After a series of skirmishes, engagements, and battles stretching gradually farther and farther west from Petersburg toward Lynchburg, the Appomattox Campaign ended on Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865, about eighty-five miles from where it started, when Confederate general John B. Gordon's Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia and Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry launched a final attack from the vicinity of Appomattox Court House in the hope of punching through the United States forces in front of them and continuing their movement west along the road to Lynchburg. Attacking what they thought and hoped was only a brigade of Union general Philip H. Sheridan's cavalry, the Confederates soon found themselves facing the entire Army of the James, which included a division of the Twenty-fifth Corps made up of United States Colored Troops. With elements of Sheridan's cavalry and the Army of the James to his west, the Union Fifth Corps to his southwest, the remainder of Sheridan's cavalry to his south, and the Union Second and Sixth Corps to his rear, Lee realized that he could not justify further fighting and accordingly set up a white flag of truce.
Because at that moment Grant was still a few miles from Appomattox Court House, and could not receive direct communication from him, Lee sent flags to Meade in the rear and to Sheridan in the front, requesting a suspension of hostilities until he could communicate directly with Grant. At first Sheridan suspected Lee of some deception but at last consented to a suspension. During this time, Lee sent the following message to Grant, with whom he had been in correspondence about peace terms since Friday, April 7, by means of a Union officer escorted through Confederate lines in order to reach Grant by the shortest route: "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 request an interview in accordance with the offer contained in your letter of yesterday for that purpose." Grant, who wrote Lee that he received this message at 11:50 in the morning, also wrote of this moment later in his Personal Memoirs (1885–1886): "When the officer reached me I was still suffering with the sick headache; but the instant I saw the contents of the note I was cured."
Meeting and Negotiation
The foundation for subsequent reconciliation between the warring sections began with this document, which apparently reflected Grant's sense of Lincoln's wishes at their meetings not quite two weeks earlier. Grant noted that when Lee "read over the part of the terms about side arms, horses and private property of the officers, he remarked, with some feeling, I thought, that this would have a happy effect upon his army." Alexander confirmed that happy effect with two sentences of his own, the second of which he italicized for resonant emphasis: "Indeed Gen. Grant's conduct toward us in the whole matter is worthy of the very highest praise & indicates a great & broad & generous mind. 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."
Lee's surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia did not immediately end the war, although his farewell address quietly assumed that Confederate soldiers should and would now return peaceably to their homes, instead of dispersing into guerrilla units to continue fighting. Johnston's Army of Tennessee surrendered on April 26; Confederate forces in the Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana on May 4; the Department of the Trans-Mississippi on June 2; and the Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, and Osage Battalion, led by Confederate general Stand Watie, on June 23.
Ceremony and Legacy
Two noteworthy figures who helped enlarge the surrender at Appomattox into an image of national reconciliation were Confederate general John B. Gordon and Union general Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Skeptics have argued that each man exaggerated or romanticized the role he played in the formal surrender ceremony, which took place on Wednesday, April 12, in the absence of both Grant, who left Appomattox on April 10 to see Lincoln in Washington, D.C., and Lee, who departed on April 11 to return to his family in Richmond. It is not clear, for example, what authority Chamberlain actually possessed, since he was not the highest-ranking Union officer remaining at Appomattox Court House. But whatever the truth of Gordon's and Chamberlain's respective accounts of the surrender ceremony—Chamberlain produced several during the remainder of his life—they agreed largely with each other, and those accounts shaped, and still do shape, many people's vision of the surrender.
The power of this moment, however embellished by subsequent narration, has captured many an imagination, its sublimity appealing to what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. A subject of popular Civil War art, for example, it has also appeared in recent books on business leadership, the importance of forgiveness in personal relationships, and spirituality for ministers. For many it closes the unsettling, complicated history of the war on an inspiring and reassuring note, and in certain areas of popular imagination it may prove far more difficult to dislodge or qualify than the story that Grant and Lee signed the surrender papers under an apple tree, a legend that arose after Lee spent time waiting for Grant on April 9 in an apple orchard.
April 9, 1865, 7:50–10:00 a.m. - Confederates under John B. Gordon and Fitzhugh Lee attack Charles Smith's Union brigade in a last-ditch effort to escape the encircling Union army. Hard-marching reinforcements from the Army of the James and the Fifth Corps prevent a breakout, and Confederates send out truce flags.
April 9, 1865, 11:50 a.m. - Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant receives a message from Confederate general Robert E. Lee seeking terms of surrender.
April 9, 1865, 1:30–3:00 p.m. - Confederate general Robert E. Lee meets Ulysses S. Grant at the home of Wilmer McLean in the village of Appomattox Court House. The meeting results in the surrender of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.
April 10, 1865 - Confederate general Robert E. Lee's General Orders No. 9, his farewell address to the Army of Northern Virginia, praises his troops' "unsurpassed courage and fortitude." He also tells them they had been "compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources." Both arguments become fixtures of the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War.
April 10, 1865 - Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant departs from Appomattox Court House, where he accepted the surrender of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, for Washington, D.C.
April 11, 1865 - After surrendering the Army of Northern Virginia to Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant two days earlier, Confederate general Robert E. Lee leaves Appomattox Court House to be with his family in Richmond.
April 12, 1865, 5 a.m. - Almost four years to the minute after the first shots were fired on Fort Sumter, Union general Joshua Chamberlain assembles elements of the Fifth Corps along the main street of Appomattox Court House as part of the formal surrender ceremony. The Union men reportedly salute passing Confederates, who salute back.
April 26, 1865 - Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston surrenders his army to William T. Sherman, receiving the same terms afforded Robert E. Lee at Appomattox.
May 4, 1865 - Confederate forces in the Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana surrender.
June 2, 1865 - Confederate forces in the Department of the Trans-Mississippi surrender.
June 23, 1865 - The Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, and Osage Battalion, commanded by Confederate general Stand Watie, are among the last Confederate forces to surrender.
- Civil War, American (1861–1865)
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Cushman, S. Surrender at Appomattox. (2012, September 17). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Surrender_at_Appomattox.
- MLA Citation:
Cushman, Stephen. "Surrender at Appomattox." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 17 Sept. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: May 3, 2011 | Last modified: September 17, 2012