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Chapter 43: Appomattox.

  • Some of General Lee's officers say to him that “further resistance is hopeless”
  • -- Longstreet does not approve -- General Grant calls for surrender-“not yet” -- the Confederate chieftain asks terms -- his response to his officers as represented by General Pendleton -- correspondence of Generals Lee and Grant -- morning of April 9 -- General Lee rides to meet the Federal commander, while Longstreet forms the last line of battle -- Longstreet endeavors to recall his chief, hearing of a break where the Confederate troops could pass -- Custer demands surrender of Longstreet -- reminded of irregularity, and that he was “in the enemy's lines” -- meeting with General Grant -- capitulation -- last scenes.

The beginning of the end was now at hand,--not perhaps necessarily, but, at least, as the sequence of cause and effect actually followed.

“An event occurred on the 7th,” says General Long, “which must not be omitted from the narrative. Perceiving the difficulties that surrounded the army, and believing its extrication hopeless, a number of the principal officers, from a feeling of affection and sympathy for the commander-in-chief, and with a wish to lighten his responsibility and soften the pain of defeat, volunteered to inform him that, in their opinion, the struggle had reached a point where further resistance was hopeless, and that the contest should be terminated and negotiations opened for a surrender of the army. The delivery of this opinion was confided to General Pendleton, who, both by his character and devotion to General Lee, was well qualified for such an office. The names of Longstreet and some others, who did not coincide in the opinion of their associates, did not appear in the list presented by Pendleton.” 1 A little after nightfall a flag of truce appeared under [619] torchlight in front of Mahone's line bearing a note to General Lee:

Headquarters Armies of the United States, 5 P. M., April 7, 1865.
General R. E. Lee, Commanding Confederate States Army: General,--
The results of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia in this struggle. I feel that it is so, and regard it as my duty to shift from myself the responsibility of any further effusion of blood by asking of you the surrender of that portion of the Confederate army known as the Army of Northern Virginia.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant, U. S. Grant, Lieutenant-General, Commanding Armies of the United States.

I was sitting at his side when the note was delivered. He read it and handed it to me without referring to its contents. After reading it I gave it back, saying, “Not yet.

General Lee wrote in reply,--

April 7, 1865.
I have received your note of this day. Though not entertaining the opinion you express on the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia, I reciprocate your desire to avoid useless effusion of blood, and therefore, before considering your proposition, ask the terms you will offer on condition of its surrender.

R. E. Lee, General. Lieutenant-General Grant, Commanding Armies of the United States.

I was not informed of the contents of the return note, but thought, from the orders of the night, it did not mean surrender. General Lee ordered my command from forward-to rear-guard, and his cavalry in rear of the march. The road was clear at eleven o'clock, and we marched at twelve. The enemy left us to a quiet day's march on the [620] 8th, nothing disturbing the rear-guard, and our left flank being but little annoyed, but our animals were worn and reduced in strength by the heavy haul through rain and mud during the march from Petersburg, and the troops of our broken columns were troubled and faint of heart.

We passed abandoned wagons in flames, and limbers and caissons of artillery burning sometimes in the middle of the road. One of my battery commanders reported his horses too weak to haul his guns. He was ordered to bury the guns and cover their burial-places with old leaves and brushwood. Many weary soldiers were picked up, and many came to the column from the woodlands, some with, many without, arms,--all asking for food.

General Grant renewed efforts on the 8th to find a way to strike across the head of our march by his cavalry and the Army of the James, pursuing our rear-guard with the Second and Sixth Corps of the Army of the Potomac.

In the forenoon, General Pendleton came to me and reported the proceedings of the self-constituted council of war of the night before, and stated that he had been requested to make the report and ask to have me bear it to General Lee, in the name of the members of the council. Much surprised, I turned and asked if he did not know that the Articles of War provided that officers or soldiers who asked commanding officers to surrender should be shot, and said,--

If General Lee doesn't know when to surrender until I tell him, he will never know.

