Appomattox Court House

On April 9, 1865, near the town of Appomattox Court House, Virginia, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to Union General Ulysses S. Grant. Days earlier, Lee had abandoned the Confederate capital of Richmond and the city of Petersburg; his goal was to rally the remnants of his beleaguered troops, meet Confederate reinforcements in North Carolina and resume fighting. But the resulting Battle of Appomattox Court House, which lasted only a few hours, effectively brought the four-year Civil War to an end.

Battle of Appomattox Court House

In retreat from the Union army’s Appomattox campaign, which began in March 1865, the Army of Northern Virginia, stumbled westward through the Virginia countryside stripped of food and supplies. At one point, Union cavalry forces under General Philip Sheridan had outrun Lee’s troops, blocking their retreat and taking approximately 6,000 prisoners at Sayler’s Creek.

Confederate desertions were mounting daily, and by April 8 the Rebels were almost completely surrounded. Nonetheless, early on the morning of April 9, Confederate troops led by Major General John B. Gordon mounted a last-ditch offensive that was initially successful. Soon, however, the Confederates saw that they were hopelessly outnumbered by two corps of Union soldiers who had marched all night to cut off the Confederate advance.

Later that morning, Lee—cut off from all provisions and all support—famously declared that “there is nothing left me to do but to go and see Gen. Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths.” But Lee also knew his remaining troops, numbering about 28,000, would quickly turn to pillaging the countryside in order to survive.

With no remaining options, Lee sent a message to General Ulysses Grant announcing his willingness to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia. The two war-weary generals met in the front parlor of the Wilmer McLean home at one o’clock that afternoon.

Lee Surrenders to Grant

Lee and Grant, both of whom held the highest rank in their respective armies, had known each other slightly during the Mexican-American War (1846-48) and began their dialogue by exchanging awkward personal inquiries. Characteristically, Grant had arrived in his mud-splattered field uniform while Lee had turned out in full dress attire, complete with sash and sword.

Lee asked for the terms of surrender, and Grant hurriedly wrote them out. Generously, all officers and men were to be pardoned, and they would be sent home with their private property–most important to the men were the horses, which could be used for a late spring planting. Officers would keep their side arms, and Lee’s starving men would be given Union rations.

Quieting a band that had begun to play in celebration, Grant told his officers, “The war is over. The Rebels are our countrymen again.” Although scattered resistance continued for several weeks—the final skirmish of the Civil War occurred on May 12 and 13 at the Battle of Palmito Ranch near Brownsville, Texas—for all practical purposes the Civil War had come to an end.

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