Like the losing player in a chess game whose endgame looks clearer with every move, Gen. Robert E. Lee spent the first days of April 1865 dodging and weaving across southern Virginia in an effort to stave off the relentless pursuit of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, whose Union army outmanned Lee’s Confederate troops by more than two to one. By the morning of April 9, it was clear to Lee that he was out of options. After hours of tetchy negotiations back and forth between the picket lines of the two armies, a meeting to arrange terms of surrender was set for the nearby town of Appomattox.
In the following passage, excerpted from his three-volume history, The Civil War: A Narrative, Shelby Foote describes the tense and nervous but utterly exhausted commanders who now suddenly found themselves the architects of a peace that would at last end the conflict that had lasted four years, torn a nation in two, and cost some 600,000 American lives.
By then it was close to 1 o’clock. Within half an hour Grant arrived from the southeast to find [Gen. Philip] Sheridan waiting for him on the outskirts of town, still eager, as he said later, “to end the business by going in and forcing an absolute surrender by capture.” Though this was the first time they had met since the start of the pursuit, a week ago tomorrow, the greetings exchanged were casual.
“How are you, Sheridan?”
“First rate, thank you. How are you?”
“Is Lee up there?”
“Yes, he is in that brick house.”
“Very well. Let’s go up.”
The house Sheridan pointed out belonged to a man named Wilber McLean, who had agreed to let it be used when Marshall rode in ahead of Lee in search of a place for the meeting with Grant. By the oddest of chances, McLean had owned a farm near Manassas Junction, stretching along the banks of Bull Run, at the time of the first of the two battles fought there. In fact, a shell had come crashing through one of his windows during the opening skirmish, and after that grim experience he had resolved to find a new home for his family, preferably back in the rural southside hill country, “where the sound of battle would never reach them.” He found what he wanted at Appomattox Courthouse—a remote hamlet, better than two miles from the railroad and clearly of no military value to either side—only to discover, soon after midday on this fateful Palm Sunday, that the war he had fled was about to end on his doorstep; indeed in his very parlor, where Lee and Marshall waited a long half hour until Babcock, watching beside a window for his chief’s arrival, saw him and his staff turn in at the gate, then crossed the room and opened the door into the hall.
Grant entered and went at once to Lee, who rose to meet him. They shook hands, one of middle height, slightly stooped, his hair and beard “nut-brown without a trace of gray,” a little awkward and more than a little embarrassed, as he myself later said, mud-spattered trouser legs stuffed into muddy boots, tunic rumpled and dusty, wearing no side arms, not even spurs, and the other tall and patrician-looking, immaculately groomed and clad, with his red sash and ornate sword, fire-gilt buttons and polished brass, silver hair and beard, demonstrating withal, as one observer noted, “that happy blend of dignity and courtesy so difficult to describe.” Fifteen years apart in age—the younger commander’s forty-third birthday was just over two weeks off—they presented a contrast in more than appearance. Surprised at his own reaction to the encounter, Grant did not know what to make of Lee’s at all. “As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassable face,” he afterwards declared, “it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result and was too manly to show it. Whatever his feelings they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter, were sad and depressed. 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.”
Lee resumed his seat, while Marshall remained standing beside him, leaning against the mantel over the unlighted fireplace. Grant took a chair near the middle of the room. Meantime his staff officers were filing in, as one would note, “very much as people enter a sick chamber where they expect to find the patient dangerously ill.” Some found seats, but most stood ranged along one wall, looking intently at the old gray fox—the patient—cornered at last and seated across the room from them in his fine clothes. Grant tried to relieve the tension. “I met you once before, General Lee,” he said, recalling a time in Mexico when the Virginian had visited his brigade. “I have always remembered your appearance and I think I should have recognized you anywhere.” Lee nodded. “Yes, I know I met you on that occasion,” he replied, “and I have often thought of it and tried to recollect how you looked. But I have never been able to recall a single feature.” If this was a snub Grant did not realize it, or else he let it pass. He went on with his Mexican recollections, warming as he spoke, until Lee, feeling the strain of every dragging moment, broke in at the first pause to say: “I suppose, General Grant, that the object of our present meeting is fully understood. I asked to see you to ascertain upon what terms you would receive the surrender of my army.” Grant’s response was made with no change of expression, either on his face or in his voice. “The terms I propose are those stated substantially in my letter of yesterday—that is, the officers and men surrendered to be paroled and disqualified from taking up arms again until properly exchanged, and all arms, ammunition, and supplies to be delivered up as captured property.” Inwardly, Lee breathed a sigh of vast relief: Longstreet had been right about Grant, and his own worst fears had been groundless. Now, though, it was his turn to mask his emotion, and he did so. “Those are about the conditions I expected would be proposed,” he said quietly.
