The next morning, with Sherman on his way back to his army in North Carolina, Grant prepared to leave City Point for the Petersburg front, to launch the big push that he hoped would end the war. His aide Porter saw Ulysses and Julia kissing repeatedly as they parted at the door of their cabin; Grant walked away a few yards, turned, came back, and they kissed several more times. “She bore the parting bravely,” said Porter, who was accompanying Grant to the front, “although her pale face and sorrowful look told of the sadness that was in her heart.”
Lincoln was still at City Point, and he walked Grant and a number of his aides down to the railroad line that would take them the short distance west to the network of Union positions near Petersburg. Porter noted, “Mr. Lincoln looked more serious than at any other time since he had visited headquarters. The lines in his face seemed deeper, and the rings under his eyes were of a darker hue. It was plain that the weight of responsibility was oppressing him.” At the train, Lincoln shook hands with Grant and his staff officers who were going to the front with him, and stood watching as they climbed aboard the last car and looked down at him from its rear platform. “As the train was about to start we all raised our hats respectfully,” Porter recalled. “The salute was returned by the President, and he said in a voice broken by an emotion he could ill conceal: ‘Good-bye, gentlemen. God bless you all! Remember, your success is my success.’” The train moved off. After a few minutes Grant said to several of his officers who were gathered around him, “I think we can send him some good news in a day or two.”
Setting up his headquarters right opposite the Confederate lines at besieged Petersburg on March 29, Grant had a solid plan and a large superiority in numbers, but in addition to that he was once again acting on instinct. Sherman, back with his reequipped army, would soon write Ellen that on April 10 “I will haul out for Raleigh,” forty-five miles north of Goldsboro, to come to grips with Johnston. He thought he still had time to finish off Johnston and then march north into Virginia to realize his cherished idea of helping Grant finish Lee; he shared with John Sherman his estimate that “the next two months will demonstrate whether we can manoeuvre Lee out of Richmond and whip him in open battle.”
Grant sensed that things were about to move much faster than that. He never forgot that Lee, while seemingly so determined to continue to hold Petersburg and Richmond, might decide that, slim as the South’s military chances now were, they might be bettered if he made a sudden break for it, evacuating both cities and moving quickly to link up with Johnston in North Carolina. In fact, Lee’s recent failed attack on Fort Stedman had been an effort to make Grant send reinforcements to the attacked fort from the left end of his line, to the south of the city, weakening the Union positions at just the place Lee might be able to cut through in his army’s escape if he chose to make that move.
The offensive Grant had been starting was somewhat tentative. He had been maneuvering various divisions to the south and slightly to the west below Petersburg, to block a retreat toward North Carolina by Lee, but his aggressive instincts reappeared. Within a few hours of getting the feel of the situation at his advanced headquarters at Gravelly Creek, he decided to try to knock Lee out of the war in an all-out drive. “I now feel like ending the matter,” he telegraphed ahead to his cavalry chief Sheridan. “We will all act together as one army until it is seen what can be done.” The following day, March 30, he wired to Lincoln, who was still at City Point, that “our troops have all been pushed forward.”
Robert E. Lee was not through. He remained as aggressive and tenacious as Grant, and as imaginative in maneuvering as was Sherman. Although he had long before this said privately that Confederate defeat was “a mere question of time,” he had recently written to his invalid wife in Richmond that “I shall … endeavor to do my duty and fight to the last.” In Lee’s view of his responsibilities and constraints, he was the Confederate mirror image of what had been said to Grant earlier in the month, when Grant forwarded on to Washington Lee’s overture to end the fighting. Lee felt empowered to surrender his army rather than see it annihilated, but he believed that when it came to a political settlement of the war, it could be said of his president, Jefferson Davis, just what Grant had been told concerning Lincoln: “Such questions the President holds in his own hands.”
