Appomattox Court House
April 9, 1865, will forever remain an important date in the history of the United States. In a small and obscure town in Virginia, two men would meet. The outcome would not only spell the end of a horrible war, but would help set the course for the healing of a nation.
And provide valuable lessons for our day.
Let's learn about the surrender of General Lee to General Grant at Appomattox Court House.
**Before continuing, I wish to make one point clear. I am no confederate apologist – I am 100% pro-Union and pro-Liberty. That being said, I would be doing a disservice to the purposes of this blog to put slants in history simply to favor the current political thought. I must put forward the truth to the best of my abilities.
A House Divided
For the first century of its existence, the United States suffered from a kind of multiple personality complex on the subject of slavery.
For many it was an evil, not at all at home in a land of Liberty. For others, it was an acceptable way of life and business. During this time, this was a topic kept largely in a pot ready to boil over. In the 1850s this pot couldn't be kept from boiling over any longer.
There were heated arguments over letting slavery spread to new states and, if so, which ones were to be slave states and which free.
Between 1854 and 1859, the topic came to violence in the territory of Kansas. During this time, the territory was called "Bleeding Kansas."
Following the tensions in Kansas, a man named John Brown led a raid on a United States armory (place for storing weapons). The goal was to take guns and ammunition to aid slaves to rise up against their masters. The raid failed, but slave owners were now feeling a bit nervous as to what was coming.
The pot exploded in 1860 when Abraham Lincoln was elected President.
Lincoln in 1860
Most of the southern states decided they wanted out, so their governments voted to leave the United States to form the Confederate States of America.
Could these states leave the Union? Some said sure, others no way. But all discussion ended on April 12, 1861, when the militia of South Carolina attacked the federal fort of Fort Sumter.
The matter was no longer simply a topic of conversation in the front parlor or debated in the halls of Congress.
A “great civil war” was on.
Rebel roll call
The civil war would be the nastiest conflict in American history up to that time, lasting four years and costing at least 600,000 lives. There are many reasons why the war lasted as long as it did, and why the Union won in the end. For purposes of this lesson, we'll develop some tunnel vision and focus on a couple of parts.
The first is the Army of Northern Virginia, the chief army of the Confederate. They spent most of the war squaring off with the Army of the Potomac, the Union's strongest army. This army managed to hold off an opponent twice their size for four years.
This was, no doubt, partly to the fighting spirit of its soldiers, but a good deal of the credit must be given to its commander, General Robert E. Lee – one of the best (some might say the best) general of the Civil War on any side.
Think what you will about the cause he fought for; some points need pointing out about the man himself:
He was the first (and perhaps only) cadet at West Point to make it entirely through his schooling without a single demerit (markdown for breaking the rules).
He was not in favor of succession. President Lincoln offered him a command but, after a long night of thinking things over, decided the honorable thing to do is support his home state of Virginia. If Virginia left the Union, he needed to lend his full support.
He did inherit slaves from his parents. According to his son, he freed them but did not go through all the legal formalities. Sadly for historians, this cannot be proven one way or another.
**Historical correction: When one speaks of the confederate flag, one usually imagines the “stars and bars.”
This is, in fact, the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. The actual confederate flag looked more like the flag of the United States.
A dynamic duo
In the world of sports, it is often said that a particular person won the game – even though such claims are usually impossible to prove. But for purposes of this lesson, we'll follow such logic by picking two generals who we might (for the time at least) say won the war.
One was General Ulysses S. Grant,
And William Tecumseh Sherman.
These two men were not only soldiers together on the same side but also the best of friends. General Sherman would say it best this way:
“Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now we stand by each other.”
Let's learn more about them.
Ulysses S. Grant
There is no doubt, but that General Grant was a tough, hard-hitting commander on the field. His nickname "no surrender Grant" was well earned. He started coming to the President's attention as he led his men down the Mississippi River and into the south – winning victories as he went along.
Drawing depicting Union boats going down the Mississippi.
But he is a coin with two sides. After this same tough as nails commander took the capital city of Jackson and found out the population was starving, he released provisions from his own army to help feed them.
Often, people aren't all one thing.
William Tecumseh Sherman
General Sherman served under Grant but later commanded an army through Georgia, in what has been called "Sherman's march" or "the march to the sea." To demonstrate to the confederates the war was lost, he marched from Atlanta to the sea, destroying everything in his way.
Talk about tough.
But he, too, had another side.
Later, when the town of Columbia, South Carolina was burning down, this steel-hard general cried like a baby – he loved this town.
