Battles in the East

The Final Fight at Appomattox Court House

For a short preface on what the Union and Confederate armies were up to before arriving to Appomattox Courthouse, check out this post on the battle at Sailor’s Creek.

After the Confederates under General Robert E. Lee abandoned Farmville to the Union forces under General Ulysses S. Grant, his next objective was to keep pushing westward. This time, he aimed for Appomattox Station and Appomattox Court House. It was also during this time that both Lee and Grant began to exchange letters, discussing the possibility of surrender and how that would look for the two armies that had been battering at each other since 1861. The first letter was received from Grant on the evening of April 7, requesting the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia. By this time, the Confederates were weak, starving, and deserting in droves. One of his corps commanders, James Longstreet, famously told his superior when asked about the surrender offer, “Not yet.” So, Lee wrote back simply requesting what the terms of surrender would be, should it be discussed, sympathizing with Grant’s willingness to avoid anymore “effusive bloodshed.”

Grant, nicknamed “Unconditional Surrender Grant” as a play-off of his initials since the Union victory at Forts Henry and Donaldson, was told by President Abraham Lincoln during a council with his generals to be lenient with the Confederates, but to give no compromise to the issue of slavery or the southern states’ return to the Union. There would also be no accusations of treason against those who had taken up arms against the government. In his reply letter on the morning of April 8, he stated that the men should be disarmed until paroled and offered to meet with Lee to arrange the conditions. Lee responded, “To be frank, I do not think the emergency has risen to call for the surrender of this Army,” though he did want to know what Grant had in mind, should it become apparent that surrender was necessary. To some, it would seem that surrender was inevitable, but there was some talk about continuing the fight or transitioning into guerilla warfare. The latter option of which, Lee opposed.

Cavalry General Phillip Sheridan beat the Confederates to Appomattox Station, and a few men from Company K of the 2nd New York Cavalry managed to cut off the three ration trains arriving from Lynchburg. Up to 300,000 rations were intercepted by the Union army, including many quartermaster supplies. From the northeast, coming through Appomattox Court House (separate from Appomattox Station) was Colonel R. Lindsay Walker’s artillery and wagon train, following in line of march by General John B. Gordon’s corps. On April 8, about 4pm, they discovered that Sheridan’s troops were at the station. Artillery was set up along a slight ridge in a hollow circle facing the station, while dismounted cavalry from Brigadier General Martin W. Gary’s brigade were positioned on the flanks. Artillerymen were sent forward as skirmishers. The battlefield was densely overgrown, intersected by dirt wagon trails, making the fighting difficult for artillery and cavalry on both sides.

Brevet Major General George Custer’s First Brigade attempted uncoordinated assaults on the Confederates, who fired canister at close range to throw them back. After nightfall, Custer ordered up a final assault which proved successful. He captured between 24 and 30 cannon, 150 to 200 wagons, five battle flags, and close to 1,000 prisoners. The rest had retreated back to Appomattox Court House or toward Lynchburg, disconnecting themselves from the rest of the army. More of Sheridan’s army was on their way to reinforce Custer, while Lee was left to reassess. The Federals were once again in their front, blocking their escape further south.

In a council of war with his corps commanders – Longstreet, John B. Gordon, and Fitzhugh Lee – Lee decided that if there was only cavalry at Appomattox Station, they would try to break through in the morning and push toward Lynchburg. If the infantry had arrived, Lee was to be informed immediately “… in order that a flag of truce should be sent to accede to the only alternative left to us.”

Through the night, Generals Edward C. Ord and Charles Griffin (Army of the James and Army of the Potomac’s V Corps) pushed their men to march thirty-some miles to reach Appomattox Station. All the while, Grant met up with General George Gordon Meade and made their way down the Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road from Farmville. When they stopped at “Clifton” the home of Joseph Crute, they received Lee’s second letter. Grant wrote back the following morning, “The terms upon which peace can be had are well understood. By the South laying down their arms they will hasten that most desirable event, save thousands of human lives, and hundreds of millions of property not yet destroyed. Sincerely hoping that all our difficulties may be settled without the loss of another life…”

The next morning, Gordon’s Second Corps was sent, supported by Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry – amounting up to 10,000 troops – to break the Federal cavalry blocking the Stage Road that led out of Appomattox Court House.  Lee’s cavalry ploughed ahead, wheeling to their left from the far right of the Confederate line. They first came into contact with Brevet Brigadier General Charles H. Smith’s dismounted cavalry, who wielded seven-shot Spencer repeating carbines, attempting to trick the Confederates into believing there were more troops than in reality, but the ploy didn’t last for long and the Federals began to give way. General George Crook sent infantry forward to support Smith, deploying on some high ground.

Fitz Lee also sent in more cavalry, swept around to the Federal rear, clashed with the division under Brigadier General Ranald Mackenzie, and scattered the Federals before they had a chance to support Smith. However, the momentum was wrested from them by Ord’s XXIV Corps under John Gibbon coming up from behind the defending cavalry on the ridge. Confederate infantry moved forward and successfully – though temporarily – secured the Stage Road, offering Lee’s army the chance to escape again. Though, they were completely unaware of Ord’s impending arrival. Among them were two brigades of United States Colored Troops, mixed in with the white troops. One North Carolinian recalled that it looked like blue checkerboard in the distance, with the white and black soldiers lined up together.

