As I’m trying form my thoughts into words for this first blog post in the April series “Appomattox & The Long Road Home,” my feelings are mixed. While thinking about primary source quotes, I can almost see the soldiers’ confused emotions – joy that the war was end, sorrow over lost comrades, reality of losing. Over all these thoughts, one historical person stands above the rest, so I think I’ll tell the story of the Confederacy’s last week from the perspective of General Robert E. Lee.
In April 1865, Robert E. Lee was fifty-eight years old. He’d been in the military for most of his life, serving in the Corps of Engineers with the United States Army and, in the last four years, playing a major role in the command strategy for the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. His sons served with the Confederate military, and his wife and daughters resided in Richmond during the war. Lee had strong faith and a belief in God’s providence. He was known for his proud and honorable character. His Southern troops had unshakeable confidence in his abilities and had unquestioningly followed his orders many times.
The previous year – 1864 – General Lee successfully held Union General Grant and the huge Army of the Potomac away from Richmond, capital of the Confederacy. The horrific Overland Campaign resulted in over 90,000 casualties and ended when Lee blocked Grant’s sneaky maneuver at Petersburg.
Petersburg – a small town and railroad hub a little over 20 miles from Richmond – became the setting of one of the longest sieges of the American Civil War. For about 10 months, both side hunkered in dirt trenches, flinching from the shrieking artillery shells, and dreading orders to attack. Steadily, Grant extended his siege lines until they enveloped the Confederates on three extended sides. Lee was forced to spread his starving troops thinly along the lines, trying to keep escape routes open.
The rest of Lee’s home state – Virginia – was mostly in Union hands. Lee’s last military hope was General Joe Johnston’s Confederate army in North Carolina. Johnston was fighting General Sherman who’d swung north after the devastating march through Georgia.
And Then Spring Came…
Spring came, melting the snow and signaling the commencement of military action again. Grant and his army awoke from their hibernation and a series of “small” battles were fought along the Confederate right flank. (Flank is the side of an army position, in case you’re wondering.) On April 1, while the Confederate generals were away at a fancy lunch a Union attack at Five Forks disorganized and broke the Confederate lines.
Eventually someone had to go tell General Lee at his Petersburg headquarters that the right flank was broken. (I don’t think they confessed about the fancy lunch – Lee would not have approved! Lee had spent part of the day at a prayer meeting with another of his religious generals.)
The following day – April 2, 1865 – Lee and his army had to evacuate Petersburg. They hurried west, trying to outmaneuver Grant’s swarming army.
Lee sent a message to President Jefferson Davis in Richmond, advising him to leave the capital. It was no longer defendable. The Confederacy was crumbling, but Lee did not give up. He would re-organize and outflank or fight through Grant’s army to reach North Carolina.
In the dark night, riding along the muddy Virginia roads closely followed by a couple staff officers, what did he think? One writer described the commander and scene this way:
They [Confederate soldiers] saw his lips move and knew he was talking with his Friend [God]… The white, sad face seem unconscious of those near him. “How easily I could get rid of this and be at rest!” he had said… “But it is our duty to live. What will become of the women and children of the South if we are not here to protect them?” He thought of the humiliation, of the pride of family, of the state, of the whole South. It had done all it could – and lost – failed! “We have appealed to the God of battles,” said he, “and He has decided against us.” And, now, “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?” (1)
Fighting For Every Step
The next week must have been one of the hardest of Lee’s life. Supplies stockpiled and sent ahead for his starving troops never arrived or were destroyed by Union troops. Every step of the race west seemed blocked or contested by blue-clad cavalry or infantry. Grant was closing in. Still, Lee and his men kept up a moving fight. Sutherland’s Station, Namozine Church, Amelia Springs, Rice’s Station, Sailor’s Creek, High Bridge, Cumberland Church, and Appomattox Station became the sites of desperate battles or skirmishes.
On April 6, 1865, at Sailor’s Creek, Lee snatched a battle flag and tried to rally his troops. They gathered – so few, compared to the thousands and thousands in the previous years. Dead men cannot rise and fight again, only the living few looked back at the commanding general. They’d do anything for him…and he knew it. Perhaps scenes from other places flashed through his mind – Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania, Petersburg. He’d asked them to do the impossible, and they’d tried and often succeeded.
Now, looking at their gaunt, weary faces he could see the impossible looming before him. They’d never ask him to. But was it right that the pale-face sixteen year old staring at him with worshipful admiration should die when there was no chance of success? Or the veteran of four years, looking so thin and exhausted, with his belt pulled tight to keep a uniform on his dangerously thin body – should he collapse by the roadside for want of food? Their expressions inspired him; their trust made him want to fight on, and so he rallied them, encouraged them, added another block to the legend of his leadership.
Leadership – they’d followed him so far, he would have to do the impossible to save them…if the supplies were not at Appomattox.
The Union reached Appomattox first. The Confederate supplies were gone.
It was over. To save the boys and the faithful veterans, he asked for terms of surrender. To protect the fathers, sons, and brothers still living, who could return and care for their wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters, he would surrender.
“There is nothing left me but to go to General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths,” he said.
Grant was willing to meet to discuss surrender terms. And in the afternoon of April 9, 1865, the two generals met in the parlor of Wilmer McLean’s home. Outside the troops of both armies waited, silently under the terms of a temporary cease-fire.
First, Lee and Grant talked over old-times, reminiscing about by-gone days in the U.S. Army and the Mexican War period. Then, Lee asked for the terms of surrender. Grant named them: the officers and men would be paroled under the agreement not to fight against the United States, weapons would be surrendered but this would not include officers’ side arms, horses owned by the soldier could be kept and taken home, and the soldiers would return home without legal charges pressed against them.
Lee accepted and requested that food would be sent to his soldiers. Grant agreed. The surrender documents were signed around 4 p.m. As word spread, the Union troops started cheering; out of respect for Lee and the surrendering army, Grant order the demonstrations of victory to be stopped.
Lee’s Journey & Surrender
Most of Lee’s personal journey from Petersburg and his personal surrender to accept the situation went un-recorded. He did not write much about those days and did not want to talk about it in later years. From the facts, we can trace the steps on a map, but we will never be able to fully trace the path of his thoughts on the road to surrender. Perhaps this is for the best.
Still, we can look back at the facts and make observations.
Robert E. Lee’s leadership and victories had been legendary. But, to me, one of his greatest moments is at the end. He was not defeated. His journey of self-searching and self-sacrifice led him to make the ultimate leadership decision – to do the thing he most dreaded.
Reality faced him on the journey to Appomattox. On the night of April 8th, he decided to die “a thousand deaths” to save his men. That is self-less leadership. It reminds me of a verse in Scripture: “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)
P.S. Based on this article and other information you have read, what single word would you use to describe Robert E. Lee’s character?
(1) Robert E. Lee: The Christian by William J. Johnson, Christian Liberty Press, Arlington Heights, IL, 1993. Pages 148-149.