April 8, 1865 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia continued its grueling westward march while Federal Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant continued pressing for its surrender.
Lee hoped to get his men to Appomattox Court House, where supplies were supposedly waiting. From there, Lee planned to continue west to Lynchburg and then turn south to join forces with General Joseph E. Johnston in North Carolina. However, the army had dwindled to less than 20,000 men, with troops falling out by the hour from hunger and exhaustion. And over 80,000 Federals were in close pursuit, with Major General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry riding ahead to block Lee’s path.
Grant, the overall Federal commander, had written to Lee urging him to surrender. Grant received Lee’s reply on the morning of the 8th, in which Lee asked what terms Grant might offer. While awaiting Grant’s reply, Lee told aides, “I will strike that man a blow in the morning.” When an officer suggested surrender, Lee replied:
“I trust it has not come to that! We certainly have too many brave men to think of laying down our arms. They still fight with great spirit whereas the enemy does not. Besides, if I were to intimate to General Grant that I would listen to terms, he would at once regard it as such evidence of weakness that he would demand unconditional surrender–and sooner than that I am resolved to die. Indeed, we must all determine to die at our posts.”
Major General Henry Wise, the former Virginia governor, asked Lee what he planned to do. Lee replied, “I shall have to be governed by each day’s developments. A few more Sayler’s Creeks and it will all be over–ended–just as I have expected it would end from the first.”
That afternoon, Brigadier General George A. Custer’s cavalry division captured four supply trains at Appomattox Station, about a mile from Appomattox Court House. Sheridan reported that his troopers had begun arriving at the courthouse town to block Lee, and, “If the 5th Corps can get up tonight we will perhaps finish the job in the morning. I do not think Lee means to surrender until compelled to do so.” Grant wired Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, “I feel very confident of receiving the surrender of Lee and what remains of his army tomorrow.”
The Confederates continued moving, unaware that Federals were now in their front. Lee relieved Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson and Major Generals George Pickett and Bushrod R. Johnson from duty because they no longer had commands after the rout at Sayler’s Creek. As for the remaining Army of Northern Virginia, Major General John B. Gordon’s infantry corps and Major General Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry stopped near the town surrounding the Appomattox County courthouse. Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps stopped behind Gordon.
Meanwhile, Lee received Grant’s latest message:
“Your note of last evening in reply to mine of the same date, asking the conditions on which I will accept the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, is just received. In reply I would say that, peace being my great desire, there is but one condition I would insist upon–namely, that the men and officers surrendered shall be disqualified for taking up arms against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged. I will meet you, or will designate officers to meet any officers you may name for the same purpose, at any point agreeable to you, for the purpose of arranging definitely the terms upon which the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia will be received.”
The surrender terms were generous; not only would the troops be allowed to return to their homes, but Lee would be spared the humiliation of surrendering in person. In fact, they were the same terms that Grant had offered Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton at Vicksburg. But Lee was not ready to give up. He replied:
“I received at a late hour your note of today. In mine of yesterday I did not intend to propose the surrender of the Army of N. Va., but to ask the terms of your proposition. To be frank, I do not think the emergency has arisen to call for the surrender of this army, but, as the restoration of peace should be the sole object of all, I desired to know whether your proposals would lead to that end. I cannot, therefore, meet you with a view to surrender the Army of N. Va.; but as far as your proposal may affect the Confederate States forces under my command, and tend to the restoration of peace, I should be pleased to meet you at 10 A.M. tomorrow on the old stage road to Richmond, between the picket lines of the two armies.”
Grant received this message in a farmhouse near Farmville. He was suffering from a migraine, and Lee’s reply made it no better. Grant’s staffers were enraged upon reading Lee’s note because Lee tried shifting the topic from surrender to peace negotiation, which Grant had no authority to discuss. Grant did not share their anger; he simply shook his head and said, “It looks as if Lee means to fight. I will reply in the morning.” Grant proposed to meet with Lee nonetheless until his top staffer and trusted confidante General John Rawlins reminded him that President Abraham Lincoln had ordered Grant to only discuss surrender, not peace, with Lee.
As night fell, the situation for Lee was bleaker than ever:
- Sheridan’s cavalry blocked the road to Lynchburg that Lee needed for his army to survive.
- Major General John Gibbon’s XXIV Corps was southwest of Lee, poised to join forces with Sheridan.
- Major General Charles Griffin’s V Corps was coming up behind Gibbon.
- II and VI corps under Major Generals Andrew A. Humphreys and Horatio G. Wright were closing in on the Confederates from the east.
Confederate Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge, who had come out to inspect the Army of Northern Virginia, reported to President Jefferson Davis at Danville that Lee had been “forced across the Appomattox” River to find “temporary relief” from the Federals in his continuing effort to “move around (the Federals) toward North Carolina. The straggling has been great, and the situation is not favorable.”
Lee arrived about a mile northeast of Appomattox Court House at 9 p.m. Artillery could be heard in the distance, and Federal campfires were visible to the west. The Confederates were virtually surrounded and outnumbered five-to-one. Supply lines had been cut, denying them any hope for food or reinforcement.
Lee held a council of war with Longstreet, Gordon, and Fitz Lee. They resolved to attack Sheridan’s troopers at 5 a.m. on the 9th, before the infantry could come to their aid. The goal was to break through the Federal line and get to Lynchburg. Gordon and Fitz stated that they could handle the cavalry, but if the infantry came up, they would have to surrender. When one of Gordon’s aides asked Lee where Gordon should stop after the breakthrough, Lee replied, “Tell General Gordon that I should be glad for him to halt just beyond the Tennessee line.”
Both Federals and Confederates bivouacked within striking distance of each other that night. Men on both sides felt that the next day would decide the war.
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