April 7, 1865 (Friday)
“If the thing is pressed,” wrote General Philip Sheridan to General Grant the night previous, “I think that Lee will surrender.”
Grant forwarded the message via telegram to President Lincoln, still at City Point. His reply, which came on the morning of this date read simply: “Let the thing be pressed.”
In the meanwhile, General Lee’s broken army lumbered west, many crossing to the north side of the Appomattox River, seemingly moving away from Lynchburg, their intended destination. Rations, though short, had been found, and the remaining slaves still accompanying the army were set to preparing the meal for the officers.
E. Porter Alexander was with General Lee, both stopped along the north bank of the river. Alexander had been confused at the crossing – they had just crossed to the south side not three days before, and even yesterday the road to Lynchburg was open. But today and across the expanse on the southern side of the river, both generals espied the Federal cavalry moving now to block the road. Crossing the High Bridge, as it was called, to the northern side was a matter of survival and nothing more.
Lee reasoned that once they reached the headwaters of the river, near Appomattox Court House, some thirty miles west, they could turn south, routing around the Federal advance. Alexander was uncertain it could be done, and Lee had his dispatch two battalions of cavalry to hold the point. As for the bridge, once the Army of Northern Virginia had crossed, it was to be set ablaze.
A small detachment of Rebel cavalry had been left in Farmville, the town below the crossing, to hold back their Federal counterparts. As they retreated, however, they failed to fall back upon the bridge, and Alexander, in charge of the rear guard, had to fire the span, leaving the wayward cavaliers to their fate.
The bridge burning, Alexander, the artillery, and a division or so of infantry marched on, catching up as they could with Lee’s main body. Some trouble was had from the Federal cavalry who managed to cross the Appomattox at a ford, but even they could not slow the retreat.
Along this march, the troops spoke now, and perhaps for the first time, of surrender. They implored Alexander to let them “shoot up this ammunition first if we got to surrender!” He made no promises, but heard similar sentiments from others.
“It was very plain that the prospect of being surrendered had suddenly become a topic of general conversation,” wrote Alexander after the war. “Indeed, no man who looked at our situation on a map, or who understood the geography of the country, could fail to see that General Grant now had us completely in a trap. He had stood upon the hills at Farmville that morning and watched the last of our column go in. We were now in a sort of jug shaped peninsula between the James River and the Appomattox, and there was but one outlet, the neck of the jug at Appomattox Court House, and to that Grant had the shortest road!”
Alexander and his men weren’t the only ones who understood this. Former Virginia Governor and Confederate General Henry Wise met up with Lee.
Wise, who helmed a division in Lee’s army, implored his commander: “my poor brave men are lying on yonder hill more dead than alive. For more than a week they have been fighting day and night, without food, and, by God sir, they shall not move another step until somebody gives them something to eat.”
To this, Lee assured him that they would soon have something to eat. When Wise was more or less pacified, Lee asked him for his thoughts on their situation.
“Situation?” spat Wise, “There is no situation. Nothing remains, General Lee, but to put your poor men on your poor mules and send them home in time for the spring ploughing. This army is hopelessly whipped, and is fast becoming demoralized. These men have already endured more than I believed flesh and blood could stand, and I say to you, sir, emphatically, that to prolong the struggle is murder, and the blood of ‘every man who is killed from this time forth is on your head, General Lee.”
“Oh, General,” Lee replied with anger, “do not talk so wildly! My burdens are heavy enough! What would the country think of me, if I did what you suggest?”
“Country be damned,” snapped Wise. “There is no country. There has been no country, General, for a year or more. You are the country to these men. They have fought for you. They have shivered through a long winter for you. Without pay or clothes or care of any sort, their devotion to you and faith in you have been the only things that have held this army together. If you demand the sacrifice, there are still left thousands of us who will die for you. You know the game is desperate beyond redemption, and that, if you so announce, no man, or government, or people, will gainsay your decision. That is why I repeat that the blood of any man killed hereafter is on your head.”
Lee, by the word of Wise’s son, made no reply.
But to this sentiment there was a reply. General Grant, late in the afternoon, sent a message to Lee under flag of truce.
The result of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia in this struggle. I feel that it is so, and regard it as my duty to shift from myself the responsibility of any further effusion of blood, by asking of you the surrender of that portion of the Confederate States army known as the Army of Northern Virginia.
And Lee, in reply to Wise as much as to Grant, asked for terms.
I have received your note of this day. Though not entertaining the opinion you express on the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia, I reciprocate your desire to avoid useless effusion of blood, and therefore before considering your proposition, ask the terms you will offer on condition of its surrender.
Grant’s response would follow come morning.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 46, Part 3, p610, 619; Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant; Memoirs by Philip Sheridan; Fighting for the Confederacy by E. Porter Alexander; The End of an Era by John S. Wise; out of the Storm by Noah Trudeau. [↩]