On the Trail of Grant and Lee - Frederick T. Hill

The Surrender

While Lee's messenger was making his way toward the Union lines, Grant was riding rapidly to the front where his forces had foiled the Confederate cavalry. For more than a week he had been constantly in the saddle, moving from one point on his lines to another and begrudging even the time for food and sleep in his efforts to hasten the pursuit. But the tremendous physical and mental strain to which he had subjected himself had already begun to tell upon him, and he had passed the previous night under a surgeon's care endeavoring to put himself in fit condition for the final struggle which Lee's refusal to surrender led him to expect. The dawn of April 9th, however, found him suffering with a raging headache, and well-nigh exhausted after his sleepless night he rode forward feeling more like going to the hospital than taking active command in the field. He had already advanced some distance and was within two or three miles of Appomattox Court House, when an officer overtook him and handed him these lines from Lee:

"Apr. 9, 1865.


"I received your note of this morning on the picket line whither I had come to meet you and ascertain definitely what terms were embraced in your proposal of yesterday with reference to the surrender of this army. I now ask an interview in accordance with the offer contained in your letter of yesterday for that purpose.

"R. E. LEE, General."

The moment Grant's eyes rested on these words his headache disappeared, and instantly writing the following reply, he put spurs to his horse and galloped on:

"Apr. 9, 1865.

"Your note of this date is but this moment (11:50 A. M.) received in consequence of my having passed from the Richmond and Lynchburg Road to the Farmville 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 will meet me.

"U. S. GRANT, Lieut. General."

The troops under Sheridan were drawn up in line of battle when Grant arrived on the scene and his officers, highly excited at the favorable opportunity for attacking the Confederates, urged him to allow no cessation of hostilities until the surrender was actually made. But Grant would not listen to anything of this sort, and directing that he be at once conducted to General Lee, followed an orderly who led him toward a comfortable two-story, brick dwelling in Appomattox village owned by a Mr. McLean who had placed it at the disposal of the Confederate commander.

Mounting the broad piazza steps, Grant entered the house, followed by his principal generals and the members of his staff, and was ushered into a room at the left of the hall, where Lee, accompanied by only one officer, awaited him.

As the two commanders shook hands the Union officers passed toward the rear of the room and remained standing apart. Then Lee motioned Grant to a chair placed beside a small marble-topped table, at the same time seating himself near another table close at hand. Neither man exhibited the slightest embarrassment and Grant, recalling that they had served together during the Mexican War, reminded Lee of this fact, saying that he remembered him very distinctly as General Scott's Chief of Staff but did not suppose that an older and superior officer would remember him. But Lee did remember him and in a few minutes he was chatting quietly with his former comrade about the Mexican campaign and old army days.

It would be impossible to imagine a greater contrast than that afforded by the two men as they thus sat conversing. Lee wore a spotless gray uniform, long cavalry boots, spurs and gauntlets, and carried the beautiful sword given to him by Virginia, presenting altogether a most impressive appearance; and his tall, splendidly proportioned figure and grave dignified bearing heightened the effect. His well-trimmed hair and beard were almost snow white, adding distinction to his calm, handsome face without suggesting age, and his clear eyes and complexion and erect carriage were remarkable for a man of fifty-eight. Grant was barely forty-three, and his hair and beard were brown with a touch of gray, but his face was worn and haggard from recent illness, and his thickset figure and drooping shoulders were those of a man well advanced in years. For uniform he wore the blouse of a private, to which the shoulder straps of a lieutenant-general had been stitched; his trousers were tucked into top boots worn without spurs; he carried no sword and from head to foot he was splashed with mud.

He, himself, was conscious of the strange contrast between his appearance and that of his faultlessly attired opponent, for he apologized for his unkempt condition, explaining that he had come straight from active duty in the field, and then as the conversation regarding Mexico continued he grew so pleasantly interested that the object of the meeting almost passed from his mind, and it was Lee who first recalled it to his attention.

He then called for pencil and paper, and without having previously mapped out any phrases in his mind, he began to draft an informal letter to Lee, outlining the terms of surrender. Nothing could have been more clear and simple than the agreement which he drafted, nor could the document have been more free from anything tending to humiliate or offend his adversary. It provided merely for the stacking of guns, the parking of cannon and the proper enrollment of the Confederate troops, all of whom were to remain unmolested as long as they obeyed the laws and did not again take up arms against the Government, and it concluded with the statement that the side arms of the officers were not to be surrendered and that all such officers who owned their own horses should be permitted to retain them.

Lee watched the writing of this letter in silence, and when Grant handed it to him he read it slowly, merely remarking as he returned it that the provision allowing the officers to keep their horses would have a happy effect, but that in the Confederate army the cavalry and artillerymen likewise owned their own horses. That hint was quite sufficient for Grant, who immediately agreed to make the concession apply to all the soldiers, whether officers or privates, observing as he again handed the paper to Lee that his men would probably find their horses useful in the spring ploughing when they returned to their farms. Lee responded that the concession would prove most gratifying to his soldiers, and, turning to his secretary, dictated a short, simple reply to his opponent, accepting his conditions.

[Illustration] from On the Trail of Grant and Lee by Frederick T. Hill


While these letters were being copied in ink, Grant introduced his officers to Lee and strove to make the situation as easy as possible for him. Indeed, throughout the whole interview he displayed the most admirable spirit, tactfully conceding all that his adversary might reasonably have asked, thus saving him from the embarrassment of making any request and generally exhibiting a delicate courtesy and generosity which astonished those who judged him merely by his rough exterior. But Grant, though uncouth in appearance and unpolished in manners, was a gentleman in the best sense of the word, and he rose to the occasion with an ease and grace that left nothing to be desired.

As soon as the letters were signed the Confederate commander shook his late opponent's hand and turned to leave the room. The Union officers followed him to the door as he departed but tactfully refrained from accompanying him further and attended only by his secretary, he passed down the broad steps of the piazza, gravely saluted the group of officers gathered there who respectfully rose at his approach, mounted his old favorite "Traveller" and rode slowly toward his own lines.

By this time the news of the surrender had reached the Union army and cannon began booming a salute in honor of the joyful tidings. But Grant instantly stopped this and ordered that there should be no demonstrations or exultation of any kind which would offend Lee's men. In the same generous spirit he kept his men strictly within their own lines when the Confederates stacked their guns and no one, except the officers assigned to receive the arms, was permitted to witness this final act of surrender[1]. He likewise declined to visit Richmond lest his presence should be regarded as the triumphal entry of a conqueror or smack of exulting over his fallen foes, and with fully a million bayonets behind him ready to win him further glory, his foremost thought was to end the war without the loss of another life. With this idea, on the morning after the surrender, he sought another interview with Lee.

[1]Since the first edition of this volume was published the writer has been furnished, through the courtesy of Mr. Jefferson K. Cole of Massachusetts, with documentary proof that the formal surrender of what remained of Lee's infantry was made in the presence of the First Division of the 5th Corps of the Army of the Potomac, General Joshua L. Chamberlain commanding. Therefore, although it is true that Grant avoided all humiliation of the Confederates, it is evident that a small portion of his troops did witness the final act of surrender, and the statement in the text should be accordingly amended.