April 9, 1865 – Federal Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant received the surrender of Confederate General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee and the last of his Army of Northern Virginia.
Lee waited for Grant in the parlor of Wilmer McLean, in the village of Appomattox Court House. With Lee was his aide Colonel Charles Marshall and Grant’s aide Colonel Orville Babcock. Lee was impeccably dressed in a new full-dress uniform, scarlet sash, and sword with a jewel-studded hilt.
Grant rode into the village a half hour later with several officers, including Major Generals Philip Sheridan (cavalry commander) and E.O.C. Ord (Army of the James commander), and Brigadier General George A. Custer. Grant’s aide-de-camp, Colonel Eli Parker, rode with him as well. They all stopped outside the McLean house and waited outside while Grant went in.
Grant wore a basic, muddy uniform and no sword; his baggage had not caught up with him yet. Grant later wrote, “In my rough travelling suit, the uniform of a private with the straps of lieutenant-general, I must have contrasted very strangely with a man so handsomely dressed, six feet high and of faultless form.” Lee rose to shake hands with the five-foot-eight Federal commander, and the men engaged in some small talk. Babcock soon appeared in the front doorway and called on the Federal officers waiting outside to come in. They quickly filled the McLean parlor to witness the event.
Grant told Lee, “I met you once before, General Lee, while we were serving in Mexico, when you came over from General Scott’s headquarters to visit Garland’s brigade, to which I then belonged. I have always remembered your appearance, and I think I should have recognized you anywhere.” Lee replied, “Yes, I know I met you on that occasion, and I have often thought of it, and tried to recollect how you looked, but I have never been able to recall a single feature.”
According to Grant:
“Our conversation grew so pleasant that I almost forgot the object of our meeting. After the conversation had run on in this style for some time, General Lee called my attention to the object of our meeting, and said that he had asked for this interview for the purpose of getting from me the terms I proposed to give his army.”
Grant explained that the terms would remain as they were in his letter from the previous day: Confederate officers and men in the Army of Northern Virginia would lay down their arms and be allowed to return to their homes, and they would be disqualified from taking up arms against the United States again until properly exchanged. Lee then suggested that the terms be put in writing, and Grant agreed. While Lee sat at his table, Parker brought up a second table for Grant to use. Grant opened his order book and wrote:
“In accordance with the substance of my letter to you of the 8th inst., I propose to receive the surrender of the Army of N. Va. on the following terms, to wit:
“Rolls of all the officers and men to be made in duplicate. One copy to be given to an officer designated by me, the other to be retained by such officer or officers as you may designate. The officers to give their individual paroles not to take up arms against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged, and each company or regimental commander sign a like parole for the men of their commands. The arms, artillery and public property to be parked and stacked, and turned over to the officer appointed by me to receive them. This will not embrace the side-arms of the officers, nor their private horses or baggage. This done, each officer and man 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 may reside.”
Grant exceeded his authority with the last sentence, which guaranteed that the Confederates would not be punished for rebelling against the Federal government. Nevertheless, the book was passed to Lee, who laid it on the table, polished his spectacles, put them on, and read it. Scanning the second page, Lee said, “After the words ‘until properly’ the word ‘exchanged’ seems to be omitted. You doubtless intended to use that word.”
Grant said, “Why, yes. I thought I had put in the word ‘exchanged.’” Lee replied, “I presumed it had been omitted inadvertently, and, with your permission, I will mark where it should be inserted.” Grant said, “Certainly.” Marshall gave Lee his pencil, and Lee twirled it in his fingers and tapped it on the table as he finished reading. He noted the section allowing officers to keep their horses and side arms and said, “This will have a very happy effect upon my army.”
Lee then said, “General, our cavalrymen furnish their own horses; they are not Government horses, some of them may be, but of course you will find them out–any property that is public property, you will ascertain that, but it is nearly all private property, and these men will want to plough ground and plant corn.” Grant told Lee that the terms did not allow for the rank and file to keep their horses, and Lee replied that this was clear.
