April 7, 1865 – After suffering his worst defeat, Confederate General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee embarked on the final campaign of his military career.
The Confederates who survived yesterday’s Sayler’s Creek rout continued their agonizing march west to collect the rations waiting for them at Farmville. Many starving men had been living on dried corn intended for the horses. They crossed the Appomattox River and burned the bridges behind them, but Federals from II Corps seized a bridge downriver before it could be destroyed. This enabled the Federals to cross and continue their close pursuit.
As the Confederates stopped at Farmville to cook their rations, Lee learned that the Federals had gotten across the Appomattox. He would have to order another forced march to get away, this time to Appomattox Court House, 38 miles west. The exhausted troops were quickly put in motion once again; many had not even had time to eat when the ration train steamed off to safety. Brigadier General E. Porter Alexander, the Confederate artillery chief, later wrote:
“It was very plain that the prospect of being surrendered had suddenly become a topic of general conversation. Indeed, no man who looked at our situation on a map, or who understood the geography of the country, could fail to see that General Grant now had us completely in a trap… We were now in a sort of jug shaped peninsula between the James River and the Appomattox, and there was but one outlet, the neck of the jug at Appomattox Court House, and to that Grant had the shortest road!”
Federals from II Corps and Major General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry clashed with a Confederate holding force at Cumberland Church on the afternoon of the 7th. The Confederates repelled two charges, capturing Brigadier General John Irvin Gregg and mortally wounding Brigadier General Thomas A. Smyth in the process. Smyth would become the last general to die in the war. Darkness ended the fighting, and the Confederates soon began another grueling night march.
That night, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, rode into Farmville with Sheridan. Grant rode ahead of his baggage and had no clothes other than the mud-stained uniform he was wearing. Sheridan had written that Lee might surrender if pressed, and Grant forwarded this message to President Abraham Lincoln, who was still monitoring developments from the Federal supply base at City Point. Lincoln replied, “Gen. Sheridan says ‘If the thing is pressed I think that Lee will surrender.’ Let the thing be pressed.”
Sheridan reported that his cavalry was riding hard for Appomattox Court House, where the Federals learned that supplies were being sent for Lee’s army. Sheridan also reported that Lieutenant General Richard Ewell, the Confederate corps commander who had been captured at Sayler’s Creek, had told his captors, “Our cause is lost. Lee should surrender before more lives are wasted.” Grant said, “I have a mind to summon Lee to surrender.” Grant went into the town hotel serving as his headquarters and wrote a letter to be sent to Lee under a flag of truce:
“The result of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia in this struggle. I feel that it is so, and regard it as my duty to shift from myself the responsibility of any further effusion of blood, by asking of you the surrender of that portion of the Confederate States army known as the Army of Northern Virginia.”
Meanwhile, Lee’s troops continued heading west. Many dropped out due to hunger, sleep deprivation, or sheer hopelessness. Major General Henry Wise, the former Virginia governor, bluntly told Lee:
“This army is hopelessly whipped, and is fast becoming demoralized. These men have already endured more than I believed flesh and blood could stand, and I say to you, sir, emphatically, that to prolong the struggle is murder, and the blood of every man who is killed from this time forth is on your head, General Lee.”
Lee asked, “What would the country think of me, if I did what you suggest?” Wise snapped, “Country be damned! There is no country. There has been no country, General, for a year or more. You are the country to these men… You know the game is desperate beyond redemption, and that, if you so announce, no man, or government, or people, will gainsay your decision.”
A courier delivered Grant’s message to Lee around 10 p.m. Lee read the message and then handed it to Lieutenant General James Longstreet, his most trusted corps commander. Longstreet read it and said, “Not yet.” Lee responded to Grant:
“GENERAL:–I have recd your note of this date. Though not entertaining the opinion you express of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of N. Va. I reciprocate your desire to avoid useless effusion of blood, & therefore before considering your proposition, ask the terms you will offer on condition of its surrender.”
Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 538; Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 215-17; Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 372-73; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 455-56; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22688; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 555-56; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 18973-83, 19355-65, 19531-41; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 580; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8653-65; Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 [original 1885, republication of 1952 edition]), p. 550-51; Kennedy, Frances H. (ed.), The Civil War Battlefield Guide (Christopher M. Calkins, The Conservation Fund, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990), p. 281; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 119-55; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 668-69; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 847; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q265