Lee’s Choice at Appomattox Revisited

Sometimes it pays to read the original sources.

It is a common assumption that on April 9, 1865, Robert E. Lee made a choice which has rebounded to his great credit.  On that day, so we are told, the Confederate general, upon comprehending his situation, decided to meet Ulysses S. Grant to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia.  In so doing, so the story goes, he declined to continue hostilities by waging guerrilla war, and shared his reasoning about that decision with an artillerist, Edward Porter Alexander, who had proposed the guerrilla warfare option.

Not quite.

For the moment, assume the story as many understand it is true.  By the time the topic came up, Lee had already written to Grant to set up the surrender meeting.  His army was surrounded.  Only a third of his 25,000 or so men were armed.  Many were hungry and tired.  Even if they made a break for it, how many men would get through?  How many would survive?  After all, unless everyone found a gap in the line, they would be rushing headlong into Union infantry, artillery, and cavalry.  Moreover, any breakout would require time to plan.  Yet time for the Army of Northern Virginia was in short supply that Palm Sunday morning, and one would have to believe that the Union forces would not simply sit around and wait while plans were laid and orders were issued.  If there ever was a chance for a guerrilla warfare option, the time for it had run out by April 9.

But is the story true?  Well, let’s go to the man who told the story, Edward Porter Alexander.  The story he told can be found in pages 530-33 of Fighting for the Confederacy, edited by Gary Gallagher, and published in 1989 by the University of North Carolina Press.  Alexander begins by explaining that as for himself, he had contemplated escaping the country should the Confederacy surrender, with his destination being Brazil.  However, when he heard Lee say that it would be impossible for the army to cut its way out, Alexander responded that the choices left came down to surrender or ordering the army “to scatter in the woods & bushes & either to rally upon Gen. Johnston in North Carolina, or to make their way, each man to his own state, with his arms, & to report to his governor”[page 531].

I don’t see the words “guerrilla warfare” in that suggestion.

Lee asked Alexander what he hoped to accomplish by such a proposal.  Alexander responded that if the men dispersed and returned to their states, each governor could negotiate his own set of terms.  That doesn’t sound like guerrilla war, either.  Alexander especially wanted to be spared being the subject of another “unconditional surrender” demand by Grant.

Lee explained to Alexander that even if 2/3 of his armed men were able to escape, 10,000 men would make no difference in the long run (Lee estimated that he had 15,000 men under arms).  The soldiers, hungry and freed from army discipline, “would have to plunder & rob to procure subsistence.”  True, “lawless bands” would cross the countryside, and “a state of society would ensue from which it would take the country years to recover.”  He had no interest in “bushwacking”; as for himself, he was too old.  And the victims of that “bushwacking,” as Lee makes clear, would be southern civilians, not the military forces of the United States.

Yes, Lee preferred surrender to disbanding the army.  But he did not prefer surrendering the army to waging guerrilla warfare, because he simply did not consider that option on the morning of April 9, 1865 … and neither did Alexander.

And that’s all there is.  There’s nothing here about guerrilla warfare or a sustained resistance against the United States.  Nothing at all.  Even the index of the book says “Guerrilla warfare: EPA and Lee discuss,” but if you actually read the passage, they discuss no such thing.  I say this as someone who tends to study the Union side of things and who took this story for granted without giving it much thought.  However, I do realize the consequences of this discovery, which was before all of us in plain sight if only we had chosen to look.

Oh, well.  Another myth destroyed.  Let’s see how quickly word gets around: let’s see how long the old story hangs on.  Let’s see people try to fight for the essential truth of the story as they recall it and explain away why the account upon which that story rests does not support the story.

Sometimes it pays to read the original sources.

22 thoughts on “Lee’s Choice at Appomattox Revisited

  1. James F. Epperson December 14, 2010 / 5:09 am

    I think Lee’s bushwhacking comment is what has led folks—including Gallagher’s indexer—to think of guerrilla war.

    I looked in the older book (Military Memoirs …) and the incident is on pp.604-605, essentially the same.

  2. Lyle Smith December 14, 2010 / 2:22 pm

    Arguably it rebounds to his credit even if he didn’t even think about it. He gets plaudits from me for being anti-bushwhacking.

    This is also consistent with his general views on War and how civilians generally should be kept out of it, per his orders on leading his army into Maryland and Pennsylvania, and his stated aversions to the likes of John Pope and Robert Milroy.

  3. brooksdsimpson December 14, 2010 / 2:43 pm

    Perhaps. But it’s clear that in this case the bushwhacking would be carried out by Confederate soldiers against southern civilians. However (and let’s not miss the point here, fellows), there’s nothing here to substantiate a claim that Lee refused to wage a guerrilla war based on this exchange, because the exchange was not about guerrilla war. I don’t think you can refuse to do something you have not even considered being within the realm of choices.

