Biographies & Memoirs

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

PALM SUNDAY, APRIL 9, 1865 

APPOMATTOX COURT HOUSE

The end has come. General Robert E. Lee rides forth from the Confederate lines, into the no-man’s-land separating his dwindling force from the vast Union forces. The Army of Northern Virginia is cornered in a sedate little village called Appomattox Court House—Lee’s 8,000 men surrounded on three sides by Grant’s 60,000. After escaping Sayler’s Creek the rebels reached Farmville, only to be attacked again and forced to flee before they could finish eating their rations. They raced across High Bridge, only to find that mortar wouldn’t burn. The Union army crossed right behind them. Grant was then able to get ahead and block Lee’s path to the Carolinas.

Lee’s final great hope for a breakout came the previous night. He had entrusted his toughest general, John Gordon from Georgia, with punching a hole in the Union lines. The attack began at five P.M. Three hours later, after Gordon encountered wave after never-ending wave of blue-clad soldiers—too many for his men to beat down—he sent word back to Lee that he had “fought my corps to a frazzle.”

In other words: Gordon could not break through.

Lee’s proud shoulders slumped as he received the news. “There is nothing left for me to do but go and see General Grant,” he said aloud. Lee was surrounded by his staff but was talking to himself. The man who had succeeded his entire life, excelling at everything and failing at nothing, was beaten. “I would rather die a thousand deaths,” he said.

Dressed in an impeccable formal gray uniform, polished black boots, and clean red sash, Lee now rides forth. A spectacular ceremonial sword is buckled around his waist. He expects to meet Grant once he crosses over into the Union lines, there to surrender his sword and be taken prisoner.

But before Grant’s soldiers march him off to the penitentiary, Lee plans to argue on behalf of his men, seeking the best possible terms of surrender for the Army of Northern Virginia. He has written to Grant repeatedly on this subject. Grant’s evasive replies have given little evidence as to which way he leans on the issue.

Lee and a small group of aides ride to a spot between the Union and Confederate lines. They halt their horses in the middle of the country lane and wait for Grant to meet them.

And they wait. And they wait some more. All the while it becomes more obvious that the Union forces are not just enjoying a quiet Sunday morning—cleaning rifles, filling cartridge cases, putting out the breakfast fires. No, they are preparing for battle. Lee can see it in the way the gun crews have unlimbered the cannons and howitzers and are now sighting them toward his lines. The big guns—those M1857 Napoleons—can drop a twelve-pound projectile on top of a man’s head from a mile away, and those howitzers can lob an eighteen-pound shell nearly as far. Looking at the Union lines, Lee sees dozens of these guns, capable of inflicting catastrophic damage.

If this is a display of force by Grant to hasten Lee’s surrender, it is working.

But Grant does not show himself. In fact, he is miles away, suffering from a severe migraine headache. Lee sits astride Traveller, painfully vulnerable to a sniper’s bullet despite his flag of truce. After about two hours with no response, Lee sees a Union soldier riding out. The soldier informs Lee that the attack will be launched in a few moments. For his own safety, Lee must return to the Confederate lines.

The boom of artillery breaks the morning quiet. Lee jots a quick note intended for Grant and hands it to an orderly, who gallops toward the Union lines under a white flag. He also requests that the attack be postponed until Grant can be located.

With the irrefutable logic of a man conditioned to follow orders, the Union colonel in charge tells Lee’s courier that he does not have the authority to halt the attack. It will go forward as planned.

As the courier gallops back to Lee, Union skirmishers march to the front and prepare to probe the Confederate lines for vulnerability.

Lee writes another letter to Grant, asking for “a suspension of the hostilities pending the adjustment of the terms of the surrender of this army.”

Even as fighting threatens to break out all around him, Lee is unruffled. He sits astride Traveller, whose flanks are flecked with mud, waiting for permission to surrender. But when the first wave of skirmishers is just a hundred yards away, Lee has no choice but to find safety. With a reluctant tug on Traveller’s reins, he turns back toward his men.

Moments later he is stopped. A Union courier tells Lee that his letter has not found Grant, but it has found General George Meade, whom Lee knew long before the war. Meade has ordered a sixty-minute truce, hoping that Grant can be located in the meantime.

