April 9, 1865 (Sunday – Morning and early afternoon)
The night which passed at Appomattox Court House was chilling and cold, lonely and hopeless. General Lee had crafted one last plan to break through the enemy lines before him, which he thought to be only cavalry. For this, he had assembled 9,000 veterans under the helm of General John Gordon, and ordered them up at 1am. Few slept – few could. And their campfire dotted the hills above and around the small village. This was their last bivouac, populated by men soon to fight their last battle.
Silence did not long accompany this dark. Cannon fire and small arms fire shook and rattled the air. General Bryan Grimes, commanding a division in Gordon’s Corps, had shifted his skirmishers forward, finding well the Federal barricades, thrown up hastily the evening before. There, Grimes waited for Gordon.
Shortly before dawn, both Gordon and Fitz Lee, commanding the Rebel cavalry, arrived along Grimes’ lines. The three met to discuss the operation.
“General Gordon was of the opinion that the troops in our front were cavalry, and that General Fitz Lee should attack,” wrote Grimes after the war. “Fitz Lee thought they were infantry and that General Gordon should attack. They discussed the matter so long that I became impatient, and said it was somebody’s duty to attack, and that immediately, and I felt satisfied that they could be driven from the cross roads occupied by them, which was the route it was desirable our wagon train should pursue.”
Grimes volunteered to attack, and Gordon spat, “Well, drive them off.”
“I cannot do it with my division along, but require assistance.”
“You can take the two other divisions of the Corps,” came Gordon’s reply. Fitz Lee would join as well, circling around the posted Federals to fall upon the cross roads from the rear.
With that, Grimes rode to his left, meeting with General James Walker, commanding Early’s old division. He explained his plan for assault, pointing out various points where he believed they could effect a break through. And then, with Walker on his left, he placed Bushrod Johnson’s division on his right, giving him instructions to fall upon the flank of the enemy.
Light was now forming shapes and edges around them. They could see better the lines of Federals before them. In thee crossroads, Grimes could now see, these shapes and edges grew into a battery of artillery, and dim traces became solid showing threats upon his own flank. Better placing his men, he waited now for Fitz Lee, whose cavalry was making their own road to the Federal rear.
The four pieces of artillery flashed in the cold haze. “I remember well the appearance of the shell,” wrote Grimes, “and how directly they came toward me, exploding and completely enveloping me in smoke. I then gave the signal to advance.”
The scene that then played out was no less than an echo rippling and reverberating across four years of battlefields. With Fitz Lee striking with Grimes’ attack, the breastworks constructed near the cross roads were taken almost immediately. The enemy’s artillery was also now their own – a scene so familiar to these veterans, who rounded up large numbers of prisoners. There they were again, “driving the enemy in confusion for three-quarters of a mile beyond the range of hills covered with oak undergrowth.”
Grimes halted his men, reforming them to protect his right, and sent word to General Gordon – “the road to Lynchburg was now open.” He would hold, but needed further orders. For Grimes, who had taken the duty of attack upon himself, this was the moment of triumph for the Confederate army. This would be the legend of how General Lee escaped the Butcher, how, though all seemed dark and all seemed lost, they had met success and victory and there would be laurels enough for them all.
But General Grimes was not the only Rebel on the battlefield that day. His troops were not the only men in gray, killing and dying on this crisp April morning. There was also General Gordon, and the coming light formed for him blurred lines turning cavalry easily brushed aside into columns of infantry march swiftly toward the cross roads. It was as he had thought, but perhaps his men had secured for them not just the cross roads, but time. Longstreet would soon be up, Gordon believed, if only he could slow this advancing column.
Gordon turned first to his sharpshooters and then artillery. They were to fire upon this new mass with everything upon them. “It was held at bay by his shrapnel, grape, and canister.” Good. If only Longstreet, whose corps had camped a handful of miles above Appomattox, could be seen cresting the horizon behind Gordon.