It seems that General Pendleton then went to General Lee and made the report. General Long's account of the interview, as reported by Pendleton, is as follows:

General Lee was lying on the ground. No others heard the conversation between him and myself. He received my communication with the reply, ‘Oh, no, I trust that it has not come to that,’ and added, ‘General, we have yet too many bold men to think of laying down our arms. The enemy do not fight with [621] spirit, while our boys still do. Besides, if I were to say a word to the Federal commander, he would regard it as such a confession of weakness as to make it the condition of demanding an unconditional surrender, a proposal to which I will never listen. . . . I have never believed we could, against the gigantic combination for our subjugation, make good, in the long run, our independence, unless foreign powers should, directly or indirectly, assist us. . . . But such considerations really make with me no difference. We had, I was satisfied, sacred principles to maintain, and rights to defend, for which we were in duty bound to do our best, even if we perished in the endeavor.’

Such were, as nearly as I can recall them, the exact words of General Lee on that most critical occasion. You see in them the soul of the man. Where his conscience dictated and his judgment decided, there his heart was. 2

The delicate affection that prompted the knights of later days to offer to relieve our grand commander of his official obligations and take upon themselves responsibility to disarm us and turn us over to the enemy is somewhat pathetic, but when to it are applied the stern rules of a soldier's duty upon a field of emergency, when the commander most needs steady hands and brave hearts, their proceeding would not stand the test of a military tribunal. The interesting part of the interview is that in it our great leader left a sufficient testimonial of his regard as a legacy to the soldiers of his column of the right. Though commanders of other columns were in mutinous conduct towards him, he had confidence that we were firm and steady in waiting to execute his last command.

During the day General Grant wrote General Lee in reply to his note of the 7th inquiring as to terms of surrender,--

April 8, 1865.
General R. E. Lee, Commanding Confederate States Army: General,--
Your note of last evening in reply to mine of the same date, asking the conditions on which I will accept surrender [622] 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 again against the government of the United States until properly exchanged. I will meet you, or will designate officers to meet any officers you might 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.

U. S. Grant, Lieutenant-General.

In reply, General Lee wrote,--

April 8, 1865.
I received at a late hour your note of to-day. In mine of yesterday I did not intend to propose the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, 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 the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia; 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 ten A. M. to-morrow on the old stage road to Richmond, between the picket lines of the two armies.

R. E. Lee, General.

The enemy's movements of the day were impressive of his desire to get by our left flank and make a strong stand across the route of our head of column. At Prospect Station, General Sheridan was informed of four trains of cars at Appomattox Station loaded with provisions for General Lee's army. He gave notice to Merritt's and Crook's cavalry, and rode twenty-eight miles in time for Custer's division to pass the station, cut off the trains, and drive back the guard advancing to protect them. He helped himself to the provisions, and captured besides twenty-five pieces of artillery and a wagon and hospital train. [623]

At night General Lee made his Headquarters near the rear-guard, and spread his couch about a hundred feet from the saddle and blanket that were my pillow and spread for the night. If he had a more comfortable bed than mine I do not know, but I think not.

He sent for his cavalry commander, and gave orders for him to transfer his troopers from the rear to the advanced guard, and called General Gordon, commanding in front, for report and orders. The advance was then at Appomattox Court-House, Wallace's brigade resting in the village. His orders were to march at one o'clock in the morning, the trains and advanced forces to push through the village in time for my column to stand and prepare to defend at that point in case of close pursuit. General Gordon reported, as I remember, less than two thousand men. (General Fitzhugh Lee puts it at sixteen hundred, but he may have overlooked Wallace's brigade, which joined the advance on that day.) My column was about as it was when it marched from Petersburg. Parts of Ewell's, Anderson's, and Pickett's commands not captured on the march were near us, and reported to me, except Wallace's brigade.

On the 9th the rear-guard marched as ordered, but soon came upon standing trains of wagons in the road and still in park alongside. The command was halted, deployed into position, and ordered to intrench against the pursuing army.