Grant spoke then of a possible “general suspension of hostilities,” which he hoped would follow shortly throughout the land, but Lee, anxious to end the present surrender ordeal, once more cut him short, albeit courteously. “I would suggest that you commit to writing the terms you have proposed, so that they may be formally acted upon,” he said, and the other replied: “Very well, I will write them out.” He called for his order book, bound sheets of yellow flimsy with alternate carbons, and opened it flat on the small round marble-topped table before him. “When I put my pen to the paper,” he later declared, “I did not know the first word I should make use of in writing the terms. I only knew what was in my mind, and I wished to express it clearly so that there could be no mistaking it.” He succeeded in doing just that. Rapidly and in fewer than two hundred words, he stipulated that officers would “give their individual paroles not to take up arms against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged,” that unit commanders would “sign a like parole for the men of their commands,” and that “the arms, artillery and private property [were] to be parked and stacked and turned over to the officer appointed by me to receive them.” He paused, looking briefly at Lee’s dress sword, then added the last two sentences. “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 the United States authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.”
Lee made something of a ritual of examining the document now passed to him. No doubt in an effort to master his nerves, he placed the book on the table before him—small and marble-topped like Grant’s, but square—took out his steel-rimmed spectacles, polished them very carefully with a handkerchief, crossed his legs, set the glasses deliberately astride his nose, and at last began to read. Nothing in his expression changed until he reached the closing sentences. Having read them he looked up at Grant and remarked in a warmer tone than he had used before: “This will have a very happy effect on my army.” When his adversary said that he would have a fair copy made for signing, “unless you have some suggestions in regard to the form in which I have stated the terms,” Lee hesitated before replying. “There is one thing I would like to mention. The cavalrymen and artillerists own their own horses in our army. Its organization in this respect differs from that of the United States. I would look to understand whether these men will be permitted to retain their horses.” Grant overlooked what he later called “this implication that we were two countries,” but said flatly: “You will find that the terms as written do not allow this.” Lee perused again the two sheets of yellow flimsy. He was asking a favor, and he did not enjoy the role of supplicant. “No,” he admitted regretfully, “I see the terms do not allow it. That is clear.” Then Grant relented. Perhaps recalling his own years of hardscrabble farming near St Louis before the war—or Lincoln’s remark at City Point, less than two weeks ago, that all he wanted, once the time came, was “to get the men composing the Confederate armies back to their homes, at work on their farms or in their shops”—he relieved Lee of the humiliation of having to plead for a modification of terms already generous. “Well, the subject is quite new to me,” he mused, feeling his way as he spoke. “Of course I did not know that any private soldiers owned their animals, but I think this will be the last battle of the war—I sincerely hope so—and that the surrender of this army will be followed soon by all the others, and I take it 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 will be able to put in a crop to carry themselves and their families through the next winter without the aid of the horses they are now riding, I will arrange it this way; I will not change the terms as now written, but I will instruct the officers I shall appoint to receive the paroles to let all the men who claim to own a horse or mule take the animal home with them to work their little farms.” Lee’s relief and appreciation were expressed in his response. “This will have the best possible effect upon the men,” he said, “I will be very gratifying, and will do much toward conciliating our people.”
Grant passed the document to his adjutant for copying, and while this was in progress Lee had Marshall draft a letter of acceptance. In the wait that followed, the northern commander introduced his staff, together with Ord and Sheridan. Shaking hands with those who offered theirs, the Virginian bowed formally to the others, but spoke only to Seth Williams, his former West Point associate, and even then, for all his studied courtesy, could not manage a smile in response to a pleasantry of the old days. The introductions over, he informed Grant that he had a number of federal prisoners he would like to return to their own lines as soon as it could be arranged, “for I have no provisions for them. I have, indeed, nothing for my own men. They have been living for the last few days principally on parched corn, and are badly in need of both rations and forage.” Grant said he wanted his troops back as soon as possible, and would be glad to furnish whatever food the surrendered army needed. “Of about how many men does your present force consist?” Lee scarcely knew; casualties and straggling had been heavy, he admitted. “Suppose I send over 25,000 rations. Do you think that will be a sufficient supply?” “Plenty, plenty; an abundance,” Lee replied.
