Appomattox Anniversary

Some people seem unwilling to celebrate the 147th anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House.  I’ve heard, for example, that some “Confederate heritage” folks actually fly their Rebel banners at half-mast.  Really.

For them I have a message.


See, I can display a Confederate flag, too.

Countdown to Appomattox (Part Three)

On the afternoon of April 9, 1865, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant met in Wilmer McLean’s parlor.  The host had proven somewhat unwilling: he had urged officers seeking a place for the meeting to go elsewhere.  Arriving first, Lee, accompanied by Colonel Charles Marshall and an orderly (another staff officer, Walter Taylor, could not bring himself to come), Lee waited, with only Lieutenant Colonel Orville E. Babcock in attendance from Grant’s army.  It must have seemed an endless wait for Lee, who had come to the meeting in a neat dress uniform with a dress sword.  Eventually Grant appeared, with several staff officers and assorted generals accompanying him (exactly who was there and whether they entered the McLean parlor became something of a guessing game in some corners).  Among those not in attendance was George G. Meade.

Several eyewitness accounts of the surrender exist, each differing in various details.  What we do know is that it took some time for the two generals to get down to business, as Grant tried to make small talk to place Lee at ease, without much success.  He then proceeded to the matter at hand, writing out the terms with only his mind to guide him.  If Lincoln had given him directions on what to offer, Grant did not say; rather, he formed a sense of the acceptable from his conversations with the president over the preceding several weeks.  So we should take him at his word that when he looked at the blank sheet of paper on his manifold order book  that “I did not know the first word that I should make use of in writing the terms.”  What he managed to do was to reduce his proposals to Lee into simple language.

General: 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 to be 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 and each company or regimental commander to 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.

Then he paused.  He looked at the sword Lee was wearing.  It was a ceremonial sword, a gift from admirers in Maryland (would there have been more admirers in September 1862, one may ponder, what might have happened?).  As was his habit, Grant had not worn a sword; indeed, he was in his makeshift field dress of a private’s blouse adorned with the shoulder straps of a lieutenant general. He carried instead field glasses and cigars. Indeed, he was a little muddy and worn from the activities of the past several days.

He resumed writing.

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 his home, not to be disturbed by United States authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.

There are few documents in American history as important as the letter Grant wrote, and he saved the best for last.  Lee would not have to offer his sword as a token of surrender. There would be no unnecessary humiliation of the foe … although there would be a formal surrender ceremony days later not far from where the two generals were sitting.  But it would be the last sentence where Grant’s true greatness became evident.  There would be no retribution, no trudging off to prisons, no treason trials … none of that.  So long as Lee and his men submitted to the authority of the United States and obeyed the law, they would be left undisturbed.  Thus Grant strove to make “with malice toward none and charity for all” into a reality.  That was the offer he was willing to make.

Grant handed the document to Lee.  The Confederate commander fiddled with his spectacles before picking up the order book.  He asked Grant if he could insert the word “exchanged” after “until properly,” and did so with a pencil offered him by Horace Porter.  Then, as he came to the last few sentences, he relaxed ever so slightly, relieved at what he was reading.  Ever the negotiator, he asked Grant whether his men would be allowed to retain their horses.  Grant acceded.  “This will have the best possible effect upon the men,” Lee remarked; “it will be very gratifying and will do much toward conciliating our people.”  With that, Grant had staff officer Lieutenant Colonel Ely S. Parker prepare a copy of the terms (another staff officer, Lieutenant Colonel Theodore S. Bowers, was too nervous to carry out the task); Lee instructed Marshall to draft a letter of acceptance.

As Parker and Marshall carried out their tasks, Grant introduced his officers to Lee.  Reports conflict as to what Lee thought of the presence of Parker, a Seneca Indian; nor did the Confederate commander chat long with Major General Seth Williams, who had known Lee while the Virginian was superintendent at West Point.  Lee volunteered to turn over the Union prisoners in his possession to Grant, remarking that his own men were hungry; Grant aware that it had been Sheridan who was the reason for this (the cavalryman had seized supplies awaiting their intended consumers at Appomattox Station), volunteered to turn over rations to the defeated Confederates.  After a few administrative details had been addressed, Lee edited Marshall’s draft, and signed a revised copy.

With the exchange of the surrender documents the meeting had come to an end.  After a few concluding remarks (with Grant explaining the state of his attire), Lee rose, shook hands with his counterpart, and walked out of the parlor and onto the porch.  He called for his horse and mounted Traveller.  By that time Grant had made his way out to the porch.  As Lee turned to leave, Grant took off his hat in salute; in response Lee raised his hat, and then commenced his slow ride back to his men.

Lee’s departure did not mark the end of negotiations in Wilmer McLean’s house. Several Union officers, notably Sheridan and Custer, liberated pieces of furniture and tossed money at the flustered McLean.  But Grant did not tarry.  After directing Parker to frame orders to implement the surrender, he mounted Cincinnati and returned to Union lines.  Learning of the news of the surrender, his men began cheering, joined soon by artillery salutes.  Grant put a stop to that.  “The war is over.  The Rebels are our countrymen again.”

It was Ulysses S. Grant’s finest day.

Countdown to Appomattox (Part Two)

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.