The story of April 9, 1865 is well known. Morning saw the Confederates preparing to break through what they thought was a thin line of Union cavalry, only to see lines of infantry emerge, sealing off any westward route. Their appearance was not a total surprise, since the previous evening Union forces had captured a wagon train and some artillery, with the sound of the fighting reaching Lee’s headquarters. Perhaps, however, it was just cavalry, and surely they could be brushed aside … the same thoughts some Confederates had on a July morning several years before.
Word came back to Lee that the bluecoats were out in force. At once he comprehended what that meant. The emergency had arisen.
It was not a difficult decision on the face of it–the previous evening, when Lee and his generals heard the noise of combat, it was understood that if they found infantry there in the morning, it was all over–but it was difficult to make it. Yes, there were perhaps some 25,000 men in the ranks, but by now only 8,000 or so were carrying rifles, a sign of just how much the Army of Northern Virginia had dissolved over the past week. Moreover, Yankees were coming from different directions, closing in on what was left of Lee’s army. No one needed to tell Robert E. Lee what this meant. Sadly, he concluded, “there is nothing left for me to do but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths.”
What Lee’s thoughts were at that time are a subject of conjecture, because accounts have him bravely taking the responsibility even as he fantasized about throwing away his own life by riding along the lines (a idea he supposedly discarded, saying: “Burt it is our duty to live. What will become of the women and children of the South if we are not here to protect them?”). As with much else that happened that day, one must be careful to accept such tales. More amusing (at least to me) is the story of how James Longstreet stared down an impertinent George Armstrong Custer’s demand for Confederate surrender. That may be my favorite story of Confederate defiance (see how quickly I’m beginning to understand my Confederate heritage?).
What’s odd about the story of Lee’s realization of what was to happen is that even after he uttered those words, he still met with commanders to discuss what to do. I find in those conversations a decision by Lee to lay everything out before his generals, ask for their input, and then accept their advice if it coincided with his own (he was not adverse to questioning advice he did not like, or indicating where he thought someone was off the mark). Lee had been following that pattern for months, detailing his deteriorating situation to both Jefferson Davis and his generals, hoping that they would reach the same conclusions he had already decided upon. Yes, he gave way to Davis’s continued desire to fight; when it came to his generals, however, they knew how bad things had become, and, although Lee was always willing to make one more effort, everyone was aware of the decreasing odds for lasting success. He wanted them to draw their own conclusions, but he set forth the situation in the hope that they would arrive at his conclusions, an interesting way of exercising leadership in those last several months that is at odds with a more argumentative and assertive Lee of years gone by.
Having in his mind arranged for a meeting with Grant between the picket lines on the morning of April 9, Lee was on his way to that location when he received Grant’s reply to his note of April 8. Immediately he saw that Grant could be just as good with words as he was with an army:
Your note of yesterday is received. As I have no authority to treat on the subject of peace the meeting proposed for 10 a.m. to-day could lead to no good. I will state, however General that I am equally anxious for peace with yourself and the whole North entertains the same feeling. The terms upon which peace can be had are well understood. By the South laying down their Arms they will hasten that most desirable event, save thousands of human lives, and hundreds of Millions of property not yet destroyed. Seriously hoping that all our difficulties may be settled without the loss of another life, I subscribe myself …
This letter showed both the velvet glove and the iron fist. Perhaps Rawlins’s tirade had made an impression. First Grant made it clear that the time for discussing a military convention had passed. It would be a surrender, pure and simple. There were no mistaking the terms, either: the time for quibbling had passed. Grant didn’t have to say “unconditional surrender,” but there it was, clearly implied … and yet not saying those words counted for something. Grant was trying to appeal to Lee’s sensibilities, reminding him that peace was at hand. However pleasant the prospect was, the Union commander also hastened to remind Lee what would happen if the Confederate leader passed up this last chance: more death and destruction. Extending the olive branch with one hand, Grant still held the sword firmly in the other.
It was time for Lee to put aside his attempt to negotiate a better deal.
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 pu[r]pose.
Off went the courier. Lee waited for an answer, growing anxious lest an attack begin while he waited for an answer. Now was the time to break out the flags of truce: the man who had stood on ceremony last June at Cold Harbor now had to take his own advice, no matter how bitter it might be to do so. Lee told his generals to do just that. Then he wrote Grant what he should have said in the first place:
I ask a suspension of the hostilities pending the adjustment of the terms of the surrender of this army, in the interview requested in my former communication today.
It had finally come to that: that it had not come to that earlier shows that Lee struggled to bring himself there.
It had been a sleepless night for Ulysses S. Grant. The pain of his migraine headache was nearly unbearable. Various remedies proved unavailing, and Grant declined to avail himself of a remedy often suggested in the past: a drink to make things better. It would be left to James Thurber to speculate on that tantalizing “what if?” That morning, after sending off his reply to Lee’s message proposing a meeting, he left an also ailing George G. Meade and rode ahead to meet up with Phil Sheridan. He wanted to make sure that this time nothing went wrong; in his haste to see things through he did not wait for his headquarters baggage to catch up with him. He was riding west along a wagon road that led to Appomattox Court House when a courier caught up with him. Grant opened the letter, read it, and then passed it to Rawlins, adding, “You had better read it aloud General.” Anyone looking at Grant saw that his face betrayed no sign of the contents of the dispatch: neither a smile nor a frown was to be found.
It was Lee’s letter requesting an interview for the purpose of surrendering the Army of Northern Virginia.
As Grant later recalled, his migraine headache vanished. It was going to be a bright and sunny Palm Sunday after all.