Battle of Appomattox Court House
The Battle of Appomattox Court House, fought on the morning of April 9, 1865, was one of the last battles of the American Civil War. It was the final engagement of Confederate Army general Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia before it surrendered to the Union Army under Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Lee, having abandoned the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, after the ten-month Siege of Petersburg, retreated west, hoping to join his army with the Confederate forces in North Carolina. Union forces pursued and cut off the Confederate's retreat at the village of Appomattox Court House. Lee launched an attack to break through the Union force to his front, assuming the Union force consisted entirely of cavalry. When he realized that the cavalry was backed up by two corps of Union infantry, he had no choice but to surrender.
The signing of the surrender documents occurred in the parlor of the house owned by Wilmer McLean on the afternoon of April 9. On April 12, a formal ceremony marked the disbandment of the Army of Northern Virginia and the parole of its officers and men, effectively ending the war in Virginia. This event triggered a series of surrenders across the South, signaling the end of the war.
The final campaign for Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederate States, began when the Union Army of the Potomac crossed the James River in June 1864. The armies under the command of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant laid siege to Petersburg and Richmond, intending to cut the two cities' supply lines and force the Confederates to evacuate. In the spring of 1865 Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee waited for an opportunity to leave the Petersburg lines, aware that the position was untenable, but Union troops made the first move. On April 1, 1865, Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan's cavalry turned Lee's flank at the Battle of Five Forks. The next day Grant's army achieved a decisive breakthrough, effectively ending the Petersburg siege. With supply lines cut, Lee's men abandoned the trenches they had held for ten months and evacuated on the night of April 2–3.
Lee's first objective was to reassemble and supply his men at Amelia Courthouse. His plan was to link up with Gen. Joseph E. Johnston's Army of Tennessee and go on the offensive after establishing defenses on the Roanoke River. When the troops arrived at Amelia on April 4, however, they found no provisions. Lee sent wagons out to the surrounding country to forage, but as a result lost a day's worth of marching time. The army then headed west to Appomattox Station, where a supply train awaited him. Lee's army was now composed of the cavalry corps and two small infantry corps.
En route to the station, on April 6 at Sailor's Creek, nearly one fourth of the retreating Confederate army was cut off by Sheridan's cavalry and elements of the II and VI Corps. Two Confederate divisions fought the VI Corps along the creek. The Confederates attacked but were driven back, and soon after the Union cavalry cut through the right of the Confederate lines. Most of the 7,700 Confederates were captured or surrendered, including Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell and eight other general officers. The delay prevented Lee from reaching the station until late afternoon on April 8, allowing Sheridan to reach the station that evening, where he captured Lee's supplies and obstructed his path.
Following the minor battles of Cumberland Church and High Bridge, on April 7 Grant sent a note to Lee suggesting that it was time to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia. In a return note, Lee refused the request, but asked Grant what terms he had in mind. On April 8, Union cavalry under Brig. Gen. and Brevet Maj. Gen. George Armstrong Custer captured and burned three supply trains waiting for Lee's army at the Battle of Appomattox Station. Now both the Army of the Potomac and the Army of the James were converging on Appomattox.
With his supplies at Appomattox destroyed, Lee now looked west, to the railway at Lynchburg, where more supplies awaited him. However, on the morning of April 8 a battalion of the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry was detached from Stoneman's Raid into North Carolina and southwestern Virginia and had made a demonstration to within three miles of Lynchburg, giving the appearance of being the vanguard of a much larger force. Despite this new threat, Lee apparently decided to try for Lynchburg anyway.
While the Union Army was closing in on Lee, all that lay between Lee and Lynchburg was Union cavalry. Lee hoped to break through the cavalry before infantry arrived. He sent a note to Grant saying that he did not wish to surrender his army just yet but was willing to discuss how Grant's terms would affect the Confederacy. Grant, suffering from a throbbing headache, stated that "It looks as if Lee still means to fight." The Union infantry was close, but the only unit near enough to support Sheridan's cavalry was Maj. Gen. John Gibbon's XXIV Corps of the Army of the James. This corps traveled 30 miles (48 km) in 21 hours to reach the cavalry. Maj. Gen. Edward O. C. Ord, commander of the Army of the James, arrived with the XXIV Corps around 4:00 a.m. while the V Corps of the Army of the Potomac was close behind. Sheridan deployed three divisions of cavalry along a low ridge to the southwest of Appomattox Court House.
