The Mind and Heart of Robert E. Lee

It had been a rough spring for Robert E. Lee. Everything he had attempted to stave off what increasingly seemed to be inevitable had fallen short. At Fort Stedman his effort to force Grant to contract his lines around Petersburg had failed; at Five Forks the Yankees gained the upper hand, followed by the rather rapid evacuation of Richmond (a contingency Lee had long anticipated but still seemed unprepared to accept). What passed for Confederate staff work and logistical support contributed to the failure to find supplies at Amelia Court House, causing a costly delay; then, at Sailor’s Creek, he openly wondered if his army had dissolved. When on April 7 he opened a letter delivered to Confederate lines under flag of truce, he confronted for the first time a request to surrender.

I’ve written before about how Lee responded to that request, what was on his mind, and discussed the tale that he rejected a proposal to conduct guerilla warfare, a claim that rests upon a misinterpretation of sources.

It is difficult to believe that Lee did not realize that surrender was really the only option available to him. His army was no longer an effective fighting force, with less than 10,000 men carrying arms, and another 18,000 or so men now simply accompanying that force. The only question left is whether they would meet their end peacefully or in one final violent clash that would have obliterated them. It was in this state of mind that he corresponded with Grant, engaging in what can be best seen as a game of bluff, trying to fool an adversary who was in no mood to be fooled. Yes, he was trying to cut the best deal he could, but Grant’s answers made it evident that there was only one deal on the table. Whatever Lee might once have gained by negotiating months ago, he had no chance of gaining that now, and his counterpart was quick to place the responsibility of further bloodshed–needless bloodshed–on Lee’s shoulders.

It should cause us to pause to realize that Lee hesitated and procrastinated. It would not be until April 9 that he would finally concede that he had no choice other than to meet Grant. That’s the sign of a proud man, but it is also the sign of a stubborn man, and men died because of that stubbornness and reluctance to accept final defeat.

April 8, 1865: A War of Words

On the morning of April 8, 1865, Ulysses S. Grant received Robert E. Lee’s response to his message sent the previous day calling upon the Confederate commander to surrender.

I have received your note of this date. Though not entertaining the opinion you express on the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia, I reciprocate your desire to avoid useless effusion of blood, and therefore, before considering your proposition, ask the terms you will offer on condition of its surrender.

One wonders whether Lee really believed what he was saying, or whether he was buying time or doing what he could to learn exactly what Grant had in mind when he said “surrender.” Perhaps Grant recalled previous exchanges between the two men, including one concerning the need to secure a flag of truce to bury the dead after Cold Harbor or an October exchange in which each man set forth his views on the status of captured US soldiers who happened to be African American.

Grant wrote out his response.

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 Northern Virginia, 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 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 Northern Virginia will be received.

Grant was not demanding unconditional surrender; he wasn’t even prepared to send the surrendered Confederates to prison camps. He even offered Lee the opportunity to avoid surrendering the army in person.

It was not until evening that Grant opened Lee’s reply.

I received at a late hour your note of to-day. In mine of yesterday I did not intend to propose the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, 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 Northern Virginia; but as far as your proposal may affect the Confederate States forces under my command, and tend to the restoration of peace, I should be pleased to meet you at 10 A.M. to-morrow on the old state road to Richmond, between the picket-lines of the two armies.

More gamesplaying? Lee was essentially looking to reopen the proposed peace negotiations that had failed to materialize the previous month. As the “Confederate States forces under my command” meant all of the armies of the Confederacy, one wonders exactly what he had in mind, and how a negotiated settlement between two military leaders would look different than a surrender at this point in time.

Grant’s chief of staff, John Rawlins, exploded when he read Lee’s response, but Grant took it in stride. Should the generals meet, he believed, Lee would surrender, one way or another. If the Virginian needed to save face or to parse sentences, so be it. Besides, Grant was suffering from a migraine headache, and it did not help that when headquarters stopped for the night at a house, staff officers descended in a piano in the parlor and began pounding the keys and singing. It was bad enough that Grant had no ear for music: battling a migraine only made things worse.

Besides, Lee was operating upon outdated information. George Custer’s cavalry had already descended upon Appomattox Station, driving off Confederate artillery and capturing the Rebel supply train. Once more Lee’s men would have to go without food. At last Union forces were in position to head off Lee’s escape. Whether Lee would recognize that in fact the emergency had indeed arisen would wait for the morning.