  4. Lyle Smith December 14, 2010 / 3:48 pm

    I see the point you’re making and based on the evidence you’re presenting us, you’re totally right: it’s inaccurate for people to say R.E. Lee refused to start a guerrilla war against Federal forces.

    So I agree with you.

  5. brooksdsimpson December 14, 2010 / 4:23 pm

    For me, the interesting thing is that the evidence I’ve provided is exactly the same evidence cited by those who believe that Lee chose not to wage guerrilla war on April 9. I’m frankly fascinated by that (as opposed to pointing fingers and making accusations). Indeed, I came across this almost by accident, because a reader for a forthcoming manuscript asked me why I had omitted the story as illustrating a possible military strategy not implimented. I hadn’t thought about including it (so the omission was not deliberate); so I went back to see how I could use it, how I could fit it in my narrative (because I had also assumed the story to be true), and … guess what?

  6. captainrlm December 14, 2010 / 6:19 pm

    Fascinating post. Now that you mention it, it seems so obvious, but clearly it isn’t. I wonder how that incident originally became interpreted (twisted?) into being a discussion of guerrilla warfare. Where did the myth start?

    Very interesting.

  7. Mike Musick December 14, 2010 / 6:26 pm

    As someone who has gone on record as accepting the notion of Lee’s opposition to guerilla warfare, I’m pleased to see this source closely examined, and to now stand – yet again – disabused of error. With probing posts such as this, “Crossroads” immediately takes its place among the must-read blogs reflecting on the war. We are fortunate to have someone of Professor Simpson’s scholarly attainments with his own site, posting frequently – and bringing along his ever-welcome sense of humor. One small suggestion: perhaps a “recent comments” feature would help readers keep abreast of the threads.

    • brooksdsimpson December 14, 2010 / 7:32 pm

      Recent comments feature added (thanks and hope that helps).

  8. Craig Swain December 15, 2010 / 4:55 am

    Any Confederate leader contemplating wide scale irregular warfare at the end of the war need only ask Mosby why his force rarely ventured into Loudoun County at the end of the war. It had a lot to do with Sheridan’s clearing operations in the Loudoun and Shenandoah valleys.

    For the “guerrilla war” option to hold water, there would have existed the possibility for success. Such presumption ignores the successful Federal anti-partisan operations occurring in the last third of the war. Further ignores the post-war transformation of the Army into, for all practical purposes, a counter-insurgency force on the frontier.

    • Robert Moore December 19, 2010 / 7:14 am


      I’ll add that a guerilla war may have also seen resistance in areas throughout the South.

      While bitterness may linger for the Union forces, many a Southerner was flat-out done with the war and wanted to move on. A guerilla war would have done nothing more than draw more attention to communities that were tired of war, thus resulting in resentment for those Confederates who continued in their efforts to make war.

      • John Foskett August 23, 2013 / 3:50 pm

        And, as somebody(ies) have noted, significant parts of the CSA (East Tennessee, western NC, northern Alabama) were strongly unionist even during the war. The whole thing would have been a fantasy for a number of reasons.

    • Francis Hamit December 30, 2010 / 7:17 am

      Mosby never surrendered. He disbanded his unit instead. When one of his subordinates asked why they shouldn’t undertake one final raid against the Union forces (they had the resources and ability ) Mosby replied that it would no longer be war, but robbery and murder. He was, after all, a lawyer.
      He was also a realist and joined the Republican party after the war. He became good friends with U.S. Grant, who admired him.

      • Robert Moore December 30, 2010 / 11:51 am

        Not necessarily true. W.H. Chapman offered the surrender on behalf of the Rangers. While Mosby didn’t offer surrender in person, as second in command, Chapman made it official. If I recall correctly, Hancock accepted the surrender and said something to the effect that a surrender by Chapman was just as good.

  9. Noma December 20, 2011 / 3:59 pm

    I missed this piece earlier. There is an idea sometimes presented that Lee prevented guerrilla warfare by his surrender at Appomattox. Even if that idea is being dismissed here, in one sense, it seems like regardless of Lee’s personal actions (I guess I am one of those who believe they did help ameliorate the situation), it still remains that the Ku Klux Klan, populated by numerous former Confederates, actually did engage in something close to guerrilla warfare.

    Brooks mentions a possibility, “But, it’s clear that in this case the bushwhacking would be carried out by Confederate soldiers against southern civilians.” But in one way, isn’t that exactly what the Ku Klux Klan were doing? Possibly “guerrilla warfare” is not technically the correct term.

