April 9, 1865. The Union’s Commanding General, a short, scruffy man with an unkempt beard and a muddy uniform, meets the Confederacy’s Commanding General, a tall greying man in a splendid dress uniform. Despite their appearances, Robert E. Lee has come to surrender to Ulysses S. Grant. The place is Appomattox Court House.
Why is this event, more than any other, heralded as the end of the Civil War? Lee did not surrender all the Confederate forces – the last Confederate surrenders would not take place for two months. It did not end the long struggle and hard feelings among Southerners – five days later Abraham Lincoln would be shot dead by an assassin. The Confederacy still had major armies in the field after Lee’s surrender, including Forrest’s cavalry in Alabama, an army in North Carolina, and unbeaten forces in Louisiana and Texas.
The true answer revolves around the morale and psychology of war as fought by democracies. This is a subject still in dispute even among historians of the Civil War, but it’s important. When nations that make their choices based on the will of the people go to war, the will of the people to endure and believe in victory becomes all-powerful. No matter how many resources a modern nation has, if it cannot convince its people it can win then it will not win. Look at Vietnam or Iraq. The popular will is everything, and it was a defining context of both the Union and Confederate struggles.
The Union started the war with about triple the population of the South – 22 million to 9 million – and even more when you take out the South’s slave population, not exactly a force to be considered for military service or mobilization. The North had most of the industry and capital, better access to trade and foreign markets, the moral high ground, and most of the railroads and engineering expertise. It always had the bigger, better-supplied, better-armed military forces, and was clearly in a position to win. Why did the South think they could win?
The answer lay in Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. Whatever their actual effect on the material circumstances of the war, Lee and his army had a vastly outsized effect on Southern morale in comparison. In June 1862, the Union Army of George McClellan was on the outskirts of Richmond, and the Confederacy had no good news from any other front. They had been defeated at Shiloh, lost the city of New Orleans (the largest city in the South) to a Union naval attack, and Union troops were penetrating into Alabama, North Carolina and Georgia. It seemed like the war was lost.
Then, apparently out of nowhere, Robert E. Lee took command of the Confederate armies and drove McClellan from Richmond. Lee’s brilliant command of his army, and psychological dominance of his Union opponents, won shattering victories at Second Manassas, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. Even when he lost battles like Antietam and Gettysburg, it was never a decisive defeat for Southern arms. (The importance of Gettysburg in the actual course of the Civil War is highly overrated, and was mostly a postwar invention.)
From June 1862 on, the South’s morale was tied to General Lee and his army still being *out there*. Lee had saved them from the brink of disaster once; somehow, he would do it again. Even as Grant split the south in two down the Mississippi and drove the Confederacy from Tennessee, even as Lee lost Gettysburg along with much of his army, and even as Sherman captured and burned Atlanta and started his rampage across Georgia, Robert E. Lee and his army still lived. As long as they survived, the South would not give up.
By April 1865, though, that faith was hard to maintain. Ulysses S. Grant had come east in 1864 to take direct control of the Union army against Lee, and throughout the summer of 1864 waged a continuous and blood-soaked campaign against his rival. Through the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor, Grant and Lee grappled in one of history’s greatest campaigns led by two of its leading military geniuses. The ferocious contest ended with Grant pinning Lee in front of Richmond and Petersburg in June 1864. Lee’s army remained battered, but unbroken and still dangerous. He had lost so many men, however, that Lee could no longer pose the threat he once had.
From June 1864 to April 1865, the Siege of Petersburg dragged on – over nine months. Petersburg was more like World War I’s trench warfare than anything familiar from Civil War movies, with Grant constantly stretching Lee’s resources farther and farther. Even as Union Generals Sherman burned Georgia and Sheridan brutalized the Shenandoah Valley, even as the Union Navy blockaded Mobile, even as the fall of Fort Fisher totally cut the Confederacy off from the outside world, the Confederacy held out hope. General Lee was still out there, and there was a chance.
