In this lesson, we will explore the events leading up to Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9th, 1865.

General Lee on the Road

After Confederate General Robert E. Lee abandoned Petersburg and Richmond on April 2nd, 1865, he began to guide his troops west, hoping to eventually join up with more Confederate forces, regroup, and continue to offer resistance to the Union. He started toward Amelia Court House, about thirty-five miles west of Petersburg, thinking there would be much-needed rations there for his nearly-starving men.

He was wrong. There was no food at Amelia Court House. Even foraging parties found very little to eat anywhere in the area. Lee was forced to order his hungry men to continue their march, now moving toward Rice’s Station.

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Along the way, Lee’s army started to spread out. General James Longstreet’s soldiers were in the lead, followed by General Richard Anderson’s men, General Richard Ewell’s forces, and General John Gordon’s troops. Pretty soon, the thin gray line developed several gaps as the distance increased between Longstreet and Anderson, and Gordon took a wrong turn, splitting off from Ewell. This was a dangerous situation, for General Ulysses S. Grant’s Union army was quickly closing in.

The Battle of Sailor’s Creek

By April 6th, the Confederates were nearly surrounded. Union General Philip Sheridan was riding parallel to the Confederate column, striking now and then. General George Custer pushed his men into the gap between Longstreet and Anderson. General Horatio Wright sneaked up behind Ewell. Then the Union attacked.

The resulting battle at Sailor’s Creek was actually fought on three fronts, and while the exhausted, hungry Confederates fought fiercely for a while, they didn’t stand much of a chance. Soon, the long gray line broke. Some men fled. Others, who could hardly even move anymore, were taken prisoner.

Lee watched from a height overlooking the battlefield and remarked, ‘My God! Has the army dissolved?’ When it was all over, the Union had captured over six thousand Confederates, including Ewell and seven other generals. Lee turned sadly away and guided his remaining army toward Farmville, hoping once again to find food.

Toward Appomattox

On April 7th, Lee ordered a division of his men to burn a bridge over the Appomattox River. He was trying to buy time, to hold off the enemy just a little while longer. The soldiers failed, burning only four of the bridge’s twenty-one spans. The men tried valiantly to prevent the Union force from crossing the river, but exhausted, they had to pull back. Lee continued to move with the Union army pressing closely behind.

Lee began to seriously consider surrender. He knew his options were limited, and his men were becoming weaker and hungrier as the days progressed. He had even received a letter from Grant, asking for his surrender, but Lee wasn’t quite ready yet. If he could just get to Appomattox Station, there were provisions there, for certain this time. Grant knew about the supplies, too, and he was determined to keep Lee’s troops away from them. Nevertheless, Lee sent a note back to Grant asking for his terms of surrender.

On April 8th, Grant replied that his only requirement was that those who surrendered could not take up arms again until they were formally exchanged. Lee was surprised at the ease of these terms, but he wasn’t quite ready to give up. He wanted to meet with Grant to talk things over. Grant refused; the only meeting he would have with Lee was to accept his surrender.

On the morning of April 9th, Confederates under General Gordon made one last stand when they bumped into Union forces at Appomattox Court House. The Union quickly rolled over these Southerners and turned to attack Longstreet’s men. Lee knew what he had to do, ‘There is nothing left me but to go see General Grant, and I had rather die a thousand deaths.’

The Surrender

The two generals agreed to meet at Appomattox Court House on the afternoon of April 9th. Lee arrived about 1 p.m. and Grant about a half hour later. The contrast between the two generals was striking. Lee was perfectly groomed – his officer’s uniform in pristine condition and his gleaming sword hanging at his side. Grant was rather disheveled and mud-splatted, wearing the uniform of an ordinary soldier and lacking a sword.

The two soon set to their task of negotiating terms. Grant’s offer was simple. The Confederates were to lay down their weapons and go home. They could not fight again until they were exchanged, which both generals knew would not happen. The officers could take their horses and personal effects with them.

Lee suggested that perhaps his cavalrymen and artillerymen could also keep their horses and Grant agreed. Both generals signed the official surrender documents and shook hands, but Lee had one more request. His men were starving, and he wondered if Grant could give them some food. Grant immediately ordered it done. Then Grant went off to celebrate with his men; Lee went off to mourn.

Three days later, on April 12th, Lee’s Confederates formally laid down their arms and surrendered their battle flags. As they passed sadly before the lines of Union troops, they probably expected jeers and abuse, but the Union soldiers did not cheer or gloat. Instead, they saluted their enemies, recognizing their courage and dignity and showing them the honor due to a defeated, but valiant enemy. After the ceremony, the Confederates turned away and left for home. For all practical purposes, the Civil War was over.

Lesson Summary

General Robert E. Lee turned his Confederate forces west after leaving Petersburg and Richmond on April 2nd, 1865. His army stretched out in a long, thin line under the command of General James Longstreet, Richard Anderson, Richard Ewell, and John Gordon. Soon, gaps formed in the line, allowing Union divisions led by General Philip Sheridan, George Custer, and Horatio Wright to close in for the attack.

The Union defeated the exhausted, hungry Confederates at the Battle of Sailor’s Creek on April 6th, and Lee continued to move west. On April 7th, he began communicating with Union General Ulysses S. Grant about terms for a possible surrender. After the defeat of a final stand by Confederate troops at Appomattox Court House on the morning of April 9, Lee knew there was nothing left for him to do but surrender to Grant.

The two generals met at Appomattox Court House on the afternoon of April 9th. Grant’s terms were simple and moderate, so Lee agreed to them. On April 12th, Lee’s army officially laid down its arms and battle flags, and sadly left for home.

Learning Outcomes

After completion of this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Recognize the futility of Lee’s actions on the days before his surrender
  • Identify the major players in the final flare ups before surrender
  • Recall Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9th, 1865