At this point, Davis was still in Richmond, still meeting with the cabinet of the Confederate States of America, still conducting that government’s business and showing no disposition to sue for peace. Lee had told Davis that he would give him warning if Petersburg was about to fall and Richmond must be evacuated; at the end of March, Lee estimated that the Confederate administration still had ten or twelve days in which to wind up its affairs and leave. Despite the rapidly deteriorating state of his battered army and the many Union divisions arrayed against him, Lee stayed alert for any opportunity to strike the enemy and continued to watch for Grant to make a misstep, leave a gap between divisions, expose a strung-out column on the roads. He ordered his shrunken forces to be ready to take the offensive; like Grant, he was waiting “until it is seen what can be done.”
As events would show, Grant had understood the situation intuitively and needed to have Sheridan and his cavalry as his spearhead, constantly ready and flexible as he attacked Petersburg from the east and at the same time tried to cut the Confederate railroad line that ran southwest of the city. In fact, despite his plan to throw everything he had at Lee, Grant needed Sheridan to stiffen his spine; when early in the movements around Petersburg the spirited cavalry leader read an uncharacteristically pessimistic message from Grant, telling him that “the heavy rain of today will make it impossible for you to do much until it dries up a little,” he leapt on his horse Pacer and headed straight through the mud for Grant’s headquarters at Gravelly Creek. There, in a cornfield that had become a swamp, he found Grant in his tent, arguing with his chief of staff Rawlins, who was trying to persuade Grant not to pause in making his attacks. Sheridan quickly realized that the rest of Grant’s staff, uneasily gathered around a campfire in the rain, also wanted their chief to push on; after “pacing up and down … like a hound in the leash,” as Horace Porter described it, Sheridan got Grant aside and apparently began laying into him with the same force he had used in telling Sherman that he was going to stay with Grant and not go to North Carolina. Within twenty minutes, Grant said, “We will go on,” and Sheridan rode back to his command.
By the next night, it was Sheridan who needed encouragement and support. When Grant read a report from Sheridan sent from southwest of Petersburg, saying that he was facing a Confederate infantry division commanded by General George Pickett and intended to “hold on to Dinwiddie Court House until I am compelled to leave,” Grant immediately started a reinforcement of ten thousand horsemen and twenty thousand foot soldiers moving through the darkness to strengthen Sheridan’s position. The Union effort to take Petersburg started up yet again; by the morning of Sunday, April 2, when a total of sixty-three thousand federal infantrymen began attacking his lines, Lee realized that his eighteen thousand defenders—some estimates placed the number as low as twelve thousand—would be overrun if they remained in their defensive positions. (In the account of the day given by Confederate major Giles B. Cooke, Lee is said to have turned at one point to one of his officers and said, “Well, Colonel, it has happened as I told them it would at Richmond. The line has been stretched until it is broken.”) Composed as always, Lee matter-of-factly began issuing orders that Petersburg must be evacuated by nightfall.
With this last day in the city still ahead of him, on this Sunday morning Lee dictated a telegram to be sent to Confederate Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge in Richmond, reporting the situation and ending with, “I advise that all preparations be made for leaving Richmond tonight.” This message was brought to Jefferson Davis, who was attending a morning service at St. Paul’s Church. After reading it as he sat in his pew, the Confederate president rose and quietly walked out of the church. At eleven that night, Davis and most of his cabinet left Richmond on a special train, heading 120 miles southwest to Danville, Virginia. Their hope was that Lee might also be able to retreat to Danville, which was right on the North Carolina border seventy miles north of Joseph E. Johnston’s army, and that with those combined forces they could carry on the war.
While the message sent by Lee was producing the Confederate government’s departure from its capital, his men put up a remarkable last day’s defense before their survivors left Petersburg. At Fort Gregg, two miles southwest of the city, some four hundred to six hundred men held off several thousand attacking federal troops for more than an hour; during the final fifteen or twenty minutes of hand-to-hand fighting on the parapet of the earthworks, the battle flags of six Union regiments were seen in the midst of the struggle. Among those Confederates killed during the day was Lee’s veteran commander Lieutenant General A. P. Hill, who was shot down when he and a sergeant, out on their horses, encountered two Union soldiers who answered their demand that they surrender by firing their rifles at them. The long, brutal last day at Petersburg ended after dark: riding along with his troops on Traveller, Lee finally left the city he had defended for so long, crossing the bridge to the north bank of the Appomattox River.
