Surrender at Appomattox: Lessons learned we need today

Published 9:50 am Monday, April 10, 2017

by Bob Holt

Most Americans know the Civil War ended in 1865. Most Virginians know that it essentially ended at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. History buffs know the date was April 9, 1865, exactly 152 years ago today. The Civil War had a devastating effect on the young United States of America and accounted for 620,000 deaths and over a million casualties.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, after being defeated in Petersburg, had escaped to the west hoping to rendezvous with Gen. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee operating in North Carolina.

The Union forces cut off Lee’s retreat, and he was surrounded on three sides.  Realizing his enemy had larger forces and was much better supplied, Lee concluded surrender was the appropriate action to take. At 8 a.m. on April 9, he sent a message to Union commanding General U.S. Grant asking for a meeting to discuss the terms of surrender. 

Gen. Grant allowed Gen. Lee to select the place for the meeting, and the home of Wilbur McLean in Appomattox Court House was chosen. Ironically McLean, a wholesale grocer and retired officer in the Virginia Militia, was involved in the first battle of the Civil War near Manassas. His home there served as the Confederate headquarters, and he soon moved his family to Appomattox to escape the war.

Gen. Lee arrived at 1 p.m. dressed in his best uniform with polished boots; Gen. Grant, being farther away, arrived at 1:30 p.m. dressed in a mud-spattered uniform of a private with only shoulder straps designating his rank. The two men spoke cordially of their earlier meeting during the Mexican-American War. Lee initiated the conversation regarding the terms of surrender and asked Grant to put them in writing, and a handwritten document was prepared.

Lee was not certain what to expect. Would he be arrested? Would he be imprisoned for treason? Would his officers and men suffer the same fate?  Historians report that Gen. Grant and President Lincoln had met two weeks earlier on the belief that the war would soon end, and Lincoln wanted the country to reconcile as quickly and simply as possible.

The terms of surrender were generous, indeed. All officers and men would be paroled and allowed to return to their homes if they agreed not to take up arms against the United States government.  Confederate arms, artillery, and other military equipment would be turned over to Union forces. Solders could keep their privately-owned horses and officers could keep their sidearms. Lee indicated to Grant that his men lacked food and had been sustained only on parched corn for several days.

Grant send food to Lee’s army. Lee told Grant that these terms “would have a happy effect” on his army. As Lee was riding off after the meeting, Gen. Grant, standing on the porch steps, raised his hat in tribute to Gen. Lee who did the same to Grant. Grant’s men began to cheer but he stopped them saying “the Confederates are our countrymen, and we do not want to exalt over their downfall.”

It is in the simplicity of this historic and significant moment in U.S. history that I find so remarkable.  Here two men, representing forces who had numerous bloody conflicts over four years, were able to sit as gentlemen for an hour and a half and end the conflict in a conciliatory manner.

There were no lawyers, no news cameras, no reporters, no press conferences, no Congressional investigations, no first and second reading of documents; just two men agreeing to end a devastating conflict based on President Lincoln’s desire to forgive and unite the country. Later, Gen. Grant visited with the Confederate troops, and he and Gen. Lee sat on the McLean porch together and spoke with generals of both armies.

As further evident of this remarkable reconciliation, a formal surrender ceremony was held on April 12 that year in which the 28,000 Confederate soldiers filed in front of the line of Union soldiers who saluted them as the Confederates stacked arms. Confederate General Joshua Gordon returned the salute on behalf of his men. Gen. Joshua Chamberlain commanded the Union soldiers for that ceremony.

Sadly today, our federal government is broken. It seems that politicians spend the bulk of their time trying to find “dirt” on their colleagues on the other side of the isles. They love to go on television to put out the most negative and vile information they have supposedly discovered. The facts usually do not matter; just the mere suggestion of wrong doing is enough to raise doubt in the minds of the electorate. The philosophy seems to be if destructive information is broadcast often and long enough, the damage has been done whether true or not.

Perhaps, it may be time for old-fashioned compromise, talking to each other, seeking solutions, and not trying to become a television icon while attempting to serve those who elected the politicians. We can only hope!

ROBERT N. “BOB” HOLT a Franklin native, is a retired professor of business management and real estate at Southwestern Community College in Sylva, N.C. He holds bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral studies degrees from Virginia Tech, and was a member of the university’s Corps of Cadets. His e-mail address is