Receiving news of the Union success on April 6, 1865, at “Sailors Creek,” President Abraham Lincoln noted a comment made by Major General Philip H. Sheridan in a dispatch to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. The president quickly endorsed the sentiment in a telegram to his commanding general. “Gen. Sheridan says ‘If the thing is pressed I think Lee will surrender.’ Let the thing be pressed.”
Grant had been pressing that thing for over a week. He needed no reminder. But late that very afternoon, as he watched his men march past him in Farmville, Virginia, which had only recently been visited by General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in its westward flight, Grant, three years to the day when he drove off Confederates with his counterattack at Shiloh, opened a new front of operations. Setting pen to paper, he scribbled out the following message to Lee:
The results of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Va. 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 C. S. Army known as the Army of Northern Va.
Several hours later, Lee opened Grant’s message. After reading it, he handed it to Lieutenant General James Longstreet. The old war horse read, then responded. “Not yet.”
Yet Lee was willing to open his own campaign as well. A month earlier he had sought to meet with Grant to discuss matters concerning the exchange of “political prisoners” … although where that conversation might have led remains unknown. Might it have turned into a peace conference, an armistice, or something else? Such could be derived from Lee’s careful wording in a second message that alluded to “the possibility of arriving at a satisfactory adjustment of the present unhappy difficulties by means of a military convention,” a topic of discussion between Longstreet and Major General Edward O. C. Ord, commander of the Army of the James. No matter: Grant, after sharing the contents of Lee’s message with the authorities at Washington, replied that he had “no authority to accede to your proposition for a conference on the subject proposed.” Maybe, Lee thought, it was time to try again.
General: I have recd 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 N. Va. I reciprocate your desire to avoid useless effusion of blood & therefore before Considering your proposition ask the terms you will offer on condition of its surrender.
In short, “not yet” conceded the possibility of “eventually.” Sure, Lee said, we could continue the fight … but what will you give me if I come to the bargaining table?
Grant received Lee’s response on April 8. He made haste to reply:
Your note of last evening, in reply to mine of the same date, asking the conditions on which I will accept the surrender of the Army of N. Va. is just received. In reply I would say that peace being my great desire there is but one condition I would insist upon, namely: that the men and officers surrendered shall be disqualified for taking up arms again, against the Government of the United States, until properly exchanged. I will meet you, or will designate Officers to meet any officers you may name for the same purpose, at any point agreeable to you, for the purpose of arranging definitely the terms upon which the surrender of the Army of N. Va. will be received.
Nothing exceptional in that straightforward response … although note that Grant was willing to spare Lee the necessity of handling the surrender himself.
When Lee read this note later that evening, something must have irritated him. Maybe it was the reality of what was going on. He wanted Grant to understand that while he was not actively considering surrender, he did want to know Grant’s terms … a fine distinction, since Lee would not have been wasting precious time inquiring about something he had not been contemplating. It reminds one of the same correspondence chess game the previous June in the wake of Cold Harbor about flags of truce and helping the wounded between the lines. One can see Lee struggling to draw distinctions that make a difference in his reply:
General: I recd at a late hour your note of today– In mine of yesterday I did not intend to propose the Surrender of the Army of N. Va.– but to ask the terms of your proposition. To be frank, I do not think the emergency has arisen to call for the Surrender of this Army, but, as the restoration of peace should be the Sole object of all, I desired to know whether your proposals would lead to that end. I cannot therefore meet you with a view to surrender the Army of N–Va– but as far as your proposal may affect the C. S. forces under my Command & tend to the restoration of peace, I should be pleased to meet you at 10 A m tomorrow on the old stage road to Richmond between the picket lines of the two armies–
This smacks a bit of gamesmanship. Perhaps the emergency that would force Lee to the surrender table had not yet arisen, but clearly he was willing to come to the bargaining table knowing full well that the only terms upon which peace would be restored would include the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia. What did Lee hope to secure through these negotiations? Moreover, one might consider careful the phrase “the C. S. forces under my command.” As Lee was the general in chief of the Confederate States Army, might that not include everyone? Why else use that phrasing instead of “Army of Northern Virginia,” which had been used before?
Grant received Lee’s letter that night. In later years, he would remark: “Lee does not appear well in that correspondence.” At the time, however, he was also struggling with a migraine headache, and it did not help that several officers at the farmhouse where headquarters had been established had found a piano to use in exploring their musical talents with varying degrees of success.
Grant’s chief of staff, John A. Rawlins, was incensed. He believed Lee was seeking to negotiate a peace settlement by twisting Grant’s words: he concluded that it was “an attempt in an underhanded way, to change the whole terms of the correspondence.” Grant failed to calm his excitable subordinate, who continued; “‘He don’t think the emergency has arisen! That’s cool, but another falsehood. That emergency has been staring him in the face for forty-eight hours. If he hasn’t seen it yet, we will soon bring it to his comprehension! He has to surrender. He shall surrender. By the eternal, it shall be surrender, and nothing else.” Or at least that’s how newspaper reporter Sylvanus Cadwallader remembered it, for Lieutenant Colonel Horace Porter did not include such a vivid portrayal of Rawlins’s outburst in his account of the event.
Grant well knew after the events of March 1865 that he was not empowered to conduct a military convention on the terms set forth by Lee. Yet it is also reasonable to assume that circumstances had changed during that time, largely as a result of Lincoln’s visit to City Point in later March. The general had gained a far better understanding of the president’s sentiments and intentions in a series of conversations to which Rawlins was not privy (and about which Grant remained silent). Although there is absolutely no evidence that Lincoln dictated what Grant should offer, it is reasonable to assume that Grant emerged from these conversations with a good sense of what Lincoln would find acceptable.
In any case, it was all academic. Grant knew as much. Reporting on the progress on his operations to Secretary of War Stanton on April 8, he added: “I feel very Confidant of receiving the surrender of Lee and what remains of his army by to-morrow.” For now, it was time to get some sleep.