April 9, 1865 – General Robert E. Lee was compelled to ask Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant for a meeting to discuss surrendering the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.
At 5 a.m. on Palm Sunday, Confederate infantry under Major General John B. Gordon and cavalry under Major General Fitzhugh Lee advanced as planned. They hoped to break through Major General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry blocking their escape route to the west while Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps held off the Federals closing in from the east.
The Confederates initially drove Sheridan’s troopers back, pushing forward to the crest of a hill near Appomattox Court House. But they did not know that Sheridan was only pulling his men back so the infantry could get into the fight, and beyond the crest lay XXIV Corps from the Army of the James and V Corps from the Army of the Potomac. The Federals surged forward, and Gordon told one of Lee’s aides, “My old corps is reduced to a frazzle, and, unless I am supported by Longstreet heavily, I do not think we can do anything more.”
But Longstreet was busy trying to fend off II and VI corps from the Army of the Potomac, three miles northeast. When the aide delivered Gordon’s message to Lee, he realized he now had no hope of continuing southwest to join with General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederates in North Carolina. His army was surrounded on three sides (with the fourth side useless to them) and outnumbered five-to-one. After four years of fighting, the Army of Northern Virginia now faced annihilation. Lee said, “Then there is nothing left me to do but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths.”
Lee met with Longstreet and Brigadier General E. Porter Alexander, army artillery chief. Alexander proposed disbanding the army and allowing the troops to continue the struggle as guerrilla fighters. Lee demurred, arguing that the hungry men “would become mere bands of marauders, and the enemy’s cavalry would pursue them and overrun many sections they may never (otherwise) have occasion to visit. We would bring on a state of affairs it would take the country years to recover from.”
Lee rode out about 8:30 a.m. to the place where he had proposed meeting with Grant to discuss peace terms. But he soon received a message from Grant telling him that the meeting would not take place:
“I have no authority to treat on the subject of peace; the meeting proposed for 10 a.m. to-day could lead to no good. I will state however, general, that I am equally anxious for peace with yourself, and the whole North entertains the same feeling. 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. Seriously hoping that all our difficulties may be settled without the loss of another life, I subscribe myself, &c. U.S. Grant, Lieutenant General.”
Annoyed by this rejection, Lee told his aide, “Well, write a letter to General Grant and ask him to meet me to deal with the question of the surrender of my army.” It read:
“I received your note of this morning on the picket line, whither I had come to meet you and ascertain definitely what terms were embraced in your proposal of yesterday with reference to the surrender of this army. I now ask an interview in accordance with the offer contained in your letter of yesterday for that purpose.”
At that time, Grant was riding with II and VI corps coming in from the east. After he left that sector to meet with Sheridan, a courier under a white flag (actually a towel) delivered Lee’s message, where it was received by Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac. Meade forwarded the message to Grant but refused to suspend hostilities: “I have no sort of authority to grant such suspension. General Lee has already refused the terms of General Grant.”
When told that the Federals would attack, Lee wrote a second note to Grant: “I ask a suspension of hostilities pending the adjustment of the terms of the surrender of this army, in the interview requested in my former communication today.” Meade was finally persuaded to halt his attack.
Brigadier General John Rawlins, Grant’s chief of staff, received Lee’s message, read it, and handed it to the commander. Grant had been suffering from a migraine, or “a sick headache” as he described it, but “the instant I saw the contents of the note I was cured.” Grant quickly replied:
“Your note of this date is but this moment (11:50 A.M.) received, in consequence of my having passed from the Richmond and Lynchburg roads to the Farmville and Lynchburg road. I am writing this about four miles west of Walker’s Church, and will push forward to the front for the purpose of meeting you. Notice sent to me on this road where you wish the interview to take place will meet me.”
Grant then met with Sheridan and informed him that Lee wanted to surrender. Sheridan was “suspicious about the whole business, feared that there might be a plan to escape, that he had Lee at his feet and wanted to end the business by going in and forcing an absolute surrender by capture.” But Grant had “no doubt about the good faith of Lee,” and both sides ceased firing until Grant and Lee could talk.
Federals and Confederates dropped their guns and started mingling between the lines. A Pennsylvanian wrote that he went to the nearest Confederate regiment and “as soon as I got among these boys I felt and was treated as well as if I had been among our own boys, and a person would of thought we were of the same Army and had been Fighting under the Same Flag.” Another Federal soldier recalled:
“I remember how we sat there and pitied and sympathized with these courageous Southern men who had fought for four long and dreary years all so stubbornly, so bravely and so well, and now, whipped, beaten, completely used up, were fully at our mercy–it was pitiful, sad, hard, and seemed to us altogether too bad.”
Colonel Orville Babcock of Grant’s staff delivered the general’s message to Lee, who received it near 1 p.m. He dispatched Colonel Charles Marshall of his staff to find a meeting place for the two commanders. Marshall and Babcock rode into the village of Appomattox Court House and met with a resident named Wilmer McLean, who reluctantly allowed them to use the front parlor of his home. Ironically, McLean had moved away from Manassas to escape the war after his home had been damaged during the Battle of Bull Run in 1861. The McLean family settled in this peaceful village, “where the sound of battle would never reach them.”
According to Marshall: “Colonel Babcock told his orderly that he was to meet General Grant, who was coming on the road, and turn him in when he came along. So General Lee, Babcock and myself sat down in McLean’s parlour and talked in the most friendly and affable way.”
Federal officers waited for Grant on the road to Appomattox Court House, including Sheridan and Major General E.O.C. Ord, commanding the Army of the James. Grant looked ahead to the village and asked Sheridan, “Is Lee up there?” Sheridan said yes. Grant replied, “Very well. Let’s go up.” A nearby Federal band played “Auld Lang Syne” as the officers rode by.
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Tagged: Appomattox Campaign, Army of Northern Virginia, Army of the James, Army of the Potomac, E. Porter Alexander, E.O.C. Ord, George G. Meade, James Longstreet, John B. Gordon, Philip Sheridan, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Wilmer McLean