“The Army of Northern Virginia Has Surrendered!” (April 9, 1865)

Robert E. Lee surrendered in Wilmer McLean's parlor. Afterwards, souvenir-seeking Union soldiers nearly stripped McLean's house of furnishings. In an attempt to recoup his losses, McLean commissioned this fanciful print of the surrender. George Meade is one of the people who appear here, but were not present at the actual surrender. Click to enlarge (via Wikipedia).

Robert E. Lee surrendered in Wilmer McLean’s parlor at Appomattox Court House. Afterwards, souvenir-seeking Union soldiers nearly stripped McLean’s house of furnishings. In an attempt to recoup his losses, McLean commissioned this fanciful print of the event. Goerge Meade is one of the people who appear here, but were not present at the actual surrender. Click to enlarge (via Wikipedia).

One hundred and fifty years ago today, Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virgina. While this did not end the American Civil War, it certainly indicated that the end of was near. Lee’s army was the most prominent one of the Confederacy, and once it left the field, the others were sure to follow.

Here’s how I wrote about the surrender, which took place at Wilmer McLean’s home in the village of Appomattox Court House, in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg:

“Lee, immaculately attired in his clean dress uniform, arrived first and waited in McLean’s parlor with Charles Marshall. Grant rode up later, wearing a private’s coat with his insignia pinned on. After some small talk about the Mexican War (Lee somewhat passive-aggressively told Grant that, try as he might, he hadn’t been able to remember a single feature of his), the two men got down to business. With a number of Union officers watching, including Sheridan, Ord, Custer, Porter, and Seth Williams, Grant wrote out a letter offering generous terms of surrender: parole for the soldiers upon their promise not to raise arms against the U.S. government until properly exchanged, with the officers keeping their sidearms, horses, and baggage. Lee pointed out that many of the men owned their own horses as well, so Grant said he would tell his men to allow any soldier who claimed ownership of a horse or mule to keep it. ‘This will have the best possible effect upon the men,’ said Lee. ‘It will be very gratifying, and will do much toward conciliating our people.’

Wilmer McLean's house, as it appeared in 1865 (Library of Congress).

Wilmer McLean’s house, as it appeared in 1865 (Library of Congress).

The reconstructed McLean house, as it appears today.

The reconstructed McLean house, as it appears today.

Alfred Waud depicted Lee as he rode away from the surrender meeting (Library of Congress).

Alfred Waud depicted Lee as he rode away from the surrender meeting (Library of Congress).

“Col. Ely Parker of Grant’s staff, a full-blooded Seneca Indian, wrote out a clean copy of Grant’s letter, and Lee had a formal letter of acceptance drafted. Lee told Grant his men lacked rations; Grant said he would make arrangements to have some delivered. Sheridan provided the only note of discord when he stepped forward and asked Lee to give him back some letters he had sent that morning complaining of truce violations. Lee handed them over. Then Grant and Lee signed their letters of agreement. Lee requested that Grant send a messenger to Meade with word of the surrender.

“It was all over sometime around 4:00, and Lee bowed to the Union officers and left the house with Marshall. As Lee waited for his orderly to bring his horse, he stood on the steps and gazed sadly into the distance. ‘He thrice smote the palm of his left hand slowly with his right fist 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 unaware of everything about him,’ wrote Horace Porter. ‘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, moving toward him, and 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 at a slow trot to break the sad news to the brave fellows whom he had so long commanded.’”

Here’s Theodore Lyman’s account of the events he witnessed on this momentous day.

