It’s been a while since I’ve posted a mini-history lesson, and today, the 150th anniversary of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, seems a worthwhile reason to provide one.
The Beginning of The End
For a good year before Robert E. Lee decided it was time to surrender, the Union and Confederate armies were essentially locked in nonstop combat. Consider the opposition: Ulysses S. Grant’s campaign in Virginia through the spring of 1864; Phil Sheridan’s cavalry actions that would later be known as “The Burning of the Shenandoah”; Sherman’s drive to capture Atlanta and the subsequent “March to the Sea” that marked the summer and fall of that same year.
The odds were seemingly stacked against an army that suffered from a lack of food and ammunition. There were no more reinforcements. Many civilians had had enough. The only thing the Confederate army really had left was guts and determination.
But by April 1865, Lee knew he didn’t have many options left. Johnston was still fighting in North Carolina, and in the far reaches of the Confederacy, armies were still holding out. But in Northern Virginia, Grant was closing in. Petersburg had fallen. The Confederate government had fled Richmond, destroying records and supplies as they went.
The Confederate army continued to make valiant stands through those early days of April, including a battle at Appomattox Courthouse itself. If they could get to the Appalachians, many believed they could continue fighting for years through what we would today term guerrilla warfare.
Lee made a tough decision.
He decided was time to ask Grant for terms.
Meeting at Appomattox to Discuss the End
There’s a lot of legend surrounding the meeting of Lee and Grant at the MacLean house in Appomattox Courthouse. Yes, Lee did wear his best uniform. Grant did ride up and sit down with the famed Southern general with mud splattered boots. Whether or not Lee planned on surrendering that day is up for debate, but once he saw the terms Grant offered, he agreed to them.
Grant did offer very generous terms, given the bitterness of the past four bloody years. While military equipment had to be given up, officers and enlisted men alike were paroled. Officers could keep their sidearms, and any man who owned the horse he rode could keep it as well.
Both armies were tired. It was time to go home and resume the business of being Americans.
Contemporary accounts state that the meeting between these two generals was respectful, and the surrender is sometimes referred to as “The Gentlemen’s Agreement.” Certainly Grant, and definitely President Lincoln, wanted to avoid the terrible Reconstruction years that would follow Lincoln’s assassination.
But Not Quite The End
Lee’s surrender at Appomattox is usually considered the end of the War Between the States, though it really only dealt with one army in one corner of the South. Perhaps the proximity to Washington is what made the Army of Northern Virginia’s surrender so important, why history marks April 9, 1865, as the official end.
But Lee wasn’t the only one still fighting.
Remember that in 1865, there was no television or internet. There was the telegraph, which was extensively used by the Union, especially in those final months between Lincoln and Grant. But generally word traveled slowly on a good day, and in the war-torn south it traveled at a snail’s pace, or slower.
Other standing armies in the Confederacy eventually got word that Lee had surrendered. Johnston surrendered to Sherman on April 26th, near Durham, North Carolina. May 4th marked the surrender of General Richard Taylor’s army in Alabama, and Confederate Cherokee forces in what is now Oklahoma surrendered on June 23rd. The last Confederate victory of the war actually occurred on May 13th, at Palmito Ranch, Texas, before word of the end of the war reached the army there. And the last Confederate naval vessel to surrender was the CSS Shenandoah, which continued to harass Yankee whaling ships in the Pacific well into the summer. It wasn’t until August 2nd that the CSS Shenandoah’s captain accepted a report about the Confederate surrender (up to that point, the news had been dismissed as rumors), and it wasn’t until November 6th that the ship surrendered to British authorities in Liverpool.
The exact casualty rate can only be estimated, especially since the standard number of those killed between April 1861 and April 1865 (long set at about 620,000) doesn’t usually count civilians, enslaved blacks or those who freed themselves by escaping to contraband camps, or those who died after the war from disease or wounds. Even the official numbers of Confederate dead can only be estimated because many official Confederate records were destroyed when Davis and his government fled Richmond ahead of Grant’s army. Current estimates now place the death toll around 750,000, though there’s argument that it could be even higher.
And the toll of the war would continue to be seen in the millions of men left invalided by disease and crippled by horrific wounds, the result of Napoleonic tactics fought with modern weaponry.
Still Not The End
Lincoln wanted the Southern states to return to the Union as soon as possible, and for the entire country to get moving forward as one piece again. But after Lincoln’s assassination, all hope for a peaceful restoration of the Union went out the window. Radical Republicans had control of the United States government, and many wanted to punish the South for the past four years.
Enter the Reconstruction Era: nearly a decade of what many termed (and still term) a military occupation of the South by the Union army. Former Confederates were bitter. Their homes were ravaged by war and privation.
Black men were enfranchised by Federal law, but those in the South would effectively be disenfranchised by Jim Crow laws. Slavery was made illegal in the United States, but well into the 20th century, blacks in the south still existed in a state of slavery as they became sharecroppers, often to the families who once owned them and their ancestors.
Reconstruction was a violent era as well, spawning the birth of the Ku Klux Klan and many other paramilitary groups who sought to reestablish what they believed was the South as it once was. Supreme Court decisions like Plessy v. Ferguson paved the way for segregation laws, which wouldn’t be overturned until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – 99 years after Lee surrendered to Grant.
Bitterness and hatred continue to plague us, even into the 21st century. Our country has come a long way in the past 150 years, but we’re nowhere near the ideal of equality and freedom we often believe the Founding Fathers envisioned for the United States. We’re still divided along lines of race, as well as gender, religion, and sexual orientation. But many of us are trying to figure out how to erase those lines, and understanding the outcome of the Civil War is an imperative piece of understanding who we are as a nation.
On that April day in 1865, Lee probably wasn’t thinking about the decades of turmoil yet to come. He was probably just thinking about his soldiers – starving, worn out, determined to go on if he just said so, even though they were running on empty.
It’s left for us to understand the aftermath, to learn from it, to make our country a better place for the sacrifices that were made – on both sides.
For more information about Appomattox, check out the Civil War Trust’s interactive learning site.