Union General Ulysses S. Grant was suffering from one of his frequent severe headaches when he called his staff to a meeting at his camp, in the Virginia countryside, on the evening of April 6, 1865.
That same evening, at about the same time and only three miles away, Confederate General Robert E. Lee was meeting with his staff to determine how best to use his decimated Army of Northern Virginia to delay Grant’s advance through the South. Although the Confederate Capital of Richmond had already fallen to the Union onslaught, Lee and his staff had not yet contemplated surrender and planned to fight on. Some on his staff even advocated “a stand to the last man” on their home soil.
General Grant was certain that his overwhelming advantage of men, armaments, and provisions would soon defeat Lee’s army, through horrific attrition if not through ingenious military tactics. But he also realized that his enemy would not go quietly and many young men would die every day until a cease fire and/or surrender could be arranged.
Now, perhaps for the first time since he was promoted by President Lincoln to Commander of all Union forces, General Grant hesitated to press the battle the next morning against what he knew was a bedraggled Southern army. Until that night, Grant had effectively utilized the strategy of “all forces, at all points, at all times” against the Confederates. Because of the carnage he seemed willing to accept as he aggressively attacked Southern forces, one newspaper editor had even sarcastically used his initials and dubbed him “Unlimited Slaughter” Grant, rather than the more heroic nickname of “Unconditional Surrender” Grant used by many northern writers.
But now Lt. General Grant, the highest ranking officer in the Union Army, paused for a moment.
Grant asked his staff if they believed that General Lee might agree to surrender his army to avoid any further bloodshed because, even as Lee must realize, the ultimate Union victory was not in doubt. While some still advocated an all-out attack to force surrender, others on Grant’s staff agreed that as one officer later recalled, “The human toll on both sides would outweigh any territory gained.”
Throughout the next day, April 7, there was intermittent fighting and more bloodshed without significant movement of the battle lines.
After consulting again with his staff that afternoon, Grant decided to send a letter to Lee, which would be delivered under a white flag by one of his aides on horseback. At 5pm on April 7, Grant wrote (in part); “The results of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance in this struggle. I regard it as my duty to shift responsibility of any further effusion of blood by asking of you the surrender of (your) army.”
Grant later said that his terrible headache, which had lasted two days, ceased the moment he penned the note to Lee.
The recognized military protocol for transfer of such messages between enemy camps was that a trusted staff officer would carry a white flag to the enemy front line and, after shouting out his intention, would be met in “no man’s land” by an officer from the other side (also with a white flag). The two officers would deliver the message to the intended recipient and await a reply. This was a dangerous assignment for both officers, especially at night when a nervous sentry might shoot before recognizing the white flag.
Lee responded about 9pm and his letter was presented to Grant just before midnight. Lee wrote (in part); “I have received your note. Though not entertaining the opinion you express of the hopelessness of further resistance, I reciprocate your desire to avoid useless effusion of blood and ask the terms you will offer.”
Grant received Lee’s note at 1am on April 8, and within an hour, Grant wrote (in part); “In reply I would say that peace being my great desire, there is but one condition I would insist on – namely that the men and officers be disqualified for taking up arms against the government. I will meet you or any officers you may designate, at any point agreeable to you for the purpose of arranging definitely the terms.”
Later that day, as Lee retreated further in Virginia, there were still ongoing skirmishes with casualties on both sides. Perhaps the ongoing clashes and Lee’s continual movement caused a delay in the delivery of Grant’s early morning message to Lee; but it was not given to General Lee until about 5pm, thirteen hours later. Lee responded to Grant about 8pm on April 8 writing (in part); “General, I received your note of today. In mine of yesterday, I did not intend to propose the surrender but to ask the terms of your proposition. To be frank I do not think the emergency has arisen to call for the surrender of this army; but as far as your proposal may tend to the restoration of peace, I should be pleased to meet you at 10am tomorrow (April 9) on the Old State Road to Richmond, between picket-lines of the two armies.”
Again the couriers would take a daring night-time ride through enemy lines; but it would be nine hours before Lee’s latest reply was delivered to Grant about 5am on April 9.
Grant immediately wrote (in part); “Your note of yesterday is received. I have not authority to treat on the subject of peace. The meeting for 10am today would lead to no good.” Grant said later that he thought Lee wanted terms of a peace agreement between the Union and the Confederacy but Grant believed he could only discuss surrender and disarmament of Lee’s army, which he directly faced. Grant also knew that there still were three large Confederate Armies with about 175,000 men which operated in other Southern states for which Lee could not speak; nor could Lee speak for the Confederate government. Grant concluded his message by offering this opinion about an overall peace agreement; “By the South laying down their arms, they would hasten that most desirous event, save thousands of lives, and hundreds of millions of property not yet destroyed. Seriously hoping our difficulties may be settled without the loss of another life.”
But Grant had clearly intended to cancel the meeting which Lee had proposed for 10am that same morning!
Three hours after Grant sent his latest reply, about 8am, on April 9, Lee received Grant’s message which stated a meeting that day at 10am “would do no good.” Lee was startled and now needed to try to assure a meeting with Grant did occur. Unknown to Grant, Lee had conferred with his staff the previous evening and had determined to surrender his army to Grant if the terms were at all reasonable. He also had told his staff that he expected to be arrested at the meeting, but that they should honor any agreement he signed. Hoping to re-start plans for a meeting that day (April 9), Lee wrote; “I now ask for an interview, in accordance with the offer contained in your letter of yesterday.
