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.


3 thoughts on “April 8, 1865: A War of Words

  1. Noma April 8, 2015 / 12:13 pm

    Brooks, in your books, you were the first one to introduce me to John Rawlins’s wonderful response to Lee’s letter (via Sylvanus Cadwallader). No account of the surrender is actually complete without the seasoning of John Rawlins:

    The reading of this cool disingenuous dispatch threw Gen. Rawlins into unusually bad temper, and he began at once: “He did not propose to surrender,” he says. “Diplomatic but not true. He did propose, in his heart to surrender. He now tries to take advantage of a single word used by you, as a reason for extending such easy terms. He now wants to entrap us into making a treaty of peace.

    “You said nothing about that. You asked him to surrender. He replied by asking what terms you would give if surrendered. You answered, by stating the terms. Now he wants to arrange for peace – something beyond and above the surrender of his army – something to embrace the whole Confederacy, if possible. No Sir! No Sir. Why it is a positive insult; and an attempt in an underhanded way, to change the whole terms of correspondence.”

    To this outburst Grant replied that it “amounted to the same thing.” Lee was only trying to be let down easily. That he could meet him, as requested, in the morning, and settle the whole business in an hour.

    But Rawlins was inexorable; said it “would be presumptuous to undertake to teach Gen. Lee the force of words, or the use of the English language.” That he had purposely proposed to arrange terms of peace to gain time, and better terms. That dispatch was cunningly worded to that end, and deserved no reply whatever. “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.”

    Then came Grant’s soft, moderate, persuasive, and apologetic voice: “Some allowance must be made for the trying position in which Gen. Lee is placed. He is compelled to defer somewhat to the wishes of his government, and his military associates. But it all means precisely the same thing. If I meet Lee, he will surrender before I leave.”

    [Sylvanus Cadwallader – Three Years with Grant – p. 317]

    • John Foskett April 8, 2015 / 2:22 pm

      Of course, Grant (being the savvy guy that he was) knew how to make sure that Lee got there. Hence there were no orders calling off the dogs and Lee would find out the next morning that there were an awful lot of dogs between himself and his hoped-for destination.

  2. Rosemary April 9, 2015 / 1:53 am

    i wonder what would have happened if Lee took Grant up on offer to send representative to meet with Grant’s representative to do surrender. Probably a delaying action? Would surrender by proxy be a true action? I wonder why Grant offered this? Hmmm… I dunno … Answer is above my pay grade.

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