The Army of Northern Virginia Surrenders

April 10, 1865 – Confederate General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee issued a farewell to his Army of Northern Virginia as both sides prepared for a formal surrender ceremony.

Federal General U.S. Grant | Image Credit:

On the night of the 9th, a message arrived at the War Department in Washington from Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander:

“Gen. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Va this afternoon on terms proposed by myself. The accompanying additional correspondence will show the conditions fully.”

It was generally understood that the surrender of the Confederacy’s largest army meant that the end of the war was near. As the news spread, celebrations in Washington that had begun with the fall of Richmond quickly exploded into joyous pandemonium. Decorative gaslights at the U.S. Capitol blazed the message: “This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvellous in our eyes.” Flames from gas jets at the Patent Office spelled “UNION.” Lights burned in almost every window in celebration.

But back at Appomattox Court House, much work needed to be done. A committee made up of Federal and Confederate officers discussed the details of the surrender ceremony, which was to take place on the 12th. Then, on the 10th, the parole process began and Lee requested final reports from his corps commanders on operations from March 29th up to the surrender. Lee would use this material for his final report to President Jefferson Davis.

Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit:

Lee asked his aide, Colonel Charles Marshall, to draft a farewell address to the army and submit it to him by 10 a.m. When Lee learned that Marshall had been unable to meet the deadline, he ordered his aide to go into an ambulance and not return until it was done. A courier then reported that Grant wanted to meet with the Confederate commander once more. Lee accepted.

Meeting on a hill overlooking Appomattox Court House, Grant asked Lee if he would use his influence to persuade the remaining Confederate commanders in the field to surrender their armies. Lee acknowledged that further resistance would be futile, but he felt that urging a wholesale surrender might infringe on President Jefferson Davis’s powers as commander-in-chief. Brigadier General E. Porter Alexander, Confederate artillery chief, later wrote, “I think there is no doubt that Mr. Davis would have considered it a great intrusion.”

Grant then asked Lee if he would be willing to go to Washington and meet with President Abraham Lincoln, but Lee did not think that would be proper. He did express opposition to “extremists on both sides,” and he assured Grant that he would devote his “whole efforts to pacifying the country and bringing the people back to the Union.” Grant was satisfied with Lee’s sincerity.

As Grant and Lee continued their discussion, Lee granted permission to Major General Philip Sheridan and other Federal officers to go into the Confederate camps to look for old friends. The Federals soon returned with Confederate Generals James Longstreet, John B. Gordon, and Henry Heth, all of whom paid their respects to Grant.

Meanwhile, other Federals and Confederates visited with each other at the McLean house in Appomattox. Grant later joined in and “spent an hour pleasantly” with Confederates who had been friends and West Point classmates before the war. The men mingled “very much as if all thought of the war had escaped their minds.”

Later that day, Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, met with his old friend General Lee. Meade’s aide Colonel Theodore Lyman recalled that Lee “gazed vacantly when Meade saluted him. But he recovered himself and said ‘What are you doing with all that gray in your beard?’ ‘That you have a good deal to do with!’ said our General promptly.”

Lee returned to his headquarters, where Marshall had finished the farewell address. Lee issued it as his last order, General Order No. 9:

“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 valor and devotion could accomplish nothing that could compensate for the loss that must 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 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.”

Lee spent most of the 11th gathering the reports from his corps commanders and preparing his own report for Davis. It began, “It is with pain that I announce to Your Excellency the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia.” Lee cited the failure of rations to reach the army at Amelia Court House as one of the chief causes of the surrender: “This delay was fatal, and could not be retrieved.”

He also explained that the defeat at Sayler’s Creek was because “General Anderson, commanding Pickett’s and B.R. Johnson’s divisions, became disconnected with Mahone’s division, forming the rear of Longstreet.” Lee then detailed exactly what led to his final decision to surrender:

“I deemed this course the best under all the circumstances by which we were surrounded. On the morning of the 9th, according to the reports of the ordnance officers, there were 7892 organized infantry with arms, with an average of 75 rounds of ammunition per man. The artillery, though reduced to sixty-three pieces, with ninety-three rounds of ammunition, was sufficient. These comprised all the supplies of ordnance that could be relied on in the State of Virginia. I have no accurate report of the cavalry, but believe it did not exceed 2100 effective men. The enemy was more than five times our numbers. If we could have forced our way one day longer, it would have been at a great sacrifice of life, and at its end I did not see how a surrender could have been avoided. We had no subsistence for man or horse, and it could not be gathered in the country. The supplies ordered to Pamplin’s Station from Lynchburg could not reach us, and the men, deprived of food and sleep for many days, were worn out and exhausted.”

Lee then bade farewell to his staff and signed his pledge not to take up arms against the United States again. He would not break camp until the surrender ceremony was over, but he would not participate. Neither would Grant, who had already gone back to the Federal supply base at City Point. He planned to slash Federal army expenses now that the largest enemy army had surrendered.

Gen. J.L. Chamberlain | Image Credit:

The official surrender took place on the 12th. Federal troops lined both sides of the main road to Appomattox Court House and awaited the Confederates, who were required to come forward, stack their arms, and fold their flags. Brevet Major General Joshua L. Chamberlain, the former Maine professor who had been wounded twice and became the hero of Little Round Top at Gettysburg, presided over the ceremony. He recalled, “Grant wished the ceremony to be as simple as possible, and that nothing should be done to humiliate the manhood of the Southern soldiers.”

At 9 a.m., the Confederates formed ranks and marched down the street, with Major General John B. Gordon’s corps in the lead. The Stonewall Brigade headed the corps; this legendary outfit now consisted of just 210 men in five regiments. The small number of men contrasted with the large number of battle flags, prompting Chamberlain to note that “the whole column seemed crowned with red.”

Gordon led the men with “his chin drooped to his breast, downhearted and dejected in appearance.” Chamberlain suddenly ordered the Federals to carry arms, thus saluting Confederate honor. Gordon later wrote:

“One of the knightliest soldiers of the Federal army, General Joshua L. Chamberlain of Maine, who afterward served with distinction as governor of his State, called his troops into line, and as my men marched in front of them, the veterans in blue gave a soldierly salute to those vanquished heroes–a token of respect from Americans to Americans, a final and fitting tribute from Northern to Southern chivalry.”

According to Chamberlain:

“Gordon at the head of the column, riding with heavy spirit and downcast face, catches the sound of shifting arms, looks up, and, taking the meaning, wheels superbly, making with himself and his horse one uplifted figure, with profound salutation as he drops the point of his sword to the boot toe; then facing to his own command, gives word for his successive brigades to pass us with the same position of the manual,–honor answering honor. On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glorying, nor motion of man standing again at the order, but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead!”

Thus, the two armies ended four years of terrible warfare with “honor answering honor” for a “mutual salutation and farewell.” And the legendary Army of Northern Virginia was no more.



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