Lee, though, knew the South’s hopes were fading. In March 1865, he even took the unprecedented step of proposing that the Confederacy arm its slaves to fight, a proposal that was considered but never put into serious practice. Lee was, like most men of his time, a racist who believed blacks were not yet at a stage of evolution on the level of the white man, but he was far from the virulent advocate for slavery that many Confederate politicians were. His proposal would have invalidated the white supremacist state that many Confederates believed in.
On April 1, 1865, a failed breakout attempt and a series of defeats that cut his last railroad link brought matters to a close. Lee and his Army would have to abandon both Petersburg and Richmond. Lee made the decision to flee west deeper into Virginia, hoping to find an open railroad that could link him up with the Confederate armies in North Carolina. With their forces together, maybe he could gain a victory over Sherman and then turn to fight Grant to a standstill. Maybe there was still a chance.
On April 3, 1865, Grant’s armies took Richmond and went tearing after Lee. Grant figured out what Lee was up to, and was determined not to let him escape. Grant’s army was nearly twice as large, 114,000 to Lee’s 56,000, and Lee’s forces were starving and ill-equipped, with barely any strength remaining. As Lee retreated west his loyal army, held up for three years by faith in him and their cause, began to fall apart. On April 6, Grant caught up with and annihilated almost a third of Lee’s army at Sayler’s Creek, forcing many of them to surrender. Lee was nearly helpless, but refused to give up just yet.
The next day, April 7, Lee received a note from Grant, who was currently headquartered at Farmville, Virginia, proposing that he surrender. Lee still saw a chance to escape, so returned the note with a noncommittal note asking what terms of surrender Grant might have for him.
Lee continued west. On April 8, the Union cavalry of George Custer caught and burned a portion of Lee’s supply trains, further demoralizing his army. Grant’s reply to Lee’s letter offered generous surrender terms, as recommended by Lincoln, and proposed a meeting.
On April 9, 1865, Lee’s army had reached Appomattox Court House but could go no farther: their way was blocked by Union cavalry to the west and south. Grant’s infantry was approaching from the east. The Army of Northern Virginia was trapped. Even if a breakthrough to the west was possible, it would gain him nothing. Lee told his staff “There is nothing left for me to do but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths.”
The meeting was cordial, and the terms were generous. All of Lee’s troops would have to surrender their arms, but would be allowed to go home after swearing an oath to never again take up arms against the United States. Officers could keep their pistols, horses, and gear. Even Lee himself would not be taken into custody, allowed to go as he pleased. Grant even provided the starving Southerners with rations. Compared to being imprisoned and prosecuted for treason, as would have happened under almost any other set of leaders besides Lincoln and Grant, this was the best any surrendering army could ask for.
The surrender was transcribed by Grant’s adjutant Ely Parker, a Seneca Native American. When Lee discovered Parker was a Seneca, he said “It is good to have one real American here.” As Lee departed, Grant and his staff removed their hats in homage to their great foe; Lee tipped his hat in response and rode off to peace.
28,000 Confederates surrendered at Appomattox, but when word of Lee’s surrender got out, the rest of the Confederate armies easily laid down their arms. When word of Lee’s release and the generous terms spread across the South, the effect they had was calm resignation. The war had truly ended. Lee had been the linchpin of the Southern war effort, and now he had laid down his sword and publicly encouraged others to do the same.
Lee and Grant both committed to an enduring peace between North and South. When Grant heard cheering on Lee’s surrender, he ordered his soldiers to stop: "The Confederates were now our countrymen, and we did not want to exult over their downfall.” Lee, a suffering Christ-like icon to postwar Southern historians, became an icon of reconciliation between North and South.
Grant’s opinion of Lee, at the surrender: "I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought."
For his part, Lee responded sharply to someone who, after the war when he was President of Washington University, insulted Grant in his presence: "Sir, if you ever again presume to speak disrespectfully of General Grant in my presence, either you or I will sever his connection with this University.”
Only two men who have spent the better part of a year beating the ever-loving crap out of each other can have that much mutual respect.
Book Recommendation: Can’t go wrong with the classic: Bruce Catton, A Stillness at Appomattox (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1953), part of his Army of the Potomac trilogy. Pulitzer Prize for History in 1954.