APPOMATTOX– The Last Act of the Age of Chivalry
By David Harper
Most Americans are aware that the surrender of General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865 effectively brought to an end the Civil War.
However over the years some facts are forgotten and things may be remembered wrongly. Two issues commonly fall into this category.
First, Lee only surrendered his own command, the Army of Northern Virginia, by then reduced to some 28,000 men and becoming fewer every day because of desertion. The armies of Confederate States of America (CSA) still had around 200,000 men in different theaters of the war under other generals who reported to the CSA President Jefferson Davis. Lee was however the senior general serving the CSA and his surrender meant that the war could not go on much longer. The last major Confederate force that surrendered was that under General E. Kirby Smith on May 26, although interestingly the last surrender of ground forces was by Brig. General Stand Watie on June 25. Watie, a Cherokee chief, commanded a force of what were then known as Confederate Indians, comprising Cherokee, Creek, Osage and Seminole.
Second, the actual surrender took place not in a court house but in the home of a man named Wilmer McLean. It was located in a small crossroads village named Appomattox Court House, Virginia, where the old court house stood. It was selected by Lee’s staff.
The negotiations for the surrender started on April 7 when Grant sent a note to Lee asking him to surrender as he wished to “shift from myself the responsibility for further effusion of blood.” Lee responded that he too wished to “avoid the useless effusion of blood,” and asked Grant the terms he would offer. On April 8 Grant replied that he only required “that all combatants surrendered shall be disqualified for taking up arms again” and suggested a meeting to arrange the definite terms. Two more letters were exchanged, Lee cannily never agreed that he would surrender but only that he wanted to know the terms so that he could consider them. The final exchange of letters on the morning of April 9 set up the meeting.
General Lee arrived first, splendidly dressed in a new uniform, new polished leather boots with handsome spurs and a magnificent bejeweled sword. He was 59, an erect six foot in height, with a full beard of silver grey hair. Grant had already indicated in the exchange of letters the major terms of the surrender and Lee must have thought them generous given his hopeless circumstances. He knew well that Grant had made his early reputation and indeed earned his advancement by being a tough general. He was popularly known as U.S. “Unconditional Surrender” Grant.
But it was a different Grant that met Lee in Appomattox. He was tired of war and suffered from terrible migraine headaches. He wanted to end it quickly without further unnecessary bloodshed. He was very mindful that the Confederates were about to become their brothers again and neither he nor Lincoln wanted them to be humiliated.
Grant had ridden hard to get to the meeting and arrived in a mud bespattered working uniform that was little different from that of an ordinary soldier, save for the three stars of rank on his shoulder straps. The comparison between the two men could not have been greater: Grant at 43, sixteen years younger than Lee and at 5’ 8” a good four inches shorter. His hair and full beard were dark brown without a trace of grey. He wore no sword or spurs and his boots were old and dirty. Lee represented Virginia aristocracy, the son of a plantation owner, former general and Governor of Virginia. Grant was the son of a leather tanner in Ohio.
Grant wrote that while he rode to the meeting feeling jubilant the moment he saw Lee he felt sad and depressed. This perhaps had to do with his great respect for Lee but also the feelings of any commander who thinks that “there but for the grace of God am I.” They exchanged pleasantries about old army days for some twenty minutes. Grant seemed reluctant to bring up the reason they were meeting so it was up to Lee to remind him and ask for Grant’s terms of surrender. Grant replied that they were the same as he had originally written and Lee asked if they could be written out in full.
On such a momentous subject one might think of aides, lawyers and political advisors being consulted and documents being drawn up, and re-drawn, but that was not Grant’s way. He called for an order book and sat down with pen in hand and wrote it out by himself. No consultations, just what was in his mind. In his memoirs he admits that, “When I first put my pen to paper I did not know the first word that I should make use of in writing the terms.” As he wrote on “the thought occurred to me that the officers had their own private horses and effects . . . and it would be an unnecessary humiliation to call upon them to deliver their side arms.” He wrote nonstop and when he finished handed Lee a copy.
There is little doubt that Lee must have been grateful for the generosity of the terms but he mentioned to Grant that in “their” army, cavalrymen and artillerists also owned their own horses and he asked if they may also keep them. Grant responded that in the terms as written only officers may keep them but that on further consideration he agreed that the men would need their horses to get crops in before winter and so he would instruct his parole officers to allow soldiers owning horses and mules to keep them. On hearing this. Lee immediately wrote acceptance of the terms. It was over.
Grant, ever the clear thinker, forgot nothing and in his last lines wrote that on being paroled men “will be allowed to return to their homes, not to be disturbed by United States authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they reside.” Grant did not trust politicians and this stipulation meant that the government could not bring any post war punitive proceedings against any paroled Confederate soldier for actions during the war.
All this was done without instruction or advice from Secretary of War Stanton or President Lincoln. Again it is emphasized that this was not the surrender of the Confederate States but only the surrender of the CSA Army of Northern Virginia. Once word of the surrender got out, there was general jubilation and firing of guns but Grant quickly ordered it stopped saying, “The rebels are our countrymen again and we do not want to exult over their downfall.”
Honor was upheld without malice and Lee never forgot Grant’s graciousness. Throughout the remainder of his life, he never allowed an ill word to be spoken of Grant in his presence.
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