General Horace Porter

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General Horace Porter

"The Surrender at Appomattox Court House";
excerpt from
Battles and Leaders of the Civil War

Covering events from April 1865; published in 1887

An eyewitness account of Lee's surrender to Grant

"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."

General Ulysses S. Grant

During the first weeks of 1865, it appeared that the long and bitter Civil War between the North and the South was finally drawing to a close. The Confederate armies had fought valiantly (bravely) during the previous four years, but even the most optimistic Southerner had to admit that the war had swung in favor of the Union armies. In late 1864, Northern military forces won crushing victories in Mobile Bay, Alabama; the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia; and Atlanta, Georgia. After capturing Atlanta, Union general William T. Sherman (1820–1891) launched his devastating "March to the Sea." During this march through the heart of the Confederacy, Sherman's army wrecked tens of thousands of Southern homes and farm fields, shattering the morale of the South's civilian population in the process. Finally, the reelection of Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) in November 1864 showed Southerners that the North supported his plan to continue the war until the Confederacy was completely destroyed.

Despite these many blows to their cause, however, the battered Confederate military continued fighting. In the West, small Confederate armies tried in vain to slow the progress of invading Union forces. In the East, meanwhile, the South's primary army—the Army of Northern Virginia, led by General Robert E. Lee (1807–1870)—maintained its defense of Petersburg and the Confederate capital of Richmond. They faced the Union's Army of the Potomac, led by General Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885).

The South desperately needed to keep these two cities in eastern Virginia out of Union hands. But by March 1865, Lee knew he would not be able to defend the cities much longer. After all, sickness, desertions (soldiers leaving the army illegally before their term of service ended), and bloody fighting had reduced his army to fewer than fifty thousand troops. Union forces in the area had more than twice as many soldiers, with thousands of additional reinforcements on the way.

In late March, Lee decided that his army's only chance of avoiding complete destruction at the hands of Grant's forces was to slip out of Virginia and join another small Confederate army in North Carolina. He knew that losing Petersburg and Richmond to the Union Army would be a severe blow to the Confederacy. But he hoped that an escape might enable his army to continue the fight for Confederate independence.

On March 25, Lee ordered a surprise attack at one point along the line of Union troops surrounding Petersburg. At first, the assault seemed to work. Rebel soldiers poured into the area and seized a significant stretch of Union trenches. But the Union launched a powerful counterattack with infantry and artillery. Forced to retreat, the Confederates lost nearly five thousand men in the battle.

After this clash, Grant decided to press his advantage. On April 1, his Army of the Potomac seized the last remaining railway line that had been providing supplies to Petersburg and Richmond. The loss of the railway meant that already severe shortages of food, ammunition, and other supplies in the two rebel cities would shortly become even worse. Grant then ordered a full assault on Confederate defensive positions around Petersburg. This April 2 attack battered Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and convinced Confederate president Jefferson Davis (1808–1889) and his advisors to leave the capital. But the Army of Northern Virginia successfully held off the offensive until nightfall, when Grant called off the assault.

Grant hoped to keep Lee's army trapped in Petersburg and Richmond and finish them off the next day. During the early morning hours of April 3, however, Lee managed to take his forces across the Appomattox River. Before leaving Richmond, though, he ordered his troops to destroy most factories and bridges so that they could not be used by the advancing Federal troops.

During the day of April 3, Union troops assumed control of both Petersburg and Richmond. First, they put out the fires that had been set by the departing rebel soldiers and angry mobs of citizens. The Union troops then took up positions all around the city. On April 4, U.S. president Abraham Lincoln visited the conquered Confederate capital, escorted by a troop of black Union cavalry soldiers. The sight of Lincoln and the black soldiers prompted tremendous cheers from Richmond's black population, who filled the streets in joyous celebrations of freedom.

