Appomattox Court House, Va. Federal soldiers at courthouse, April 1865
Appomattox Court House, Va. Federal soldiers at courthouse, April 1865
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Battle of Appomattox Court House

Other Names: None

Location: Appomattox County

Campaign: Appomattox Campaign (March-April 1865)

Date(s): April 9, 1865

Principal Commanders: Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant [US]; Gen. Robert E. Lee [CS]

Forces Engaged: Armies

Estimated Casualties: 700 total (27,805 Confederate soldiers paroled)

Description:Early on April 9, the remnants of John Broun Gordon’s corps and Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry formed line of battle at Appomattox Court House. Gen. Robert E. Lee determined to make one last attempt to escape the closing Union pincers and reach his supplies at Lynchburg. At dawn the Confederates advanced, initially gaining ground against Sheridan’s cavalry. The arrival of Union infantry, however, stopped the advance in its tracks. Lee’s army was now surrounded on three sides. Lee surrendered to Grant on April 9. This was the final engagement of the war in Virginia.

Result(s): Union victory

CWSAC Reference #: VA097

Preservation Priority: III.1 (Class A)

The Battle of Appomattox Court House, fought on the morning of April 9, 1865, was the final engagement of Confederate General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia before it surrendered to the Union Army under Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant near the end of the American Civil War. Lee, having abandoned Richmond after the Siege of Petersburg, retreated to the west, hoping to join his army with the Confederate forces in North Carolina. His final stand was at Appomattox Court House, where he launched an attack to break through the Union force to his front, which he assumed 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 Civil War.

Background

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 Siege of Petersburg. Lee abandoned Petersburg and Richmond and headed west to Appomattox Station, where a supply train awaited him. From there he hoped to move south to join with Gen. Joseph E. Johnston's army in North Carolina; an alternative possibility was to escape to the mountains and conduct a guerilla campaign there. On April 8, 1865, Union cavalry under Brig. 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. 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, with 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 (50 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.

The last battle

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[3] 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.[4] 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. 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. Lee's aide, Col. Charles Marshall, was sent to find a location for Grant and Lee to meet. Marshall selected the home of Wilmer McLean, coincidentally the same man who was forced to lend his home to Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard at the First Battle of Bull Run, the first major battle of the war.

Surrender

Dressed in an immaculate uniform, Lee waited for Grant to arrive. Grant, whose headache had ended when he received Lee's note, arrived in a mud-spattered uniform—a government-issue flannel shirt with trousers tucked into muddy boots, no sidearms, and with only his tarnished shoulder straps showing his rank.[6] Suddenly overcome with sadness, Grant found it hard to get to the point of the meeting and instead the two generals briefly discussed a 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.

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 completed around 4 p.m., April 9. 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."

Formal surrender of arms

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. Brig. Gen. Joshua L. Chamberlain was the Union officer selected to lead the ceremony, and later he would reflect on what he witnessed on April 12, 1865, and write a moving tribute:

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, Passing of the Armies, pp. 260-61

That day, 27,805 Confederate soldiers passed by and stacked their arms.

Aftermath

Roughly 175,000 Confederates remained in the field. Many of these were scattered throughout the South in garrisons while the rest were concentrated in three major Confederate commands. Just as Porter Alexander had predicted, it was only a matter of time before the other Confederate armies began to surrender. As news spread of Lee's surrender, other Confederate commanders realized that the strength of the Confederacy was fading, and decided to lay down their own arms. Joseph E. Johnston's army in North Carolina, the most threatening of the remaining Confederate armies, surrendered to Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman on April 26. General Edmund Kirby Smith surrendered the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department in May and Brig. Gen. Stand Watie surrendered the last sizable organized Confederate force on June 23, 1865.

There were several more small battles after the surrender, with the Battle of Palmito Ranch commonly known as the final military action of the Confederacy.

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 an example of the "purest of knights".