Surrender at Appomattox Court House

Surrender at Appomattox

The surrender at Appomattox Court House occurred in April 1865 when Confederate general Robert E. Lee submitted to Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant, all but ending the American Civil War (1861–1865). After the fall of Richmond on April 2–3, Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia had retreated west to the village of Appomattox Court House when, on April 9, the well-positioned Army of the James forced them to raise a white flag. Within hours an elated Grant hosted his adversary in the drawing room of a house owned by Wilmer McLean, who four years earlier had fled his home near the fighting at the First Battle of Manassas for the comparative quiet of the Appomattox countryside. Now Lee, in a spotless dress uniform, accepted generous terms from the more informally dressed Grant, who paroled the Confederate soldiers and allowed the officers to keep their sidearms and horses. Lee subsequently issued his famous farewell orders, praising his men's courage and blaming their defeat on superior Union resources. These documents, combined with stories by Confederate general John B. Gordon and Union general Joshua Chamberlain of generous Union tributes at the formal surrender on April 12, formed a narrative of reconciliation that remained influential into the twenty-first century. Generally left out of that narrative, however, have been African Americans, who, after emancipation, struggled against white supremacy in the South. MORE...

 

Background

The Appomattox Campaign began on Wednesday, March 29, 1865. After a final meeting at City Point, Virginia, to discuss strategy with United States president Abraham Lincoln, Union general William T. Sherman, and Admiral David Porter, Ulysses S. Grant set in motion the Army of the Potomac, commanded by George G. Meade, and the Army of the James, commanded by Edward O. C. Ord, with the intention of turning the right, or southern, flank of Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, entrenched at Petersburg, Virginia, since June of the previous year. If Grant could get his armies around Lee's right, he would prevent the Army of Northern Virginia from escaping west to link up with Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston's Army of Tennessee, then operating in North Carolina against Sherman. At the opening of the Appomattox Campaign, Grant's two armies numbered about 125,000 and Lee's Army of Northern Virginia less than half that number.

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

Confederate general Edward Porter Alexander, chief of artillery for the First Corps, estimated that it was about two o'clock on the afternoon of April 9 when Lee received a message that Grant was on his way to Appomattox Court House and about 4:30 when Lee rode back from his meeting with Grant. Other sources place the meeting between approximately 1:30 and 3. During this time Lee, accompanied by his aide Colonel Charles Marshall and, according to Grant, "dressed in a full uniform which was entirely new, and … wearing a sword of considerable value," met with Grant, his staff, and several Union generals, among them Sheridan and Ord, but not George A. Custer or Meade. Years later Grant reflected that in his "rough traveling suit, the uniform of a private with the straps of a lieutenant-general" he "must have contrasted very strangely with a man so handsomely dressed, six feet high and of faultless form." Subsequent memories and representations of this moment have confirmed Grant's sense of the contrast, with each man's appearance standing, respectively, for a larger social ethos, admired or denigrated, depending on a particular observer's point of view.

The meeting took place at the house of Wilmer McLean, former owner of the dwelling that had served as Confederate general P. G. T. Beauregard's headquarters during the First Battle of Manassas. That house having been damaged during the battle, McLean afterward moved his family to Appomattox Court House, in the words of Alexander, "a secluded spot where he could hope never to see a soldier": "It was certainly a very remarkable coincidence. The first hostile shot I ever saw strike, went through his kitchen. The last gun was fired on his land and the surrender took place in his parlor; nearly four years of time & 200 miles of space intervening." Of events unfolding in McLean's parlor, Grant recorded that he and Lee fell into pleasant conversation, from which Lee recalled his attention to the matter at hand, the terms proposed for surrender. Grant called for writing materials and drafted the following terms, addressed personally to Lee: In accordance with the substance of my letter to you of the 8th inst., I propose to receive the surrender of the Army of N. Va. on the following terms, to wit: Rolls of all the officers and men to be made in duplicate. One copy to be given to an officer designated by me, the other to be retained by such officer or officers as you may designate. The officers to give their individual paroles not to take up arms against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged, and each company or regimental commander sign a like parole for the men of their commands. The arms, artillery and public property to be parked and stacked, and turned over to the officer appointed by me to receive them. This will not embrace the side-arms of the officers, nor their private horses or baggage. This done, each officer and man will be allowed to return to their homes, not to be disturbed by United States authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.

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."