Then Grant reconsidered. He said that he hoped this would be the final battle of the war, and presuming that most of the Confederates were small farmers, they would be allowed to keep their horses as well. Lee repeated that such an allowance would have a happy effect on the men. Lee wrote a reply to Grant’s written terms:
“I received your letter of this date containing the terms of the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia as proposed by you. As they are substantially the same as those expressed in your letter of the 8th inst., they are accepted. I will proceed to designate the proper officers to carry the stipulations into effect.”
At around 3:45 p.m., this letter was placed in an envelope and sealed. Grant took the envelope and handed it to Parker without reading it; he said that Lee’s word was sufficient for the surrender to take effect. Parker wrote out copies of Grant’s surrender order, and Grant introduced Lee to all the Federal officers in the parlor. When Lee came to Parker (who was a Seneca Indian), he said, “I am glad to see one real American here.” Parker replied, “We are all Americans.”
Grant asked Sheridan if his troopers had any rations they could share with the remaining Confederates, many of whom were nearly starved to death. Sheridan said that he had some from the Confederate trains his men had captured the previous day. Grant asked Lee if 25,000 rations would be enough, and Lee replied, “Plenty, plenty; an abundance.”
Lee left the McLean house, accompanied by Babcock and Marshall. The general stood on the porch steps and silently pounded his right fist into his left palm as he waited for his orderly to bring up his horse. As Lee mounted the horse, Grant emerged from the McLean house and raised his hat in salute. All Federal officers present did the same. Lee returned the salute and rode off slowly.
As Lee returned to his surrendered army, weeping troops swarmed him and urged him to carry on the fight. Lee told them, “I have done for you all that it was in my power to do. You have done all your duty. Leave the result to God. Go to your homes and resume your occupations. Obey the laws and become as good citizens as you were soldiers.”
Grant left the house next, accompanied by Colonel Horace Porter. When Porter asked if Grant would notify Washington, Grant admitted that he had forgotten about that. He stopped at the roadside and scribbled a hasty message for the telegraph.
An officer present later recalled that after Grant and Lee left the McLean house, “Relic-hunters, charged down upon the manor house and began to bargain for the numerous pieces of furniture.” Some men tried to pay McLean, but he refused. The men took the furniture anyway.
Meanwhile, word quickly spread among the Federals that Lee had surrendered. The men shouted, cheered, and fired their weapons in celebration. When gunners started firing their cannon in salute, Grant ordered them to stop. He told them, “The war is over. The Rebels are our countrymen again, and the best sign of rejoicing after the victory will be to abstain from all demonstrations.” He later wrote:
“What General Lee’s feelings were I do not know… but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.”
Grant’s order did not reach the troops outside Appomattox Court House, and they staged wild celebrations. Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, rode down the lines waving his hat and shouting, “It’s all over, boys! Lee’s surrendered! It’s all over!” An officer wrote his wife: “Notwithstanding the privations and hardships I have endured, and the great suffering I have undergone, the glory of this day more than compensates me for all.” A soldier recalled:
“The air is black with hats and boots, coats, knapsacks, shirts and cartridge boxes, blankets and shelter tents, canteens and haversacks. They fall on each others’ necks and laugh and cry by turns. Huge, lumbering, bearded men embrace and kiss like school-girls, then dance and sing and shout, stand on their heads and play at leapfrog with each other… All the time, from the hills around, the deep-mouthed cannon give their harmless thunders, and at each hollow boom the vast concourse rings out its joy anew that murderous shot and shell no longer follow close the accustomed sound.”
The celebrations would increase as news of the surrender reached Washington and then the rest of the North.
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Tagged: Appomattox Campaign, Army of Northern Virginia, Army of the James, Army of the Potomac, Charles Marshall, E.O.C. Ord, Eli Parker, George G. Meade, Philip Sheridan, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Wilmer McLean