Lee’s final retreat was under way, with Grant’s divisions hemming in his heavily outnumbered columns and cutting them up any time the hungry, weary Confederates tried to turn and make a stand. On April 5, Grant, who was moving along right behind the forward elements of the Union advance, sent Sherman a telegram in cipher, saying, “All indications are that Lee will attempt to reach Danville with the remnant of his force … If you possibly can do so push on from where you are and let us see if we cannot finish the job with Lee’s and Johnston’s Armies.” Although the taking of Richmond had always held a symbolic significance because it was the Confederate capital, Grant reinforced his long-held view that the taking of cities and towns was secondary: “Rebel Armies now are the only strategic points to strike at.” The next day, in an action at Sayler’s Creek during which Union cavalry under General George Armstrong Custer blocked one of Lee’s lines of retreat, six Confederate generals were captured, including Lee’s son Custis.
Although the message from Grant urging Sherman to “push on from where you are and let us see if we cannot finish the job” was sent by wire, there were no telegraph lines running through Virginia that Union forces could use, so, going by wire to City Point, then on a ship to Morehead City, North Carolina, and then being copied and sent on by wire to Sherman’s headquarters, it did not reach Sherman until three days later. As soon as he received it on April 8, Sherman wrote Grant that “I am delighted and amazed at the result of your move to the South of Petersburg, and Lee has lost in one day the Reputation of three years, and you have established a Reputation for perseverance and pluck that would make Wellington jump out of his Coffin.” Thinking that his wish to be in at Lee’s surrender was about to come true, he added, “It is to our interest to let Lee & Johnston come together just as a billiard player would nurse the balls when he has them in a nice place.”
By the time this letter from Sherman reached Grant’s constantly moving forward headquarters, Grant’s forces had surrounded the shattered remnants of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House, ninety miles southwest of Richmond, making it impossible for them to move farther in any direction. Lee’s men were ready for one last battle, but Lee saw that it would have no military effect. Without further fighting, Lee surrendered his army in that suddenly quiet countryside on Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865.
The events of that day would come down through American history in detail, including the fact that at Appomattox there were many reunions between West Pointers who had fought on different sides—Grant had the opportunity for a friendly talk with Julia’s cousin James Longstreet—but Grant’s hour of victory was filled with mixed feelings. He recalled that when he received Lee’s letter saying that “I therefore request an interview” for the purpose of surrendering, he had been suffering from a “sick headache, but the instant I saw the contents of the note I was cured.” Grant added that he suddenly felt “quite jubilant,” but that when he entered the parlor of the house where Lee stood waiting for him, wearing a gray dress uniform, he became “sad and depressed.” Shaking hands and sitting down with the gracious and dignified Lee, whose face betrayed no emotion—Grant called it “an impassible face”—he was ambivalent. “I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”
After some minutes of Grant trying to ease the situation by talking about the Mexican War, to which Lee responded in a polite, abstracted fashion, Lee reminded Grant of the reason for their meeting. Grant called for pen and paper, and wrote down his terms for surrender. As was his practice, he knew what he wanted to say and wrote the articles of surrender without stopping, expressing himself clearly and succinctly.
When Lee read the surrender terms, he mentioned something that Grant did not know. Unlike the situation in the Union Army, the many thousands of horses in the Confederate Army belonged to the men who had brought them into the service with them. As the surrender terms now stood, only the Confederate officers could take their horses home, and all the other horses would be held as captured enemy property.