Marshall, having completed his draft of the brief acceptance, Lee made a few corrections—“Don’t say, ‘I have the honor to acknowledge receipt of your letter.’ He is here. Just say, ‘I accept the terms’”—and while he waited for the finished copy, Grant, whose appearance Marshall would charitably describe as “rather dusty and a little soiled”—in contrast to a quip by one of his own staffers, who remarked that he “looked like a fly on a shoulder of beef”—came over again and apologized for his rumpled clothes and his lack of side arms. His baggage had gone astray, he said, “and I thought you would rather receive me as I was than be detained.” Lee replied that he was much obliged; “I am very glad you did it that way.” He signed the completed fair copy of his letter of acceptance, which Marshall then sealed and handed to Grant’s adjutant, receiving in turn the signed and sealed terms of surrender. Lee broke the envelope open and read them through for the third time, but Grant did not bother with reading the letter to him just yet, later explaining that Lee’s spoken acceptance of the terms was surety enough for him, without the formality of words set down on paper.
It was close to 4 o’clock by now, and all that protocol required had been performed. After nearly three hours in the McLean parlor—half of one spent waiting and the rest in what could scarcely be called negotiation, since his adversary had freely given all he asked and more than he had hoped for: including immunity, down the years, from prosecution on any charge whatever in connection with the war—Lee was free to go. He rose, shook hands with Grant again, bowed to the others, and passed from the room, followed by Marshall. Out on the porch, several blue-clad officers came to attention and saluted as he emerged. He put on his hat to return their salute, then crossed to the head of the steps leading down to the yard. There he draw on his gauntlets, distractedly striking the fist of one hand three times into the palm of the other as he looked out across the valley to where the men of his army were waiting to learn that they had been surrendered. “Orderly! Orderly!” he called hoarsely, not seeing Tucker close by with Traveller, whose bit had been slipped to let him graze. “Here, General, here,” Tucker replied, and Lee came down the steps to stand by the horse’s head while he was being bridled. A cavalry major, watching from the porch, noted that “as the orderly was buckling the throat latch, the general reached up and drew the forelock out from under the brow band, parted and smoothed it, and then gently patted the gray charger’s forehead in an absent-minded way, as one who loves horses, but whose thoughts are far away, might all unwittingly do.” Mounted, Lee waited for Marshall and Tucker, then started at a walk across the yard. Grant had come out of the house and down the steps by then, also on his way to the gate where his own horse was tethered. Stopping, he removed his hat in salute, as did the staff men with him. Lee raised his own hat briefly in return, and passed out through the gate and up the road. Presently, northward beyond the dwindled, tree-lined Appomattox, listeners on the porch heard cheers, and then a poignant silence.
Indoors behind them, as they watched him go and heard the choked-off yells subside beyond the tree line, scavengers were at work. “Relic-hunters charged down upon the manor house,” a staff colonel would recall, and began to bargain for the numerous pieces of furniture. Ord paid forty dollars for Lee’s table, and Sheridan gave half as much for Grant’s—though “bargain” and “paid” were scarcely words that applied to either transaction; Wilmer McLean, not wanting to sell his household possessions, threw the money on the floor or had it flung there when he declined to accept it. No matter; the rest of the furniture was quickly snapped up, beginning with the chairs the two commanders had sat in. Sheridan’s brother Michael, a captain on his staff, made off with a stone inkstand, and an enterprising brigadier secured two brass candlesticks for ten dollars. Once these and other prize items were gone, mainly to persons whose rank had placed them early on the scene, what remained was up for grabs, and something close to pandemonium set in. “Cane-bottomed chairs were ruthlessly cut to pieces,” a reporter was to write, “the cane splits broken into pieces a few inches long and parceled out among those who swarmed around. Haircloth upholstery, cut from chairs and sofas, was also cut into strips and patches and carried away.” McLean was left surveying a Tacitean wilderness his enemies called peace. They made off with their spoils, exulting as they went, and a few years later—with still more tank, and again with the advantage of working close to the man in charge—some of them would try their hand at doing much the same thing to the country at large, with considerable success.
Grant knew nothing of this, of course, just as he would know little or nothing of their later endeavors along that line. He rode on toward his headquarters tent, which had been found at last, along with his baggage, and pitched nearby. He had not gone far before someone asked if he did not consider the news of Lee’s surrender worth passing on to the War Department. Reining his horse in, he dismounted and sat on a large stone by the roadside to compose the telegram Lincoln would receive that night. By the time he remounted to ride on, salutes were beginning to roar from Union batteries roundabout, and he sent word to have them stopped, not only because he feared the warlike racket might cause trouble between the victors and the vanquished, both of them still with weapons in their hands, but also because he considered it unfitting. “The war is over,” he told his staff. “The rebels are our countrymen again.”
From THE CIVIL WAR: A Narrative, Red River to Appomattox by Shelby Foote. Copyright © 1974 by Shelby Foote. Reprinted with permission of Random House, an imprint and division of Random House LLC, a division of Penguin Random House.