Grant's terms accepted by Lee, the meeting of April 9 broke up. On April 10 Lee's headquarters issued General Orders No. 9, also known as Lee's farewell to the Army of Northern Virginia: After four years of arduous service, marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources. I need not tell the survivors of so many hard-fought battles, who have remained steadfast to the last, that I have consented to this result from no distrust of them; but, feeling that valour and devotion could accomplish nothing that could compensate for the loss that would have attended the continuation of the contest, I have determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen. By the terms of the agreement, officers and men can return to their homes and remain there until exchanged. You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from the consciousness of duty faithfully performed; and I earnestly pray that a merciful God will extend to you His blessing and protection. With an increasing admiration of your constancy and devotion to your country, and a grateful remembrance of your kind and generous consideration of myself, I bid you an affectionate farewell.

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

Even in this relatively modest and reasonable form, Lee's claim in the first sentence of General Orders No. 9 discounts the quality of Union generalship in the Eastern Theater from May 1864 to April 1865, as well as the efficacy of Union grand strategy during that period. It also passes over his increasing private doubts about the "unsurpassed courage and fortitude" of Confederate soldiers, thousands of whom deserted during the Appomattox Campaign. As the Lost Cause view of the war developed, it grew into a much larger, sweeping belief that the greater numbers and material strength of all Union forces made inevitable from the beginning the defeat of all Confederate forces, Confederate forces that nevertheless fought nobly and heroically in the face of this inevitable outcome. In his Personal Memoirs (Chapter 68) Grant sharply challenged this view, and many subsequent historians have done likewise. But the Lost Cause view played, and continues to play, a significant role in some versions of reconciliation, which focus on magnanimous victors welcoming the gallant vanquished back into the restored nation without mentioning the role played by slavery in the coming of the war and its subsequent prosecution.

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.

At 5 a.m. on April 12, almost four years to the minute after the first signal shot was fired at Fort Sumter, Chamberlain began assembling elements of the Union Fifth Corps along the road to Lynchburg, the main street of Appomattox Court House, near the courthouse building. Not long afterward the surrendering Confederates marched into the village from Chamberlain's right, led by Gordon's Second Corps. When Gordon and his soldiers came abreast of Chamberlain and his soldiers, the simple truth is no one knows for certain what happened. What does seem certain is that on some command, the Union soldiers made some change in how they were standing, and that change in turn changed the tone of the surrender ceremony. As Chamberlain later represented the moment, he ordered "shoulder arms," intending a salute to the surrendering Confederates. Not to be outdone in gallantry, Gordon ordered his men to attention also, "honor answering honor," in Chamberlain's phrase.

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.

But recent scholarship shows that the surrender at Appomattox did not inspire all citizens toward reconciliation. Some members of Confederate associations, such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy, argued vehemently in the twentieth century against the erecting of a peace monument at Appomattox. Some have suggested that the leniency of Grant's terms anticipated, and in some ways encouraged, a more general northern leniency toward southern racism during and after Reconstruction (1865–1877), and with respect to the history of African Americans in the United States, the surrender at Appomattox began new conflicts even as it ended others. What the surrender did do was bring to a relatively swift close regular military operations that could have continued for an extended period of time throughout much of the Confederacy, if Confederates in a position to continue fighting had rejected the pacifying tenor of the agreement reached in Wilmer McLean's parlor.

Time Line

  • June 23, 1865 - The Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, and Osage Battalion, commanded by Confederate general Stand Watie, are among the last Confederate forces to surrender.
Further Reading
Alexander, Edward Porter. Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander. Edited by Gary W. Gallagher. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.
Blight, David. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001.
Boatner, Mark M., III. The Civil War Dictionary. Rev. ed. New York: David McKay, 1988.
Chamberlain, Joshua L. The Passing of the Armies. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1915.
Grant, Ulysses S. The Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant. Two vols. New York: C. L. Webster, 1885–1886.
Janney, Caroline E. "War over a Shrine of Peace: The Appomattox Peace Monument and Retreat from Reconciliation." Journal of Southern History 77, no. 1 (February 2011): 91–120.
Long, E. B. The Civil War Day by Day. New York, Da Capo, 1971.
Marvell, William. Lee's Last Retreat: The Flight to Appomattox. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
Marvell, William. A Place Called Appomattox. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
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 Sep. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: May 3, 2011 | Last modified: September 17, 2012


Contributed by Stephen Cushman, the Robert C. Taylor Professor of English at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Bloody Promenade: Reflections on a Civil War Battle (1999), among other works.