    The way it appears to me is that from at least one perspective the Confederates did not really surrender: they just re-grouped under the KKK flag.

    And, when I think of that, my thoughts go to a letter that Sherman sent his brother, at the end of December, 1863:

    “…I think the President’s proclamation unwise [offering apologetic Southern states a way back into the Union]. Knowing the temper of the South, I know that it but protracts the war by seeming to court peace. It to them looks like weakness. I tell them that as they cool off, we warm to the work. That we are just getting ready for the war, and I know the effect is better than to coax them to come back into the Union. The organization of a Civil Government but complicates the game. All the Southern States will need a pure military Government for years after resistance has ceased…”

    W.T. Sherman to John Sherman – December 19, 1863

    That one phrase strikes me:

    “All the Southern States will need a pure military Government for years after resistance has ceased.”

    It seems to me that Sherman was right, and that by having an insufficient military presence, and by withdrawing it too soon, the United States set the stage for a century of Ku Klux Klan terrorism in the South, which terrorism was basically a continuation of the Confederate effort, and which represents that which was not actually surrendered at Appomattox.

    • kennethuil August 23, 2013 / 11:26 am

      “History may not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” The story of Reconstruction resembles the story of Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. After US military victory, terrorists work to undo US efforts to introduce individual rights and a true representative democracy. Eventually US forces leave, with their work unfinished.

    • SF Walker August 23, 2013 / 1:15 pm

      Indeed–Sherman had a realistic view of the situation, as he was quite familiar with Southern society. One of the government’s failings, in addition to not supplying enough occupation troops, was in not suppying the right KINDS of troops among the occupation forces that did remain. This means cavalry, and a lot of it. The Klansmen and other riffraff were generally mounted when they conducted their activities, thus they were very mobile and could easily ride off and melt back into the populace. Cavalry would have been the most effective counter to this, yet the Army contained very little of it during Reconstruction. In short, Washington did not do a good job of supplying the Army with what it needed to do its job effectively.

      • John Foskett August 23, 2013 / 3:47 pm

        SF – those are good points. This country still suffered from the delusion that a large standing army in peacetime was something to be feared and that a sufficient force could be raised and trained as events required. We never really got past that fantasy until post-WWII. By 1867 we were headed back to the pre-War model of a small standing force defending scattered western posts. So there was no real ability to put together a meaningful “occupation force” which was adequate to address the problems in the South – if somebody cared to.

        • SF Walker August 30, 2013 / 4:43 pm

          “So there was no real ability to put together a meaningful “occupation force” which was adequate to address the problems in the South – if somebody cared to.”

          Definitely—and that reveals another issue, which was that the powers that be in Washington didn’t provide the commanders of the occupation forces with clear or consistent directives.

          • SF Walker August 30, 2013 / 4:52 pm

            @ John Foskett For example, on at least one occasion, a Federal commander actually received a reprimand from Washington for aggressively responding to the actions of Southern insurgents. There’s a very good online article on the US Army during Reconstruction, which I can’t find the link for at the moment. It was written fairly recently by an Army historian.

    • John Foskett August 23, 2013 / 3:40 pm

      I’m not sure that the Klan could be described as engaged in “guerrilla warfare”, as opposed to what we call today “terrorism”. They weren’t really striking Union encampments or depots or at federal government installations in an effort to secure political independence. They were primarily terrorizing and murdering black folks, plain and simple.

  10. OhioGuy April 8, 2015 / 9:02 pm

    Thanks, Brooks, for this post. I, too, believed this myth because I’ve seen it written in so many different places. As you say, it’s good to look at original sources. As you know from my past comments, I’m very skeptical about the Lost Cause and consider the misinformation campaign waged by guys like Jubal Early after the war to be totally reprehensible, but I’ve always felt that Lee was an honorable, if misguided, man, and therefore this story was just seen by me as a confirmation of that reading of his personality. I agree with some of the other comments here that the KKK did carry out what was effectively guerrilla warfare against the freedmen. As Albion Tourgée has described in his writings (see “Invisible Empire,” for instance) the KKK used many Confederate Army communication techniques, strategic planning methods and logistical concepts in planning their raids and other coordinated activities. It was basically, at least in some areas, a paramilitary operation. Finally, a question: I’ve also read that after the war in Richmond at an Episcopal Church when a black man knelt at the altar for communion breaking southern tradition and no others would go forward, that Lee went and knelt next to the black man and that the rest of congregation then did likewise. In other words, Lee was saying by his actions that as a result of the war that there was a new social order in the South and that the honorable thing to do was to come to grips with it. Is this true or a myth? I’d like to believe it was true, but I’d actually prefer to know the unvarnished truth, as best it can be ascertained.

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