At dawn on April 9, the Confederate Second Corps under Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon attacked Sheridan's cavalry and quickly forced back the first line under Brevet Brig. Gen. Charles H. Smith. The next line, held by Brig. Gens. Ranald S. Mackenzie and George Crook, slowed the Confederate advance. Gordon's troops charged through the Union lines and took the ridge, but as they reached the crest they saw the entire Union XXIV Corps in line of battle with the Union V Corps to their right. Lee's cavalry saw these Union forces and immediately withdrew and rode off towards Lynchburg. Ord's troops began advancing against Gordon's corps while the Union II Corps began moving against Lt. Gen. James Longstreet's corps to the northeast. Colonel Charles Venable of Lee's staff rode in at this time and asked for an assessment, and Gordon gave him a reply he knew Lee did not want to hear: "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." Upon hearing it Lee finally stated the inevitable: "Then there is nothing left for me to do but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths."
Many of Lee's officers, including Longstreet, agreed that surrendering the army was the only option left. The only notable officer opposed to surrender was Longstreet's chief of artillery, Brig. Gen. Edward Porter Alexander, who predicted that if Lee surrendered then "every other [Confederate] army will follow suit".
At 8:00 a.m., Lee rode out to meet Grant, accompanied by three of his aides.
Grant received Lee's first letter on the morning of April 9 as he was traveling to meet Sheridan. Grant recalled his migraine seemed to disappear when he read Lee's letter, and he handed it to his assistant Rawlins to read aloud before composing his reply:
General, Your note of this date is but this moment, 11:50 A.M. rec'd., in consequence of my having passed from the Richmond and Lynchburg road. I am at this writing about four miles West of Walker's Church and will push forward to the front for the purpose of meeting you. Notice sent to me on this road where you wish the interview to take place.
Grant's response was remarkable in that it let the defeated Lee choose the place of his surrender. Lee received the reply within an hour and dispatched an aide, Charles Marshall, to find a suitable location for the occasion. Marshall scrutinized Appomattox Court House, a small village of roughly twenty buildings that served as a waystation for travelers on the Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road. Marshall rejected the first house he saw as too dilapidated, instead settling on the 1848 brick home of Wilmer McLean. McLean had lived near Manassas Junction during the First Battle of Bull Run, and had retired to Appomattox to escape the war.
With gunshots still being heard on Gordon's front and Union skirmishers still advancing on Longstreet's front, Lee received a message from Grant. After several hours of correspondence between Grant and Lee, a cease-fire was enacted and Grant received Lee's request to discuss surrender terms.
Well dressed in a full general's uniform, Lee waited for Grant to arrive. Grant, whose headache had ended when he received Lee's note, arrived at the courthouse in a mud-spattered uniform—a government-issue sack coat with trousers tucked into muddy boots, no sidearms, and with only his tarnished shoulder straps showing his rank. It was the first time the two men had seen each other face-to-face in almost two decades. Suddenly overcome with sadness, Grant found it hard to get to the point of the meeting and instead the two generals briefly discussed their only previous encounter, during the Mexican–American War. Lee brought the attention back to the issue at hand, and Grant offered the same terms he had before:
In accordance with the substance of my letter to you of the 8th inst., I propose to receive the surrender of the Army of N. Va. on the following terms, to wit: Rolls of all the officers and men to be made in duplicate. One copy to be given to an officer designated by me, the other to be retained by such officer or officers as you may designate. The officers to give their individual paroles not to take up arms against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged, and each company or regimental commander sign a like parole for the men of their commands. The arms, artillery and public property to be parked and stacked, and turned over to the officer appointed by me to receive them. This will not embrace the side-arms of the officers, nor their private horses or baggage. This done, each officer and man will be allowed to return to their homes, not to be disturbed by United States authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.