It was five o'clock when the advance commands moved, --four hours after the time ordered. To these General Long's batteries of thirty guns were attached. They met Sheridan's cavalry advancing across their route. The column was deployed, the cavalry on the right of the artillery and infantry, as they advanced to clear the way. They reported some success, capturing two pieces of artillery, when General Ord's column came up. He had, besides his Army of the James, the Fifth Army Corps. [624] These commands, with the cavalry, pushed the Confederates back a little, while the two corps of the Army of the Potomac were advancing against my rear-guard.

Of the early hours of this, the last day of active existence of the Army of Northern Virginia, Colonel Venable, of General Lee's staff, wrote thus:

At three o'clock on the morning of that fatal day, General Lee rode forward, still hoping that he might break through the countless hordes of the enemy, who hemmed us in. Halting a short distance in rear of our vanguard, he sent me on to General Gordon to ask him if he could break through the enemy. I found General Gordon and General Fitz Lee on their front line in the dim light of the morning, arranging our attack. Gordon's reply to the message (I give the expressive phrase of the gallant Georgian) was this: ‘Tell General Lee I have fought my corps to a frazzle, and I fear I can do nothing unless I am heavily supported by Longstreet's corps.’

When I bore the message back to General Lee, he said, ‘Then there is nothing left me but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths.’

Convulsed with passionate grief, many were the wild words which we spoke as we stood around him. Said one, ‘Oh, general, what will history say of the surrender of the army in the field?’

He replied, ‘Yes, I know they will say hard things of us; they will not understand how we are overwhelmed by numbers. But that is not the question, colonel; the question is, “Is it right to surrender this army .”If it is right, then I will take all the responsibility! ’ 3

Presently General Lee called to have me ride forward to him. He was dressed in a suit of new uniform, sword and sash, a handsomely embroidered belt, boots, and a pair of gold spurs. At first approach his compact figure appeared as a man in the flush vigor of forty summers, but as I drew near, the handsome apparel and brave bearing failed to conceal his profound depression. He stood near the embers of some burned rails, received me [625] with graceful salutation, and spoke at once of affairs in front and the loss of his subsistence stores. He remarked that the advanced columns stood against a very formidable force, which he could not break through, while General Meade was at my rear ready to call for all the work that the rear-guard could do, and, closing with the expression that it was not possible for him to get along, requested my view. I asked if the bloody sacrifice of his army could in any way help the cause in other quarters. He thought not. Then, I said, your situation speaks for itself.

He called up General Mahone, and made to him a similar statement of affairs. The early morning was raw and damp. General Mahone was chilled standing in wait without fire. He pushed up the embers and said to the general he did not want him to think he was scared, he was only chilled. General Mahone sometimes liked to talk a little on questions of moment, and asked several questions. My attention was called to messages from the troops for a time, so that I failed to hear all of the conversation, but I heard enough of it to know that General Mahone thought it time to see General Grant. Appeal was made to me to affirm that judgment, and it was promptly approved.

General Grant had been riding with his column in our rear during the correspondence of the 7th and 8th. So General Lee, upon mounting Traveller, his favorite horse, rode to our rear to meet him, leaving his advanced forces engaged in a lively skirmish. He did not think to send them notice of his intended ride, nor did he authorize me to call a truce. He passed my rear under flag, but General Grant's orders were that his correspondence with General Lee should not interrupt or delay the operations of any of his forces. Our advance troops were in action, and General Humphreys was up with the Second Corps of the Army of the Potomac, preparing for action against our rear-guard. The situation was embarrassing. It was [626] plain enough that I should attack the Second Corps before others could be up and prepare for action, though our truce forbade. It could not prevail, however, to call me to quiet while the enemy in plain view was preparing for attack, so we continued at our work constructing our best line of defence, and when strong enough I ordered parts of the rear-guard forward to support the advanced forces, and directed General Alexander to establish them with part of his batteries in the best position for support or rallying line in case the front lines were forced back. That was the last line of battle formed in the Army of Northern Virginia.

While this formation was proceeding, report came from our front that a break had been found through which we could force passage. I called for a swift courier, but not one could be found. Colonel J. C. Haskell had a blooded mare that had been carefully led from Petersburg. Appreciating the signs of the times, he had ordered her saddled, intending a desperate ride to escape impending humiliation, but, learning my need of a swift courier, he came and offered his services and his mare. He was asked to take the information just brought in to General Lee, and as he mounted was told to kill his mare but bring General Lee back. He rode like the wind.