While infantry clashed, Fitz Lee’s cavalry were moving further on the Federal left, ready to make a break for Lynchburg. Griffin’s V Corps followed Ord’s, bearing down on LeGrand Road ridge south of Appomattox Courthouse. Gordon realized that he couldn’t hold the position and withdrew through the town and down the Appomattox River valley to establish a second line, comprised of Major General Charles Field’s, Major General William Mahone’s, and Major General Cadmus Wilcox’s divisions. The Federals pressed forward.

Around the same time, Longstreet became occupied by fending off the encroaching Federal II Corps and supporting VI Corps around New Hope Church, northeast of Appomattox Court House. This meant that Lee’s only escape was to the northwest, an area lacking the necessary roads to move his troops and supplies. Lee had no option left. White flags of truce were sent out between 10:00am and 11:00am on April 9, calling for a ceasefire between the armies. Generals on both sides road out from their lines to Appomattox Court House. Lee sent a letter to Grant reading, “I now request an interview in accordance with the offer contained in your letter of yesterday for that purpose.” Letters went back in forth to decide on the place of meeting and the time. The parlor of Wilmer McLean was appropriated for the surrender meeting, and Lee and assistant adjutant Colonel Charles Marshall waited for Grant’s arrival.

Home of Wilmer McLean at Appomattox Court House

One of the more famous aspects of the surrender meeting was the difference in appearance between the Confederate and Federal generals. Lee was dressed in a new uniform with a sash and presentation sword. When asked about his attire, he replied, “I have probably to be General Grant’s prisoner, and I must make my best appearance.” Values of Southern gentility and masculine decorum likely played a role in his decision. Grant, on the other hand, had been riding his horse all morning, and thus his field uniform was muddy, wore no sword, and a simple fatigue blouse with his three-star shoulder straps. Practicality more than formality impacted Grant’s appearance when he rode into town from the west at 1:30pm. Likewise, as compared to Lee’s solitary witness to the meeting, Grant brought 12 other officers for the event.

At first, the two generals talked about another war they had served in, the Mexican-American War in the 1840s. Lee brought the discussion around to the surrender and asked Grant to put his terms in writing. Thus he wrote:

“In accordance with the substance of my letter to you… I propose to receive the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia on the following terms, to wit: Rolls of all the officers and men to be made in duplicate…; the officers to give their individual paroles not to take up arms against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged… The arms, artillery, and public property are to be parked and stacked, and turned over to the officers appointed by me to receive them. This will not embrace the side-arms of the officers, nor their private horses or baggage. This done, officers and men will be allowed to return to their homes, and not be disturbed by United States authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.”

These terms were seen as exceedingly generous. An addendum was made to Grant’s terms regarding the men who owned their own horses. Grant conceded to allowing the men to keep their horses so they could go on to use them in civilian life. Lee accepted these terms, documents were signed by both men, and Grant additionally offered 25,000 rations to the surrendered Confederate troops left in the Army of Northern Virginia. When not enough rations were distributed, Federal soldiers gave of their own haversacks to the Confederates.

Around 3:00pm on the afternoon of April 9, the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia was finalized. Celebrating erupted throughout the Federal camps, but Grant sent out orders to put a stop to it. He did not want it to appear like the victors were exalting in the downfall of their opponents.

A formal surrender ceremony was arranged on April 10. Joshua Chamberlain and John B. Gordon represented their respective sides. Chamberlain accepted the guns and flags, while the troops stood in line of battle. Gordon led the 28,000 Confederates forward to remit their surrender, met with a formal salute by the Federals. Paroles were printed for the next two days. These paroles served as their ticket home, allowing train faire for those men who had a long way to travel. They could also use their paroles to gain rations from any Federal they came across on their journey home. Lee issued General Order No. 9, also known as his final farewell address that read as follows:

“After four years of arduous service marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources. I need not tell the brave survivors of so many hard fought battles who have remained steadfast to the last that I have consented to this result from no distrust of them; but feeling that valour and devotion could accomplish nothing that would compensate for the loss that would have attended the continuance of the contest, I determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their Countrymen. By the terms of the Agreement, officers and men can return to their homes and remain there until exchanged. You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from the consciousness of duty faithfully performed, and I earnestly pray that a Merciful God will extend to you his blessing and protection. With an unceasing admiration of your constancy and devotion to your country and a grateful remembrance of your kind and generous consideration for myself, I bid you all an affectionate farewell.”

This was the first official surrender of the Civil War, followed by numerous others. Armies and departments across the country arranged surrenders and paroles. Some armies were still fighting, like the battle that took place on April 9 at Fort Blakeley, just outside Mobile, Alabama. But the first domino was toppled at Appomattox Court House, signaling the tumbling of the rest as the Civil War drew to a close. Now, the North and South, which had fought against one another for four years over the issues of disunion and slavery, would have to come together again and rebuild.

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