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.