Lee simply mentioned it; he did not beg, and he did not have to. Ulysses S. Grant had learned a lot, peddling firewood on those cold streets in St. Louis during his prewar years. He saw it in an instant. “I take it,” he said to Lee, “that most of the men in the ranks are small farmers, and as the country has been so raided by the two armies, it is doubtful whether they could put in a crop to carry themselves through the next winter without the aid of the horses they are now riding.” As Lee remained silent, Grant said that he would arrange “to let all the men who claim to own a horse or mule take the animals home with them to work their little farms.”
His face remaining impassive, Lee saw all the rest of it; if these horses and men could go home now as the April planting season began in the South, it could make the difference between full stomachs and near starvation for the children of the soldiers for whom he was negotiating. He said quietly, “This will have the best possible effect upon the men.” Lee, who had ridden to the meeting on Traveller, four years earlier had been offered the field command of the army to whose present general in chief, Ulysses S. Grant, a former captain, he was now surrendering; arriving for this meeting, he had not known what to expect. Now he knew. Grant was feeding his men; Grant had arranged for everyone to be paroled and not be marched off to prison camps; Grant was letting them take their horses home. Referring to the matter of the horses but speaking in words that covered more than that, Lee said to Grant, “It will be very gratifying and will do much toward conciliating our people.” Lee signed the surrender document. It was done.
Grant knew that many thousands of hungry Confederate soldiers were within a mile of where they sat, waiting for the results of this meeting. As soon as Lee had signed, Grant said, “I will take steps at once to have your army supplied with rations. Suppose I send over twenty-five thousand rations, do you think that will be a sufficient supply?”
“Plenty,” Lee answered. “Plenty.” He spoke as if overcome by this evidence of the resources of the army that had finally hammered him down. “An abundance.” Lee paused. “And it will be a great relief, I can assure you.”
Before coming, Lee had rejected the idea put forward by some of his diehard officers that his army should slip away in groups and become guerrilla bands operating throughout the South, a development that could have prolonged the fighting for months and even years. Although Lee had said earlier in the day, “Then there is nothing left me but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths,” he had already decided to live the rest of his life in dignified acceptance of defeat, recognizing, as he soon said to an embittered Confederate widow, that “we are all one country now,” and urging all his veterans to take up peaceful pursuits and get on with their lives. For himself, living an example that was an impressive and stabilizing influence for both North and South during the difficult years ahead, Lee would take on the presidency of Washington College, a small war-torn school in western Virginia, and rebuild it into the fine institution that upon his death in 1870 would be renamed Washington and Lee University. While he was still at Appomattox, there was only one thing Lee felt he could not do: in a final brief meeting between Grant and Lee the next day, before they both left the area, Grant told Lee that “there was not a man in the Confederacy whose influence with the soldiers and the whole people was as great as his” and suggested that, in addition to having surrendered his own Army of Northern Virginia, Lee could also “advise the surrender” of the other Confederate forces scattered throughout the South. Lee gave him the same answer that Grant had received concerning Lincoln’s powers: only Jefferson Davis could negotiate on behalf of the Confederacy as a whole. Grant realized that this meant the war might go on for a time, and that Sherman would have to deal with Johnston down in North Carolina, but he did not press the matter. “I knew,” he said of that moment with Lee, “that there was no use to urge him to do anything against his ideas of what was right.”
After the close of the meeting at which the surrender terms were signed, Grant, lost in thought, came down the steps of the house where . he and Lee had conferred. Suddenly he realized that this was Lee in front of him, mounted on Traveller, sitting erect and turning his horse’s head as he started out of the yard, on the way to tell the men who had followed him through so much, and were still willing to fight on, that it was all over. Many Union officers were moving around in the yard, eager to mount their horses and get back to their commands with the news that the surrender was official.
Grant stopped and took off his hat. The yard became silent; every Union soldier there removed his hat and came to attention. Robert E. Lee lifted his hat once and passed through the gate, a man in a gray uniform riding a gray horse. For the remaining five years of his life, he never allowed a word against Ulysses S. Grant to be spoken in his presence.