But Longstreet’s men were held up by their own wagons, blocking the line of march. For reasons ungivable, it had taken four hours to come on, and it was 5am when Longstreet finally made his move. And by that time, Gordon had been long-expecting him. But across Longstreet’s front was Sheridan and soon the Army of the James, and soon after, the Fifth Corps. He was pushed back, and to his rear two additional corps from the Army of the Potomac were waiting. Longstreet was cut off and nearly surrounded.
When Gordon received word of Longstreet’s fate, he could see more Federal cavalry riding to fill the empty spaces between his own and Longstreet’s corps. For this, he detached a brigade and fed it into the open. Quickly, Gordon was realizing that he had little left.
A messenger came from General Lee, asking for a report of the work thus far. “Tell General Lee that my command has been fought to a frazzle, and unless Longstreet can unite in the movement, or prevent these forces from coming upon my rear, I cannot long go forward.”
The messenger rode back to Lee with Gordon’s word. With a pause, Lee spoke, more to himself than to his aide. “There is nothing left me but to go and see General Grant, and I had rather die a thousand deaths.”
Lee met quickly with James Longstreet and William Mahone, the two highest ranking officers around him. They were in agreement, now was the time. The Army of Northern Virginia would have to capitulate.
General Grant had breakfasted twenty some miles away, receiving Lee’s letter of the day previous, proposing a 10am meeting to talk of a general peace rather than a surrender. Grant knew that Lee proposed this just in case he could not break out, but when Grant replied, he knew little of the battle to his front.
General: Your note of yesterday is received. As I have no authority to treat on the subject of peace the meeting proposed for 10 A.M. today could lead to no good. I will state, however, General, that I am equally anxious for peace with yourself, and the whole North entertain the same feeling. The terms upon which peace can be had are well understood. By the South laying down their arms they will hasten the most desirable event, save thousands of human lives, and hundreds of million of property not yet destroyed. Sincerely hoping that all our difficulties may be settled without the loss of another life, I subscribe myself,
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
This was the letter Lee received under a flag of truce as he made his way from Longstreet’s lines to those of the enemy. Hoping to meet with Grant, he was instead met by an officer on General Andrew Humphreys’ Second Corps staff. Lee read the letter in disgust and with some annoyance said to the officer, a colonel, “Well, write a letter to General Grant and ask him to meet me to deal with the question of the surrender of my army.”
This short message was jotted down and sent to the rear, and the battle, much to Lee’s amazement, was resumed. Lee took cover behind Longstreet’s lines, but soon the firing was ceased again. And soon all along the line, from Grimes’ division to Longstreet’s Corps, there was a silence. General Meade, after conferring with Sheridan, had allowed a one hour truce. Meade also suggested that Lee send to Grant a second, more detailed message. This he did, reiterating the request for an interview “to discuss the terms of the surrender of this army.”
Just before this lull, Fitz Lee understood well what would soon take place. And so he folded his honor, tucking it neatly away in his saddlebag, and spoke to his staff. “I don’t wish to be included in the surrender,” he said. “Come, let’s go. General Lee no longer requires my poor services.”
And as he uttered those words, a bullet pierced the breast of his comrade, Charles Minnigerode, his aide-de-camp. The young Charles fell from his horse, striken and bleeding, but not yet dead. In pain and knowing he begged Fitz Lee to “take your pistol and kill me,” but Lee could do no such thing. He turned toward Lynchburg and left his friend dying behind him.
Minnigerode lingered, and though suffering, scrawled a short note to home:
My Darling Mother
I am dying but I have fallen where I expected to fall. Our cause is defeated but I do not live to see the end of it. I suffer agonies, would to God I could die camly [sic] but – In all things I must see His will be done. My gratest [sic] regret in leaving this world is to leave you and the rest of the dear ones. The younger children will be more comforting to you than I have been but – none of them will… love you more
Through this lull rode General Grant, who knew nothing of the cease fire or the final offer to surrender until he was several miles away. On the road he was met by a staff officer with Lee’s message. From before the dawn, Grant had been suffering what must have been a migrane – he described it “a sick headache.” He wrote later that “the instant I saw the contents of the note I was cured.”