At the same time that Lincoln traveled through Richmond, Grant and his Army of the Potomac were engaged in a fierce pursuit of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Grant knew that if he could force Lee to surrender, the other Confederate forces scattered across the country would quickly follow his example. The exhausted rebel army did its best to avoid capture, but with each passing day Lee lost more men to capture, desertion, and Union sharpshooters. On April 7, Grant sent Lee a letter demanding that he surrender, but the Confederate general did not respond. A day later, Federal troops led by General Philip Sheridan (1831–1888) cut off Lee's escape route and captured two trainloads of food intended for the Confederates.

By April 9, Grant had completely surrounded the Army of Northern Virginia near a little Virginia town called Appomattox. Trapped and exhausted, Lee realized that he had no choice but to surrender. One of his officers suggested that Lee might want to consider ordering his soldiers to scatter into the woods, where they could continue the fight as small guerrilla units. But Lee flatly rejected this idea. "[The guerrillas] would become mere bands of marauders [robbers], and the enemy's cavalry would pursue them and overrun many sections [of the South that] they may [otherwise] never have occasion to visit. We would bring on a state of affairs it would take the country years to recover from. . . . There is nothing left for me to do but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths."

On the morning of April 9, General Lee and General Grant met at a small farmhouse at Appomattox to discuss the terms under which the Army of Northern Virginia would surrender. Union General Horace Porter, who was a member of Grant's staff, offered the following remembrance of their historic meeting.

Things to remember while reading "The Surrender at Appomattox Court House":

  • • The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and the Union's Army of the Potomac faced each other in many of the Civil War's most famous battles, including the First Battle of Bull Run (July 1861), Antietam (September 1862), Chancellorsville (May 1863), and Gettysburg (July 1863). In the first three and a half years of the war, the rebel Army of Northern Virginia won many of those battles. But improved military leadership and ever-growing advantages in manpower and supplies eventually turned the tide in favor of the Army of the Potomac.
  • • Many historians have said that the United States was fortunate that the Confederacy and the Union were represented by Lee and Grant at Appomattox. The two generals had fought desperately against one another for months. But when Lee surrendered, both men showed that they were eager to see an end to hostilities. Grant could have punished Lee's army for its participation in the rebellion against the Union. But instead, Grant drew up generous terms of surrender that eased the pain of the defeated rebels and made it possible for them to return home with some measure of pride and hope. Lee, meanwhile, resisted the temptation to order a campaign of guerrilla warfare that undoubtedly would have brought additional bloodshed and hatred to an already war-weary nation. As historian Bruce Catton commented in The Civil War, "In Grant, Lee met a man who was as anxious as himself to see this hardest of wars followed by a good peace. Grant believed that the whole point of the war had been the effort to prove that Northerners and Southerners were and always would be fellow citizens, and the moment the fighting stopped he believed that they ought to begin behaving that way."
  • • By the time that Lee and Grant met to discuss terms of surrender, Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was in very bad shape. His soldiers were exhausted and hungry, and they did not even have feed for their horses. As Porter recalls, Grant promptly made arrangements to deliver food to Lee's worn-out troops. Grant did this because he wanted to start healing the bad feelings between the two sides as soon as possible.
  • • One of the most important aspects of the surrender agreement was Grant's decision to allow Lee's rebel soldiers to keep their horses. Most of the long and brutal war had been fought in the American South, and many of its cities, towns, and farmlands had been destroyed. Lee knew that his soldiers' difficult task of returning to their families and rebuilding their lives would be much more difficult if their horses—used for both transportation and farmwork—were taken from them. As Porter explains, Grant quickly recognized how strongly Lee felt about this matter. The Union commander's quick decision to allow the rebels to keep their horses spared Lee the humiliation of having to beg for this favor.
  • • As Porter notes in his description of the surrender at Appomattox, General Lee was treated with great respect not only by General Grant, but also by other Union officers. They knew that Lee had been a brilliant commander for the South, and that he had fought for the Confederacy out of loyalty to his home state of Virginia. Even though they had spent the last few years fighting him, they viewed him as an honorable man who deserved courteous treatment.