The terms were as generous as Lee could hope for; his men would not be imprisoned or prosecuted for treason. Officers were allowed to keep their sidearms. In addition to his terms, Grant also allowed the defeated men to take home their horses and mules to carry out the spring planting and provided Lee with a supply of food rations for his starving army; Lee said it would have a very happy effect among the men and do much toward reconciling the country. The terms of the surrender were recorded in a document hand written by Grant's adjutant Ely S. Parker, a Native American of the Seneca tribe, and completed around 4 p.m., April 9. Lee, upon discovering Parker to be a Seneca remarked "It is good to have one real American here." Parker replied, "Sir, we are all Americans." As Lee left the house and rode away, Grant's men began cheering in celebration, but Grant ordered an immediate stop. "I at once sent word, however, to have it stopped," he said. "The Confederates were now our countrymen, and we did not want to exult over their downfall," he said. Custer and other Union officers purchased from McLean the furnishings of the room Lee and Grant met in as souvenirs, emptying it of furniture. Grant soon visited the Confederate army, and then he and Lee sat on the McLean home's porch and met with visitors such as Longstreet and George Pickett before the two men left for their capitals.:375
On April 10, Lee gave his farewell address to his army. The same day a six-man commission gathered to discuss a formal ceremony of surrender, even though no Confederate officer wished to go through with such an event. Brigadier General (brevet Major General) Joshua L. Chamberlain was the Union officer selected to lead the ceremony. In his memoirs entitled The Passing of the Armies, Chamberlain reflected on what he witnessed on April 12, 1865:
The momentous meaning of this occasion impressed me deeply. I resolved to mark it by some token of recognition, which could be no other than a salute of arms. Well aware of the responsibility assumed, and of the criticisms that would follow, as the sequel proved, nothing of that kind could move me in the least. The act could be defended, if needful, by the suggestion that such a salute was not to the cause for which the flag of the Confederacy stood, but to its going down before the flag of the Union. My main reason, however, was one for which I sought no authority nor asked forgiveness. Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood: men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond;—was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured? Instructions had been given; and when the head of each division column comes opposite our group, our bugle sounds the signal and instantly our whole line from right to left, regiment by regiment in succession, gives the soldier's salutation, from the "order arms" to the old "carry"—the marching salute. 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!— Joshua L. Chamberlain, The Passing of the Armies, pp. 260–61
At the surrender ceremonies, about 28,000 Confederate soldiers passed by and stacked their arms. The Appomattox Roster lists approximately 26,300 men who surrendered. This reference does not include the 7,700 who were captured at Sailor's Creek three days earlier, who were treated as prisoners of war.
While General George Meade reportedly shouted that "it's all over" upon hearing the surrender was signed, roughly 175,000 Confederates remained in the field, but were mostly starving and disillusioned. Many of these were scattered throughout the South in garrisons or guerilla bands while the rest were concentrated in three major Confederate commands. Just as Porter Alexander had predicted, as news spread of Lee's surrender other Confederate commanders realized that the strength of the Confederacy was gone, and decided to lay down their own arms.
Gen. Joseph E. Johnston's army in North Carolina, the most threatening of the remaining Confederate armies, surrendered to Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman at Bennett Place in Durham, North Carolina on April 26, 1865. The 98,270 Confederate troops that laid down their weapons (the largest surrender of the war) marked the virtual end of the conflict.
General Taylor surrendered his army at Citronelle, Alabama in early May, followed by General Edmund Kirby Smith surrendering the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department on May 26, 1865 near New Orleans, Louisiana.
There were several more small battles after Lee's surrender. The Battle of Palmito Ranch on May 12–13, 1865, is commonly regarded as the final land battle of the war.
Lee never forgot Grant's magnanimity during the surrender, and for the rest of his life would not tolerate an unkind word about Grant in his presence. Likewise, General Gordon cherished Chamberlain's simple act of saluting his surrendered army, calling Chamberlain "one of the knightliest soldiers of the Federal army."
In popular culture
- James Thurber, himself the grandson of a Union veteran, wrote a humorous alternate history short story, "If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox," which was collected in the anthology, The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze, and again later in The Thurber Carnival.
- The end of the battle is portrayed in the 2012 film, Lincoln.
Civil War commemorative stamps
During the Civil War Centennial, the United States Post Office issued five postage stamps commemorating the 100th anniversaries of famous battles, as they occurred over a four-year period, beginning with the Battle of Fort Sumter Centennial issue of 1961. The Battle of Shiloh commemorative stamp was issued in 1962, the Battle of Gettysburg in 1963, the Battle of the Wilderness in 1964, and the Appomattox Centennial commemorative stamp in 1965.
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- Salmon, p. 492.
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- Davis, p. 387; Calkins, p. 175, states Lee and Marshall left the McLean House "some time after 3:00 in the afternoon."; Eicher, The Longest Night, p. 819, states "the surrender interview lasted until about 3:45 p.m."
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- Winik, p. 197; Eicher, The Longest Night, p. 821, states 26,765 captured Confederates were paroled at Appomattox Court House. Calkins, p. 187, states 1,559 cavalrymen turned in their weapons on April 10, on p. 188, 2,576 artillerymen surrendered on April 11, and, on p. 192, 23,512 infantry surrendered on April 12, for a total of 27,647.
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- National Park Service Battle Summary
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- Dunkerly, Robert M. To the Bitter End: Appomattox, Bennett Place, and the Surrenders of the Confederacy. Emerging Civil War Series. El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie, 2015. ISBN 978-1-61121-252-5.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Battle of Appomattox Court House.|
- Battle of Appomattox Court House: Battle maps, photos, history articles, and battlefield news (Civil War Trust)
- Confederate Surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, April 10, 1865.