But General Lee could only hope his latest message would re-kindle Grant’s willingness to meet!
Within three hours, about 11am, Grant received Lee’s request for “an interview” and replied (in part); I am at Walker’s church and will push forward to the front for the purpose of meeting with you. Notice sent to me on this road where you wish the interview to take place.”
The meeting was on!
Their aides determined that the village of Appomattox Courthouse, a small farming hub in Appomattox County, Virginia, was about mid-way from each army’s picket-line; and both Generals soon headed for the historic meeting. There has always been some public confusion about the location of the meeting because historians interchangeably use the term Appomattox, Appomattox Courthouse (the official name of the community), and the McLean home as the meeting site. The village contained a county courthouse, a general store, a tavern and several fine residences, most with slave quarters. Aides for the two Generals rejected the courthouse as a venue, probably because it contained visual reminders of the Confederate government to which Grant might have objected. (We do not know if he would have.) While in town, Lee’s aide met Wilmer McLean who offered the use of his home which had a parlor large enough to accommodate the two Generals and their staffs.
The home also had several out-buildings, including slave quarters, but McLean said that the few slaves had fled north several months earlier.
Lee arrived first and was seated at one of two desks in the parlor. Observers noted that Lee was impeccably dressed in a new General’s uniform and carried at his side a fine sword with intricate engravings. When Grant arrived within a few minutes he was ushered into the same parlor. The contrast between the two men was striking. Grant wore a simple soldier’s shirt, which had only a small emblem with the stars of a General, no weapon, and his trousers were tucked into his mud splattered riding boots.
The two men courteously greeted each other and discussed the fact that they had met before, during the Mexican War, when Grant was a young Lieutenant and Lee an experienced Captain. Each man had graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, although several years apart. At that first meeting, almost twenty years earlier, both men were then in the service of the United States Army. After a short period during which their staffs were formally introduced, the two Generals were left alone for a private discussion. After about twenty minutes the staff officers were summoned by Grant and, upon entering, noted Grant sat at a second desk a few paces away from where Lee was seated.
One aide later said that, “The room was filled with quiet respect” and Lee asked Grant if he would write down the terms they had just privately discussed. Grant began to personally hand-write the surrender document and, when he had finished in only a few minutes, the others in the room were astonished. It was, perhaps, one of the most brief and generous terms of surrender in the history of warfare. Grant agreed to release every Confederate soldier and officer, including General Lee, rather than consider them prisoners-of-war; requiring only their promise to no longer engage in warfare against the Union, to lay down their military issued rifles and artillery, and return home. Grant further added that officers could keep their side-arms and swords and any one could keep rifles, horses, and mules which they owned. And, while it was a time-honored military custom for the vanquished commander to “surrender his sword” that did not happen in this case. Grant later simply said, “It never entered my mind.”
Grant then asked General Lee about the status of food for his army and when Lee replied “dismal,” Grant ordered rations for 25,000 to be delivered to the Southern soldiers.
As General Lee left, the two men exchanged brief acknowledgements, shook hands, and Lee mounted his horse to ride back through the lines. Grant ordered that; “There be no displays of triumph” over Lee and his men. One Union officer said that; “General Grant displayed no emotion but respect, while General Lee seemed to be the saddest man on earth.”
Much has been written about the famous meeting on April 9, but not much about a second meeting between Grant and Lee two days later. Lee had become concerned that his men needed an official pardon certificate from Grant or they could be subject to arrest by other Union forces. Grant agreed and had his staff issue nearly 23,000 individual pardons. General Lee did not request one for himself.
An interested observer of the events at Appomattox was Captain Robert Todd Lincoln, son of the President, who was on Grant’s staff. Captain Lincoln returned to the White House and described the details of the historic meeting to his father at a family dinner on Thursday April 13; the night before President Lincoln would be assassinated.
Lee’s surrender did not, by itself, end the War as there were still several large Confederate armies operating in Georgia, North Carolina, and in the western states of Oklahoma and Texas; but, over the next few weeks, they too laid down their arms and went home. Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, had fled the Capital of Richmond on April 3 and hoped to escape into Texas, but he was captured in Georgia on May 10, 1865.
After Lincoln’s death, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and new President Andrew Johnson discussed the possible prosecution of Robert E. Lee; however, Grant strongly objected, some said “threatened” would be a better word, and the subject was dropped. Grant later wrote that, “President Lincoln would not have wanted a vengeful prosecution” of Lee.
When the War was finally over, Robert E. Lee became President of Washington College in Virginia where he lived modestly for the rest of his life. He once said, “I surrendered as much to Lincoln’s goodness as to Grant’s artillery.” However, he also often expressed appreciation for the courtesies shown to him and his men by General Grant and once reproached a professor in a public meeting saying, “I will not tolerate impolite remarks about General Grant in my presence.”
On April 9, 1865 at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia, history witnessed a true “Meeting of Giants” and the two men left us with valuable examples of courtesy and respect toward an adversary; and a life lesson on how to begin the healing process.
We just need to remember.
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