General Lee had passed out and dismounted beyond a turn of the road, and was not seen until the gallant rider had dashed by him. The steed swept onward some distance before the rider could pull up. As Colonel Haskell rode back, General Lee walked to meet him, exclaiming, “You have ruined your beautiful mare! why did you do so?” The swift despatch was too late. General Lee's note to General Grant asking an interview had gone beyond recall.

As my troops marched to form the last line a message came from General Lee saying he had not thought to give notice of the intended ride to meet General Grant, and [627] asked to have me send his message to that effect to General Gordon, and it was duly sent by Captain Sims, of the Third Corps staff; serving at my Headquarters since the fall of A. P. Hill.

After delivering the message, Captain Sims, through some informality, was sent to call the truce. The firing ceased. General Custer rode to Captain Sims to know his authority, and, upon finding that he was of my staff, asked to be conducted to my Headquarters, and down they came in fast gallop, General Custer's flaxen locks flowing over his shoulders, and in brusk, excited manner, he said,--

In the name of General Sheridan I demand the unconditional surrender of this army.

He was reminded that I was not the commander of the army, that he was within the lines of the enemy without authority, addressing a superior officer, and in disrespect to General Grant as well as myself; that if I was the commander of the Army I would not receive the message of General Sheridan.

He then became more moderate, saying it would be a pity to have more blood upon that field. Then I suggested that the truce be respected, and said,--

As you are now more reasonable, I will say that General Lee has gone to meet General Grant, and it is for them to determine the future of the armies.

He was satisfied, and rode back to his command.

General Grant rode away from the Army of the Potomac on the morning of the 9th to join his troops near Appomattox Court-House, so General Lee's note was sent around to him. When advised of the change, General Lee rode back to his front to await there the answer to his note. While waiting, General Lee expressed apprehension that his refusal to meet General Grant's first proposition might cause him to demand harsh terms.

I assured him that I knew General Grant well enough [628] to say that the terms would be such as he would demand under similar circumstances, but he yet had doubts. The conversation continued in broken sentences until the bearer of the return despatch approached. As he still seemed apprehensive of humiliating demands, I suggested that in that event he should break off the interview and tell General Grant to do his worst. The thought of another round seemed to brace him, and he rode with Colonel Marshall, of his staff, to meet the Union commander.

The status of affairs spread through the advance troops of the army, but the work of preparation on my rear line was continued. General Field inquired of a passing officer, “What's up?” but, seeing arrangements going on for attack in our rear, he continued his work of preparation to receive it.

General Grant was found prepared to offer as liberal terms as General Lee could expect, and, to obviate a collision between his army of the rear with ours, ordered an officer sent to give notice of the truce. A ride around the lines would consume time, and he asked to have the officer conducted through our lines. Colonel Fairfax was sent with him. When they reached our rear line it was still at work on the trenches. The officer expressed surprise at the work of preparation, as not proper under truce. Colonel Fairfax ordered the work discontinued, and claimed that a truce between belligerents can only be recognized by mutual consent. As the object of the ride was to make the first announcement of properly authorized truce, the work of preparation between the lines was no violation of the usages of war, particularly when it was borne in mind that the orders of General Grant were that the correspondence should not delay or interrupt military operations.

As General Lee rode back to his army the officers and soldiers of his troops about the front lines assembled in promiscuous crowds of all arms and grades in anxious [629] wait for their loved commander. From force of habit a burst of salutations greeted him, but quieted as suddenly as they arose. The. road was packed by standing troops as he approached, the men with hats off, heads and hearts bowed down. As he passed they raised their heads and looked upon him with swimming eyes. Those who could find voice said good-by, those who could not speak, and were near, passed their hands gently over the sides of Traveller. He rode with his hat off, and had sufficient control to fix his eyes on a line between the ears of Traveller and look neither to right nor left until he reached a large white-oak tree, where he dismounted to make his last Headquarters, and finally talked a little.