Lee turns Traveller once again. He rides back toward the front and dismounts. It’s been four hours since he first sought the surrender meeting. The sun is now directly overhead. Lee sits on a pile of fence rails, in the meager shade of an apple tree bearing the first buds of spring. There, he writes yet another letter to Grant, hoping to impress upon the Union general the seriousness of his intentions. This, too, is sent off under a white flag through the Union lines. Finally, at twelve-fifteen, a lone Union officer and his Confederate escort arrive to see Lee. The officer, a colonel named Babcock, delivers a letter into Lee’s hands:

GENERAL R. E. LEE

COMMANDING C. S. ARMIES:

Your note of this date is of but this moment (11:50 a.m.) received. In consequence of my having passed from the Richmond and Lynchburg road to the Farmville and Richmond 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 on this road where you wish the interview to take place will meet me.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant

U. S. Grant

Lieutenant-General

With a mixture of sadness and relief, Lee and his three aides ride past the Union lines. These troops do not cheer him, as the Army of Northern Virginia is in the habit of doing. Instead, the Sunday afternoon is preternaturally quiet after so many days and years of war. There is no thunder of artillery or jingle of a cavalry limber. Just those miles-long lines of men in blue, staring up at Lee as he rides past, dressed so impeccably and riding so tall and straight-backed in the saddle. Not even his eyes give away his mourning, nor the dilemma that he has endured since Sayler’s Creek, when it became clear that his army was no longer able to acquit itself.

Per Grant’s letter, Lee sends his aide Colonel Charles Marshall up the road to find a meeting place. Marshall settles on a simple home. By a great twist of fate, the house belongs to a grocer named Wilmer McLean, who moved to Appomattox Court House to escape the war. A cannonball had landed in his fireplace during the first Battle of Bull Run, at the very start of the conflict. Fleeing to a quieter corner of Virginia was his way of protecting his family from harm.

But the Civil War once again finds Wilmer McLean. He and his family are asked to leave the house. Soon, Lee marches up the front steps and takes a seat in the parlor. Again, he waits.

At one-thirty, after a half hour, Lee hears a large group of horsemen galloping up to the house. Moments later, General U. S. Grant walks into the parlor. He wears a private’s uniform; it is missing a button. He has affixed shoulder boards bearing the three stars of a lieutenant general, but otherwise there is nothing elegant about the Union leader. He has been wearing the same clothes since Wednesday night, and they are now further spattered by mud from his thirty-five-mile ride this morning. “Grant,” Colonel Amos Webster, a member of the Union general’s staff, will later remember, “covered with mud in an old faded uniform, looked like a fly on a shoulder of beef.”

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Removing his yellow cloth riding gloves, Grant steps forward and shakes Lee’s hand.

Almost twenty years earlier, during the Mexican War, he was a mere lieutenant when Lee was a major soon to be promoted to colonel. Grant well recalled how Lee had scolded him because of his slovenly appearance. While not a vindictive man, U. S. Grant does not suffer slights easily. He has an encyclopedic memory. Lee has only a minor recollection of meeting Grant prior to this moment in Wilmer McLean’s parlor, but Grant remembers every single word. So while Lee sits before him, proud but fallen, resplendent in his spotless uniform, Grant looks and smells like a soldier who could not care less about appearance or ceremony.

As the moment of surrender nears, however, Grant starts to feel a bit embarrassed by the prospect of asking one of history’s great generals to give up his army and has second thoughts about his dress. “General Lee was dressed in a full uniform which was entirely new,” he will later write in his memoirs, “and was wearing a sword of considerable value, very likely the sword that had been presented by the State of Virginia. At all events, it was an entirely different sword than the one that would ordinarily be worn in the field. In my rough traveling suit, the uniform of private with the straps of a lieutenant general, I must have contrasted very strangely with a man so handsomely dressed, six feet high and of faultless form. But this was not a matter that I thought of until afterwards.”

As Grant’s generals and staff—among them Custer and Sheridan—file into the room and stand to one side, Lee’s aides gather behind their leader.