Excerpt from "The Surrender at Appomattox Court House"

General Grant mounted the steps and entered the house . . . while members of the staff . . . and some general officers who had gathered in the front yard, remained outside, feeling that he would probably want his first interview with General Lee to be, in a measure, private. In a few minutes Colonel Babcock came to the front door and, making a motion with his hat toward the sitting-room, said: "The general says, come in." It was then about half-past one of Sunday, the 9th of April. We entered, and found General Grant sitting at a marble-topped table in the center of the room, and Lee sitting beside a small oval table near the front window, in the corner opposite to the door by which we entered, and facing General Grant. Colonel Marshall, his military secretary, was standing at his left. We walked in softly and ranged ourselves quietly about thesides of the room, very much as people enter a sick-chamber when they expect to find the patient dangerously ill. Some found seats on the sofa and the few chairs which constituted the furniture, but most of the party stood.

The contrast between the two commanders was striking, and could not fail to attract marked attention as they sat ten feet apart facing each other. General Grant, then nearly forty-three years of age, was five feet eight inches in height, with shoulders slightly stooped. His hair and full beard were a nut-brown, without a trace of gray in them. He had on a single-breasted blouse, made of dark-blue flannel, unbuttoned in front, and showing a waistcoat underneath. He wore an ordinary pair of top-boots, with his trousers inside, and was without spurs. The boots and portions of his clothes were spattered with mud. He had on a pair of thread gloves, of a dark-yellow color, which he had taken off on entering the room. His felt "sugarloaf" stiff-brimmed hat was thrown on the table beside him. He had no sword, and a pair of shoulder-straps was all there was about him to designate his rank. In fact, aside from these, his uniform was that of a private soldier.

Lee, on the other hand, was fully six feet in height, and quite erect for one of his age, for he was Grant's senior by sixteen years. His hair and full beard were a silver-gray, and quite thick, except that the hair had become a little thin in front. He wore a new uniform of Confederate gray, buttoned up to the throat, and at his side he carried a long sword of exceedingly fine workmanship. . . . We asked Colonel Marshall afterward how it was that both he and his chief wore such fine toggery, and looked so much as if they had turned out to go to church, while with us our outward garb scarcely rose to the dignity even of the "shabby-genteel." He enlightened us regarding the contrast, by explaining that when their headquarters wagons had been pressed so closely by our cavalry a few days before, and it was found they would have to destroy all their baggage, except the clothes they carried on their backs, each one, naturally, selected the newest suit he had, and sought to propitiate the god of destruction by a sacrifice of his second-best.

General Grant began the conversation by saying: "I met you once before, General Lee, while we were serving in Mexico, when you came over from General Scott's headquarters to visit Garland's brigade, to which I then belonged. I have always remembered your appearance, and I think I should have recognized you anywhere." "Yes," replied General Lee, "I know I met you on that occasion, andI have often thought of it and tried to recollect how you looked, but I have never been able to recall a single feature." After some further mention of Mexico, General Lee said: "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." General Grant replied: "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." Lee nodded an assent, and said: "Those are about the conditions which I expected would be proposed." General Grant then continued: "Yes, I think our correspondence indicated pretty clearly the action that would be taken at our meeting; and I hope it may lead to a general suspension of hostilities and be the means of preventing any further loss of life."

Lee inclined his head as indicating his accord with this wish, and General Grant then went on to talk at some length in a very pleasant vein about the prospects of peace. . . .

[General Grant then began writing the terms of surrender. He wrote very rapidly, but at one point, he paused and looked at General Lee.] His eyes seemed to be resting on the handsome sword that hung at that officer's side. He said afterward that this set him to thinking that it would be an unnecessary humiliation to require the [Confederate] officers to surrender their swords, and a great hardship to deprive them of their personal baggage and horses. [As a result, Grant wrote the surrender agreement so that Confederate officers would be able to keep their horses and personal possessions. After completing the terms of surrender, Grant handed them over to Lee for him to review.]

