemed not to see the group of Union officers in the yard who rose respectfully at his approach, and appeared unconscious of everything about him. All appreciated the sadness that overwhelmed him, and he had the personal sympathy of every one who beheld him at this supreme moment of trial. The approach of his horse seemed to recall him from his reverie, and he at once mounted. General Grant now stepped down from the porch, and, moving toward him, saluted him by raising his hat. He was followed in this act of courtesy by all our officers present; Lee raised his hat respectfully, and rode off to break the sad news to the brave fellows whom he had so long commanded.”
Although sporadic fighting between scattered Union and Confederate forces continued for another month, the South’s rebellion against the United States — The Civil War — was over.