The shock was most severe upon Field's division. Seasoned by four years of battle triumphant, the veterans in that body stood at Appomattox when the sun rose on the 9th day of April, 1865, as invincible of valor as on the morning of the 31st of August, 1862, after breaking up the Union lines of the second field of Manassas. They had learned little of the disasters about Petersburg, less of that at Sailor's Creek, and surrender had not had time to enter their minds until it was announced accomplished!

The reported opportunity to break through the enemy's lines proved a mistake. General Mumford, suspecting surrender from the sudden quiet of the front, made a dashing ride, and passed the enemy's lines with his division of cavalry, and that caused the impression that we would be able to march on.

Soon after General Lee's return ride his chief of ordnance reported a large amount of United States currency in his possession. In doubt as to the proper disposition of the funds, General Lee sent the officer to ask my opinion. As it was not known or included in the conditions of capitulation, and was due (and ten times more) to the faithful troops, I suggested a pro rata distribution of it. [630] The officer afterwards brought three hundred dollars as my part. I took one hundred, and asked to have the balance distributed among Field's division,--the troops most distant from their homes.

The commissioners appointed to formulate details of the capitulation were assigned a room in the McLean residence. The way to it led through the room occupied as General Grant's Headquarters.

As I was passing through the room, as one of the commissioners, General Grant looked up, recognized me, rose, and with his old-time cheerful greeting gave me his hand, and after passing a few remarks offered a cigar, which was gratefully received.

The first step under capitulation was to deliver to the Union army some fifteen hundred prisoners, taken since we left Petersburg, not all of them by my infantry, Rosser's and Mumford's cavalry having taken more than half of them. Besides these I delivered to General Grant all of the Confederate soldiers left under my care by General Lee, except about two hundred lost in the affairs about Petersburg, Amelia Court-House, Jetersville, Rice's Station, and Cumberland Church. None were reported killed except the gallant officers Brigadier-General Dearing, of Rosser's cavalry, Colonel Bostan, of Mumford's cavalry, and Major Thompson, of Stuart's horse artillery, in the desperate and gallant fight to which they were ordered against the bridge-burning party.

General Grant's artillery prepared to fire a salute in honor of the surrender, but he ordered it stopped.

As the world continues to look at and study the grand combinations and strategy of General Grant, the higher will be his award as a great soldier. Confederates should be foremost in crediting him with all that his admirers so justly claim, and ask at the same time that his great adversary be measured by the same high standards.

On the 12th of April the Army of Northern Virginia [631] marched to the field in front of Appomattox Court-House, and by divisions and parts of divisions deployed into line, stacked their arms, folded their colors, and walked empty-handed to find their distant, blighted homes.

There were “surrendered and paroled” on the last day of our military history over twenty-eight thousand officers and men,--viz.:

General Lee and staff15
Longstreet's corps 414,833
Gordon's corps 57,200
Ewell's corps287
Cavalry corps1,786

In glancing backward over the period of the war, and the tremendous and terrible events with which it was fraught, the reflection irresistibly arises, that it might perhaps have been avoided and without dishonor. The flag and the fame of the nation could have suffered no reproach had General Scott's advice, before the outbreak, been followed,--“Wayward sisters, depart in peace.” The Southern States would have found their way back to the Union without war far earlier than they did by war. The reclaiming bonds would then have been those only of love, and the theory of government formulated by George Washington would have experienced no fracture. But the inflexible fiat of fate seemingly went forth for war; and so for four long years the history of this great nation was written in the blood of its strong men.

1 Memoirs of General Lee, A. L. Long.

2 Memoirs of Robert E. Lee, A. L. Long.

3 Memoirs of Robert E. Lee, A. L. Long.

4 Including the parts of the Third Corps attached after the fall of A. P. Hill, and about five thousand that reported on the 7th, 8th, and 9th in bands and squads from the columns broken up at Sailor's Creek.

5 Including five thousand two hundred of fragments dispersed at Petersburg and during the rearward march, that joined us in retreat.

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