We all were up, according to habit, about daylight, with horses saddled, having staid near Stute’s house for the night. In reply to a summons from Grant, Lee has sent in a note to say that he would meet Grant at ten a.m. to confer on measures for peace. The Lieutenant-General answered that he had no authority in the premises and refused the interview; but repeated his offer to accept the army’s surrender on parole. Indeed, we suspected his affairs were from bad to worse, for last night we could hear, just at sunset, the distant cannon of Sheridan. He, with his cavalry, had made a forced march on Appomattox Station, where he encountered the head of the Rebel column (consisting, apparently, for the most part of artillery), charged furiously on it, and took twenty cannon and 1000 prisoners; and checked its progress for that night, during which time the 24th and 5th Corps, by strenuous marching, came up and formed line of battle quite across the Lynchburg road, west of Appomattox C.H. Betimes this morning, the enemy, thinking that nothing but cavalry was in their front, advanced to cut their way through, and were met by the artillery and musketry of two corps in position—(Ah! there goes a band playing “Dixie” in mockery. It is a real carnival!) This seems to have struck them with despair. Their only road blocked in front, and Humphreys’s skirmishers dogging their footsteps! Well, we laid the General in his ambulance (he has been sick during the whole week, though now much better) and at 6.30 a.m. the whole Staff was off, at a round trot—(90 miles have I trotted and galloped after that Lee, and worn holes in my pantaloons, before I could get him to surrender!). An hour after, we came on the 6th Corps streaming into the main road from the upper one. A little ahead of this we halted to talk with General Wright. At 10.30 came, one after the other, two negroes, who said that some of our troops entered Lynchburg yesterday; and that Lee was now cut off near Appomattox Court House. This gave us new wings! An aide-de-camp galloped on, to urge Humphreys to press the pursuit, and all waggons were ordered out of the road, that the 6th Corps might close in immediately on his rear. Away went the General again, full tilt, along the road crowded by the infantry, every man of whom was footing it, as if a lottery prize lay just ahead! A bugler trotted ahead, blowing to call the attention of the troops, while General Webb followed, crying, “Give way to the right! Give way to the right!” Thus we ingeniously worked our way, amid much pleasantry. “Fish for sale!” roared one doughboy. “Yes,” joined in a pithy comrade, “and a tarnation big one, too!” The comments on the General were endless. “That’s Meade.” “Yes, that’s him.” “Is he sick?” “I expect he is; he looks kinder wild!” “Guess the old man hain’t had much sleep lately.” The heavy artillery firing we had earlier heard, now had suddenly ceased, and there was a perfect stillness—a suspicious circumstance that gave us new hope. Somewhat before noon we got to General Humphreys, some five miles east of the Court House and at the very head of his men. He reported that he had just struck the enemy’s skirmish line, and was preparing to drive them back. At that moment an officer rode up and said the enemy were out with a white flag. “They shan’t stop me!” retorted the fiery H.; “receive the message but push on the skirmishers!” Back came the officer speedily, with a note. General Lee stated that General Ord had agreed to a suspension of hostilities, and he should ask for the same on this end of the line. “Hey! what!” cried General Meade, in his harsh, suspicious voice, “I have no sort of authority to grant such suspension. General Lee has already refused the terms of General Grant. Advance your skirmishers, Humphreys, and bring up your troops. We will pitch into them at once!” But lo! here comes now General Forsyth, who had ridden through the Rebel army, from General Sheridan (under a flag), and who now urged a brief suspension. “Well,” said the General, “in order that you may get back to Sheridan, I will wait till two o’clock, and then, if I get no communication from General Lee, I shall attack!” So back went Forsyth, with a variety of notes and despatches. We waited, not without excitement, for the appointed hour. Meantime, negroes came in and said the Rebel pickets had thrown down their muskets and gone leisurely to their main body; also that the Rebels were “done gone give up.” Presently, the General pulled out his watch and said: “Two o’clock—no answer—go forward.” But they had not advanced far, before we saw a Rebel and a Union officer coming in. They bore an order from General Grant to halt the troops. Major Wingate, of General Lee’s Staff, was a military-looking man, dressed in a handsome grey suit with gold lace, and a gold star upon the collar. He was courageous, but plainly mortified to the heart. “We had done better to have burnt our whole train three days ago”; he said bitterly. “In trying to save a train, we have lost an army!” And there he struck the pith of the thing. And so we continued to wait till about five, during which time General Humphreys amused us with presents of Confederate notes, of which we found a barrel full (!) in the Rebel waggons. It was a strange spectacle, to see the officers laughing and giving each other $500 notes of a government that has been considered as firmly established by our English friends!

About five came Major Pease. Headed by General Webb, we gave three cheers, and three more for General Meade. Then he mounted and rode through the 2d and 6th Corps. Such a scene followed as I can never see again. The soldiers rushed, perfectly crazy, to the roadside, and there crowding in dense masses, shouted, screamed, yelled, threw up their hats and hopped madly up and down! The batteries were run out and began firing, the bands played, the flags waved. The noise of the cheering was such that my very ears rang. And there was General Meade galloping about and waving his cap with the best of them! Poor old Robert Lee! His punishment is too heavy—to hear those cheers, and to remember what he once was! My little share of this work is done. God willing, before many weeks, or even days, I shall be at home, to campaign no more.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 355-8. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

paperback scanThe paperback edition of Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg is now available! You can purchase it through Stackpole Books, Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

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