Lee took it and laid it on the table beside him, while he drew from his pocket a pair of steel-rimmed spectacles and wiped the glasses carefully with his handkerchief. Then he crossed his legs, adjusted the spectacles very slowly and deliberately, took up the draft of the letter, and proceeded to read it attentively. It consisted of two pages. . . . When Lee came to the sentence about the officers' side arms, private horses, and baggage, he showed for the first time during the reading of the letter a slight change of countenance, and was evidently touched by this act of generosity. It was doubtless the condition mentioned to which he particularly alluded when he looked toward General Grant as he finished reading and said withsome degree of warmth in his manner: "This will have a very happy effect upon my army."

General Grant then said: "Unless you have some suggestions to make in regard to the form in which I have stated the terms, I will have a copy of the letter made in ink and sign it."

"There is one thing I would like to mention," Lee replied after a short pause. "The cavalrymen and artillerists own their own horses in our army. Its organization in this respect differs from that of the United States." This expression attracted the notice of our officers present, as showing how firmly the conviction was grounded in his mind that we were two distinct countries. He continued: "I would like to understand whether these men will be permitted to retain their horses?"

"You will find that the terms as written do not allow this," General Grant replied; "only the officers are permitted to take their private property."

Lee read over the second page of the letter again, and then said: "No, I see the terms do not allow it; that is clear." His face showed plainly that he was quite anxious to have this concession made, and Grant said very promptly and without giving Lee time to make a direct request:

"Well, the subject is quite new to me. 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 that of all the others, and I take it that most of the men in the [Confederate] 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, and I will arrange [the surrender agreement] this way: I will not change the terms as now written, but I will instruct the officer I shall appoint to receive the paroles to let all the men who claim to own a horse or mule take the animals home with them to work their little farms."

Lee now looked greatly relieved, and though anything but a demonstrative man, he gave every evidence of his appreciation of this concession, and said, "This will have the best possible effect upon the men. It will be very gratifying and will do much toward conciliating our people."

[Members of both generals' staffs began writing out the final versions of the surrender agreement. As they did this, General Lee brought up the subject of prisoners of war.] "I have a thousand or more of your men as prisoners, General Grant, a number of them officers whom we have required to march along with us for several days. I shall be glad to send them into your lines as soon as it can 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 upon parched corn, and we are badly in need of both rations and forage. I telegraphed to Lynchburg, directing several train-loads of rations to be sent on by rail from there, and when they arrive I should be glad to have the present wants of my men supplied from them."

At this remark all eyes turned toward [Union general Philip] Sheridan, for he had captured these trains with his cavalry the night before, near Appomattox Station. General Grant replied: "I should like to have our men sent within our lines as soon as possible. I will take steps at once to have your army supplied with rations, but I amsorry we have no forage for the animals. We have had to depend upon the country for our supply of forage. Of about how many men does your present force consist?"

"Indeed, I am not able to say," Lee answered after a slight pause. "My losses in killed and wounded have been exceedingly heavy, and, besides, there have been many stragglers and some deserters. All my reports and public papers [and private letters] had to be destroyed on the march, to prevent them from falling into the hands of your people. Many companies are entirely without officers, and I have not seen any returns for several days; so that I have no means of ascertaining our present strength."

General Grant had taken great pains to have a daily estimate made of the enemy's forces from all the data that could be obtained, and, judging it to be about 25,000 at this time, he said: "Suppose I sent over 25,000 rations, do you think that will be a sufficient supply?" "I think it will be ample, " remarked Lee, and added with considerable earnestness of manner, "and it will be a great relief, I assure you."

[After Grant and Lee signed the terms of surrender, they and their officers walked out to the porch.] Lee signaled to his orderly to bring up his horse, and while the animal was being bridled the general stood on the lowest step and gazed sadly in the direction of the valley beyond where his army lay—now an army of prisoners. He smote his hands together a number of times in an absent sort of a way; seemed not to see the group of Union officers in the yard who rose respectfully at his approach, and appeared unconscious of everything about him. All appreciated the sadness that overwhelmed him, and he had the personal sympathy of every one who beheld him at this supreme moment of trial. The approach of his horse seemed to recall him from his reverie, and he at once mounted. General Grant now stepped down from the porch, and, moving toward him, saluted him by raising his hat. He was followed in this act of courtesy by all our officers present; Lee raised his hat respectfully, and rode off to break the sad news to the brave fellows whom he had so long commanded.