This dynamic duo was winning victories, much to the relief of Lincoln. So in March of 1864, General Grant was placed in charge of the whole army.
Now, it was his turn to come up against General Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia.
Closing the trap
It wouldn't take Grant long to learn that Lee's reputation was well earned. But unlike others, he kept hitting the southern army hard and kept hitting one battle right after another.
The Wilderness campaign
Spotsylvania Court House
The Battle at North Anna
Siege of Petersburg
Lee's army was getting worn down, so he notified the Confederate President he could no longer defend the capital city of Richmond. In desperation, the government approved Lee's earlier request to bring blacks into the army. To Lee, this was too little, too late.
He managed to break his army out of Petersburg in an attempt to connect with others. He had prepared for such a thing and had arranged to have supplies stored at different places along his route. But Union cavalry (horse soldiers) kept reaching them first and stopped him from getting them.
The situation was desperate; his troops were hungry, low in supplies, deserting, and had no real hope things would get better.
It was time to surrender.
The day came at long last
This decision was by no means an easy one for Lee. In addition to the sting of humiliation by admitting defeat, he knew full well that the fate of those who failed in rebelling against their government was always unpleasant – usually ending in death. Why should “no surrender Grant” treat them any different?
Look at it from General Grant's point of view. He was the victor; he had defeated the great General Lee and his army. He was, as they say, large and in charge. The natural response would be to humiliate or gloat over his enemy.
But this wasn't what both he and the President wanted.
Consider then how incredible the treatment of the southern soldiers was.
For openers, Grant gave the honor of picking the place to discuss terms with his defeated enemy. Lee selected a house in the nearby town of Appomattox Courthouse, and a time was agreed on.
**Historical irony note: The house where the surrender took place was owned by a man who before lived where the first battle of the war took place. After that, he moved his family and became the place where the fighting would, mostly, end.
Lee went with the expectation of being executed, so he went dressed up in his best and only had one other officer with him.
He arrived well before Grant. When both men were there, they sat down in the parlor. Grant, trying to break the ice, spoke a while about their serving together in the war with Mexico. Finally Lee, in total suspense, asked to get on with things.
The terms were very generous:
After giving up their weapons, the men were free to go, no executions, no punishment.
Men were allowed to take their horses home to help on the farm.
Grant sent food to Lee's starving men.
These were incredible terms given, as I said, the usual fate of rebels. To add to it, he told his men there was to be no celebration or gloating over a defeated foe. Lee would never forget this, and for the rest of his life, would not permit anyone to speak badly about Grant in his presence.
The war would go on, but it wasn't too long before others followed this example and gave up. The events of this day went a long way to heal a wounded nation and reach Lincoln's vision.
“... that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." (The Gettysburg Address)
“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.” (Lincoln's second inaugural address)
But this day also reaches out to us in our own day of conflicts. It remains a shiny reminder of the power of forgiveness. That even bitter enemies can – if they choose to – come together and forget past grievances.
A timeless lesson.
The Red Badge of Courage
This Stephen Crane book is a classic. The main character, a very young private named Henry Fleming, begins preparing to go into battle for the first time. He remembers the excitement he had when he had joined the Union army. During his first combat engagement his unit retreats and he, in panic, runs away from the others.
He goes through a period of observing all the mayhem of war and then decides to rejoin his unit regardless of the shame he may face. Fortunately for him, his mates see a wound he received on his head (from another Union soldier, not by a bullet) and assumed he had was wounded in battle – no shame. He ended up the standard-bearer in the next fight – the flag holder was considered a great honor.
Lincoln An Illustrated Biography (by Philip B Kuhnhardt )
An excellent biography of Abraham Lincoln. Most of the pages are historic photos with explanations or excerpts from his life by Lincoln or those who knew him. This is a great way to get to know Lincoln the man, the man who let the Union through war and directed the policy for peace.
(1926) A classic silent film by Buster Keaton, based on an actual event. At the beginning of the war, Union sympathizers attempt to steal a train, named The General, from the south. But the train engineer is determined to stop them.
Gone With the Wind
(1939) An excellent movie that takes place during and then after the Civil War. It does an excellent job of portraying southern life during these eventful times.
(1993) A classic Civil War movie depicting this very significant battle. Great care was taken to show how the battle unfolded and the psychology behind the different soldiers, and why they were fighting this war.
On the web
Surrender at Appomattox 150th Anniversary (US Civil War)
This is a video of a recreation of the famous surrender 150 years after the fact.
Appomattox Court House: The Beginning of the End
A highlight of the surrender and the events leading up to it.
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