Grant and Lee sit at a small wooden table. An area rug covers the floor beneath them. The room’s balance of power is tilted heavily toward the Union—Grant and his twelve to Lee and his two. Lee’s men are staff officers, neatly dressed and strangers to the battlefield. Grant’s men, on the other hand, include staff and top generals, men who have spent the last week on horseback, harassing Lee’s army. They are dressed for battle, swords clanking and spurs jangling, the heels of their cavalry boots echoing on the wooden floor. They can barely suppress smirks betraying their good fortune, for not only destroying Lee’s army but to be present at the moment of Marse Robert’s greatest humiliation. Sheridan, in particular, has great reason to be here. He believes that Lee’s request for a cease-fire and these negotiations are yet another clever attempt to help his army escape. A shipment of rations is waiting for Lee and his army at the local railway depot, and Sheridan is convinced that Lee means to use the food to get him one step closer to the Carolinas.

What Sheridan and General Custer know, but Lee does not, is that Union cavalry has already captured that station. The food is in Union hands. Even if Lee is lying, and somehow manages to escape, his army will never make it the final hundred miles to freedom on empty stomachs.

“I met you once before, General Lee,” Grant starts. His voice is calm, as if this moment is just a random occasion for small talk. “We were serving in Mexico, when you came over from General Scott’s headquarters to visit Garland’s brigade, to which I belonged. I have always remembered your appearance, and I think I should have recognized you anywhere.”

“Yes. I know I met you on that occasion,” Lee answers in the same casual tone as Grant, letting the reference sit between them, though certainly not apologizing. His face, in Grant’s estimation, is “impassable.” “I have often thought of it and tried to recollect how you looked, but I have never been able to recall a single feature,” Lee says.

The generals speak of Mexico, recalling long-ago names like Churubusco and Veracruz. Grant finds the conversation so pleasant that he momentarily forgets the reason for their meeting. Lee is the one to take the initiative.

“I suppose, General Grant, that the object of our present meeting is fully understood,” he says. “I asked to see you to ascertain upon what terms you would receive the surrender of my army.”

Grant calls for his order book, a thin volume of yellow paper with carbon sheets. He lights a cigar and stares at a page, composing the sequence of words that will most amicably end the war. A cloud of smoke hovers around his head. Lee does not smoke, and he watches as Grant, after waving a distracted hand in the air to shoo the cigar smoke away, writes out his terms in pen.

When he is finished, Grant hands the book over to Lee.

Marse Robert digests the words in silence. The terms are remarkable in their lenience. Lee will not even have to surrender his sword. The gist is simple: Put down your guns and go home. Let’s rebuild the nation together. This was President Lincoln’s vision, to which Grant subscribed.

As if to underscore this point, members of Grant’s staff tentatively ask Robert E. Lee for permission to go behind Confederate lines. They have old friends over there, friends they have seen only through the lens of a spyglass, across some great width of battlefield, these last four years.

Appomattox Court House, 1865: victorious Union soldiers in front of the courthouse

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Lee grants permission.

There is little else to say. Lee is humiliated but also grateful that his enemies have granted such favorable terms. He will be able to return to his army with some good news. Grant and Lee rise simultaneously and shake hands. The two warriors will never meet again.

As Lee rides back to his lines, the Army of Northern Virginia spontaneously gathers on both sides of the road. Lee fights back tears as his men call out to him. His dissolved army will soon turn over their guns and battle flags. This is their last chance to show their great love and respect for their leader. “Men,” he calls out to them, “we have fought this war together and I have done the best I can for you.”

Each group cheers as Lee rides past, only to give in to their sorrow and break down in sobs, “all along the route to his quarters.”

Meanwhile, the reconciliation is beginning. Confederate and Union officers are renewing old friendships. “They went over, had a pleasant time with their old friends, and brought some of them back with them when they returned,” Grant will write twenty years later, recalling that the McLean household became their de facto meeting place that night. The men swapped stories of their lives and remembrances of battles won and lost. “Here the officers of both armies came in great numbers, and seemed to enjoy the meeting as much as though they had been friends separated for a long time while fighting under the same flag.

“For the time being it looked very much as if all thought of the war had escaped their minds.”

But the war is not so easily forgotten by others. Unbeknownst to all those men who risked their lives to fight those great battles—men who deservedly savor the peace—plans are being hatched throughout the South to seek revenge for the Union victory.

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