In reply, he wrote:
“Your note of this date is but this moment (11.50 A.M.) received, in consequence of my having passed from the Richmond and Lynchburg road to the Farmville and Lynchburg road. I am at this writing about four miles west of Walker’s Church and will push forward to the front for the purpose of meeting you. Notice sent to me on this road where you wish the interview to take place will meet me.”
As Grant and Lee exchanged letters, the officers of the warring armies met across the lines. They mingled, talking most of old time and home. Few discussed the war and the matter at hand. One came upon a seriously wounded Rebel, who begged him to kill him and put him out of his misery. The Federal refused. “No I won’t Johnny Reb,” he said, “you might get well.” He had found Charles Minnigerode, abandoned by Fitz Lee. The Federal was right. Charles would suffer – for days he would endure pain like no other – but in the end, he survived.
General Lee received Grant’s message a little before 1pm, delivered by Col. Orville Babcock of Grant’s staff. Lee asked one of his own staff, Col. Charles Marshall, to find for them a place where they could meet, and he rode into the town.
“We struck up the hill towards Appomattox Court House,” recalled Col. Marshall. “There was a man named McLean who used to live on the first battle-field of Manassas, at a house about a mile from Manassas Junction. He didn’t like the war, and having seen the first battle of Manassas, he thought he would get away where there wouldn’t be any more fighting so he moved down to Appomattox Court House. General Lee told me to go forward and find a house where he could meet General Grant, and of all people, whom should I meet but McLean. I rode up to him and said, ‘Can you show me a house where General Lee and General Grant can meet together.’ He took me into a house that was all dilapidated and that had no furniture in it. I told him it wouldn’t do. Then he said, ‘Maybe my house will do!’ He lived in a very comfortable house, and I told him I thought that would suit.”
McLean, now part of the legend, had lived upon the battlefield of Manassas, where he and his family witnessed the first major bloodshed of the war. After the second battle in 1862, he moved with his family to the small village of Appomattox, promising them that it would be a place “where the sound of battle would never reach them.”
Marshall sent an orderly back to General Lee and Col. Babcock, who soon arrived. “Colonel Babcock told his orderly that he was to meet General Grant, who was coming on the road, and turn him in when he came along,” Marshall continued. “So General Lee, Babcock and myself sat down in McLean’s parlour and talked in the most friendly and affable way.”
General Grant was led to Sheridan’s lines, where they were arrayed for battle, facing the enemy. “They were very much excited,” Grant remembered, “and expressed their view that this was all a ruse employed to enable the Confederates to get away. They said they believed that Johnston was marching up from North Carolina now, and Lee was moving to join him; and they would whip the rebels where they now were in five minutes if I would only let them go in.”
But these were not Grant’s own thoughts. He had, he said, “no doubt about the good faith of Lee.” He walked up the steps onto McLean’s porch, and found Col. Marshall waiting. Perhaps turning to give himself one last look of the scene which had unfolded around him, Grant recalled:
“The head of his column was occupying a hill, on a portion of which was an apple orchard, beyond a little valley which separated it from that on the crest of which Sheridan’s forces were drawn up in line of battle to the south.”
The conclusion of this telling will post at 3pm Eastern – the time of the surrender itself.1
- Sources: Reminiscences of the Civil War by John Brown Gordon; “After the Surrender at Appomattox” by I.G. Bradwell, appearing in the Confederate Veteran, Vol. 17; “The Last at Appomattox” by Henry A. London, appearing in Record of North Carolina Troops; An Aide-de-Camp of Lee by Charles Marshall; Memoirs by General Grant; From Manassas to Appomattox by James Longstreet. [↩]