General Grant and his staff then mounted and started for the headquarters camp, which, in the meantime, had been pitched near by. The news of the surrender had reached the Union lines, and the firing of salutes began at several points, but the general sent orders at once to have them stopped, and used these words in referring to the occurrence: "The war is over, the rebels are our countrymenagain, and the best sign of rejoicing after the victory will be to abstain from all demonstrations in the field."

[The following day, Lee and Grant met again to discuss minor details of the surrender. The two generals then returned to their respective armies to make sure that the surrender proceeded as planned. Grant and Lee then prepared to travel to Washington and Richmond to tell political leaders on both sides about the surrender.] The hour of noon . . . arrived, and General Grant . . . mounted his horse, and started with his staff for Washington. . . . Lee set out for Richmond, and it was felt by all that peace had at last dawned upon the land. The charges were now withdrawn from the guns, the camp-fires were left to smolder in their ashes, the flags were tenderly furled —those historic banners, battle-stained, bullet-riddled, many of them but remnants of their former selves, with scarcely enough left of them on which to imprint the names of the battles they had seen—and the Army of the Union and the Army of Northern Virginia turned their backs upon each other for the first time in four long, bloody years.

What happened next . . .

When other Confederate armies learned that Lee had surrendered, they laid their weapons down, too. All across the South, the tattered (torn and ragged) remains of various rebel military forces surrendered and returned to their homes to try and rebuild their lives. On April 18, Confederate general Joseph Johnston surrendered his Army of Tennessee to Union general William T. Sherman in Raleigh, North Carolina. Johnston's army was the last rebel force of any significant size left in the South, and his surrender made it clear that the Confederate nation no longer really existed. By May 26, all Confederate armies in the South had surrendered. Its soldiers scattered, returning to long-suffering friends and families. Upon returning home, they began the difficult process of rebuilding their lives out of the smoking ruins of the Confederacy.

Northern communities, meanwhile, recognized that Lee's surrender meant that the war was over for all practical purposes. Joyful celebrations erupted all across the North, as news of Grant's victory spread from big cities to the most remote homestead. Abolitionists expressed delight that slavery would finally be abolished from America, while Unionists sang and danced to celebrate the restoration of the United States. But most of all, people celebrated because Lee's surrender meant that the long years of violence and bloodshed were finally coming to an end.

A few days after Lee's surrender, however, Northern celebrations came to an abrupt end as one final act of violence shook the entire nation. On April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth (1838–1865) shot President Abraham Lincoln at a Washington theater, then escaped into the night. Lincoln died the next day. The assassination shocked the country and triggered an outpouring of grief and rage across the North.

Did you know . . .

  • • The meeting between Lee and Grant at Appomattox was delayed when they discovered that there was not any ink in the farmhouse in which they were meeting. Since the representatives of the two armies could not draw up any official terms of surrender without ink, officers on the staffs of both Lee and Grant looked through the building's cupboards and desks in hopes of finding some. After several minutes of unsuccessful searching, one of General Lee's officers finally stepped forward with a small supply of ink so that the terms could be drawn up.
  • • Of the fourteen bloodiest battles that took place in the American Civil War, ten of them were fought between the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and the Union Army of the Potomac. In each of these ten battles, at least seventeen thousand soldiers were killed or wounded.
  • • After the Civil War ended, Robert E. Lee became president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia. He served the college in that position until his death in 1870. After he died, the school administration formally changed the name of the school to Washington and Lee University in honor of the general.

For Further Reading

Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command. Boston: Little, Brown, 1969.

Dowdey, Clifford. Lee's Last Campaign: The Story of Lee and His Men against Grant. Boston: Little Brown, 1960. Reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.

Horn, John. The Petersburg Campaign: June 1864–April 1865. Conshohocken, PA: Combined Books, 1993.

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General Horace Porter

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