Today in 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Union Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Army of the Potomac. With this act, the bloodiest conflict in American history essentially came to an end.
Thousands of volumes have been written about the United States Civil War, so I will not attempt to delve into the war itself here. Suffice it to say that by April, 1865, the war had been going on for four years and more than 1.6 million Americans had been killed or injured as a direct result of combat or from the many diseases caused by the poor hygiene and medical practices of the day. The effects of the war were so great that they still live in us today.
In early April, 1865, General Lee knew that his Army of Northern Virginia was no longer a match for the Union forces that surrounded it on three sides. Union forces controlled the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia and the strategically important city of Petersburg. Lee's army kept moving west in a desperate attempt to out-manuveur his opponent, but the northern forces flanked him at every attempt. By April 7th, Lee knew that his only route of escape was to the northwest, but there would be no hope of resupplying his broken army in that direction. So many Confederates were deserting that most of the northern units they encountered simply let them continue on their way home. Lee's situation was hopeless.
It was on the seventh that General Lee began corresponding with General Grant concerning a cessation of hostilities. Finally, the two men agreed to meet at Appomattox Court House, a village located three miles east of Appomattox, Virginia. They gained use of the home of Wilmer McLean, a retired major in the Virginia militia. McLean's farm in northern Virginia had been the site of the first Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861, after which the family had moved to Appomattox Court House. Thus, Wilmer McLean hosted both the beginning and the end of the war.
Brigadier General Horace Porter, 28 years old, a Medal of Honor recipient and a member of General Grant's staff during the last year of the war, was an eyewitness to the events of April 9th. He was struck by the differences between the two presiding generals:
"General Grant, then nearly forty-three years of age, was five feet eight inches in height, with shoulders slightly stooped. His hair and full beard were a nut-brown, without a trace of gray in them. He had on a single-breasted blouse, made of dark-blue flannel, unbuttoned in front, and showing a waistcoat underneath. He wore an ordinary pair of top-boots, with his trousers inside, and was without spurs. The boots and portions of his clothes were spattered with mud. He had no sword, and a pair of shoulder-straps was all there was about him to designate his rank. In fact, aside from these, his uniform was that of a private soldier.
Lee, on the other hand, was fully six feet in height, and quite erect for one of his age, for he was Grant's senior by sixteen years. His hair and full beard were silver-gray, and quite thick, except that the hair had become a little thin in the front. He wore a new uniform of Confederate gray, buttoned up to the throat, and at his side he carried a long sword of exceedingly fine workmanship, the hilt studded with jewels. His top-boots were comparatively new, and seemed to have on them some ornamental stitching of red silk. Like his uniform, they were singularly clean, and but little travel-stained. On the boots were handsome spurs, with large rowels. A felt hat, which in color matched pretty closely that of his uniform, and a pair of long buckskin gauntlets lay beside him on the table."
The two men had met before, during the Mexican-American War 20 years before. They talked of their experiences during that war and then moved on to the business at hand. Grant wrote out the terms of surrender in his own hand. He was magnanimous in victory, even by the gentlemanly standards of the day. Soldiers did not have to surrender personal gear, horses, or mules; officers could keep their horses, swords, and sidearms. Each man would be allowed to return home if he simply made a gentleman's agreement to not take up arms against the United States again. After reading the document, Lee wrote a letter accepting the terms of surrender. General Porter writes of Lee's exit:
"At a little before 4 o'clock General Lee shook hands with General Grant, bowed to the other officers, and with Colonel Marshall left the room. One after another we followed, and passed out to the porch. Lee signaled to his orderly to bring up his horse, and while the animal was being bridled the general stood on the lowest step and gazed sadly in the direction of the valley beyond where his army lay - now an army of prisoners. He smote his hands together a number of times in an absent sort of way; seemed not to see the group of Union officers in the yard who rose respectfully at his approach, and appeared unconscious of everything about him. All appreciated the sadness that overwhelmed him, and he had the personal sympathy of every one who beheld him at this supreme moment of trial. The approach of his horse seemed to recall him from his reverie, and he at once mounted. General Grant now stepped down from the porch, and, moving toward him, saluted him by raising his hat. He was followed in this act of courtesy by all our officers present; Lee raised his hat respectfully, and rode off to break the sad news to the brave fellows whom he had so long commanded."
For all intents and purposes, the Civil War was over. There were other armies in the field and the formal surrendering would continue until June. At sea, the last Confederate warship surrendered on November, 1865. The long national nightmare was over, and the healing could begin.