On April 6, 1865, Robert E. Lee watched as his army was smashed at Sayler’s/Sailor’s Creek (oh, yes, another battle that goes by many names). “My God! Has the army been dissolved?” he asked as he saw what remained of his Army of Northern Virginia come toward him. That bad moment soon passed, but one wonders what impression remained.
The following day the Confederates made their way through Farmville. Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge, who met with Lee that day, reported, “The straggling has been great, and the situation is not favorable.” That evening, Lee opened a dispatch that had been drafted hours before in Farmville. It was a letter from Ulysses S. Grant, calling on Lee to surrender.
Over the next thirty-six hours Lee pondered what to do. He rejected Grant’s first offer, observing that he did not believe further resistance was “hopeless,” an observation open to question. Still, he was curious as to Grant’s terms, suggesting that perhaps pride and pragmatism were wrestling in his mind and heart. Grant’s reply outlined the terms he would reduce to paper in Wilmer McLean’s parlor and proposed a process to arrange for the terms. For a moment pride won out: Lee snapped in his reply, “I do not think the emergency has arisen to call for the surrender of this army,” he declared. Then pragmatism regained the upper hand, because Lee was willing to meet Grant on April 9, for his counterpart’s “proposal may affect the C. S. forces under my command & tend to the restoration of peace.”
What exactly was Lee trying to achieve? Each expression of defiance was followed by a expressed willingness to negotiate. Within hours it was evident that the vise was closing, and the following morning it would become painfully evident. The emergency seemed apparent to all, and one wonders what was to be gained once Grant revealed his terms. After all, as of the morning of April 9 (and people forget this), Lee’s offer to meet that day was still open, and he had yet to receive a response from Grant. The notion that Lee chose to negotiate only after assessing the situation on the morning of April 9 is wrong; Lee was approaching the location where he had proposed to meet Grant when he received Grant’s reply, in which Grant said that he had “no authority to treat on the subject of peace.” It was at that point that Lee sent a note saying that he was willing to meet “in accordance with the offer contained in your letter of yesterday for that purpose” — that purpose being surrender. When it looked as if there would be a fight anyway, Lee wrote a second time to “ask for a suspension of hostilities”–apparently the man who had stood on the process of how to request a truce at Cold Harbor now found it difficult to ask for one himself–“pending the adjustment of the terms of the surrender of this army.”
It must have hurt to write that message. And yet it is worth asking what was going through Lee’s mind during the last three days. What other option did he really have? Or was it a case of just finding it a little too difficult to accept the end? For in delaying to act as he finally did, Lee’s indecision resulted in the deaths of more of his beloved men and might indeed have led to a horrendous bloodbath on April 9 had messages not made their way back and forth in timely fashion.
What do you make of Lee’s behavior, keeping in mind that we know know that the story about Lee discussing (and declining) the chance to continue the war as a guerrilla operation is a rather bad misreading of the sources?