April 8, 1865 (Saturday)
The night previous a number of Confederate generals met to discuss the situation, the highest ranking among them, General William Pendleton. With neither Lee nor Longstreet within earshot, they came to the agreement that surrender was swiftly approaching. It was inevitable, they concluded, wishing now to discuss this with Lee. But which of their number, they questioned, might confront the commanding general? They asked first to speak with Longstreet, Lee’s second.
“In the forenoon,” wrote Longstreet of this encounter, “General Pendleton came to me and reported the proceedings of the self-constituted council of war of the night before, and stated that he had bene requested to make the report and ask to have me bear it to General Lee, in the name of the members of the council. Much surprised, I turned and asked if he did not know that the Articles of War provided that officers or soldiers who asked commanding officers to surrender should be shot, and said, –
“If General Lee doesn’t know when to surrender until I tell him, he will never know.”
According to Pendleton (through E. Porter Alexander), Longstreet not only refused, but also boasted that his own corps was “still able to whip four times their numbers, and as long as that was so he should never suggest a surrender.”
Pendleton then, with no other recourse, went to Lee himself. This account was recalled by General Armistead Lindsay Long, who was apparently present, two decades after the war.
General Pendleton approached General Lee who he found lying upon the ground. After explaining to Lee the conclusions of the impromptu convention of generals, Lee was to have said, “Oh no, I trust it has not come to that.” He also added, “General, we have yet too many bold men to think of laying down our arms. The enemy do not fight with spirit, while our boys still do. Besides, if I were to say a word to the Federal commander he would regard it as such a confession of weakness as to make it the condition of demanding unconditional surrender – a proposal to which I will never listen.
Lee then, according to Long (who stated that he was quoting Pendleton) waxed about the larger picture: “I have never believed we could, against the gigantic combination for our subjugation, make good, in the long run, our independence, unless foreign powers should, directly or indirectly, assist us…. But such considerations really make with me no difference. We had, I was satisfied, sacred principles to maintain, and rights to defend, for which we were in duty bound to do our best, even if we perished in the endeavor.”
These poetic words, told Long by Pendleton long after the war, claimed to show “the soul of he man. Where his conscience dictated and his judgment decided, there his heart was.”
However, at the time, Pendleton may have told a different story. As recorded by Porter Alexander in the 1880s, “It had evidently been very coldly received. He said that General Lee had answered him that there were too many men there with arms in their hands to think of laying them down.”
Alexander concluded that “General Lee took no one into his confidence as to his intentions, or as to his correspondence with General Grant; preferring, as his hand became the harder to play, to play it more and more alone.”
Also the day previous, General Grant had written to Lee of surrender, and Lee had replied, asking for terms. Grant received the communication on the morning of this date, replying soon after. Lee received Grant’s answer in the afternoon.
“Your note of last evening in reply to mine of the same date, asking the conditions on which I will accept the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, is just received. In reply I would say that, peace being my great desire, there is but one condition I would insist upon, – namely, that the men and officers surrendered shall be disqualified for taking up arms against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged. I will meet you, or will designate officers to meet any officers you may name for the same purpose, at any point agreeable to you, for the purpose of arranging definitely the terms upon which the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia will be received.”
General Grant, in his own memoirs, made little mention of this exchange. He provided copies of his and Lee’s correspondence, but gave almost no commentary, allowing them to stand on their own. However, he related a story from the morning of this date:
“Lee’s army was rapidly crumbling. Many of his soldiers had enlisted from that part of the State where they now were, and were continually dropping out of the ranks and going to their homes. I know that I occupied a hotel almost destitute of furniture at Farmville, which had probably been used as a Confederate hospital. The next morning when I came out I found a Confederate colonel there, who reported to me and said that he was the proprietor of that house, and that he was a colonel of a regiment that had been raised in that neighborhood. He said that when he came along past home, he found that he was the only man of the regiment remaining with Lee’s army, so he just dropped out, and now wanted to surrender himself. I told him to stay there and he would not be molested. That was one regiment which had been eliminated from Lee’s force by this crumbling process.”
General Lee believed that he had one last chance to break away from the Federals. Thus far, this day’s retreat had been easier. His men were suffering for lack of supplies, but there were, he knew, supplies waiting for them at Appomattox Court House, less than a day’s march away. The enemy columns had played not at all upon his flanks, and if he could beat them to Appomattox, they could push on to the Staunton River, crossing it and burning the bridge behind, then march south to finally link with Joe Johnston.
But the road to Appomattox was shorter for Grant than for Lee. This, of course, fell upon Philip Sheridan, commanding the mass of Federal cavalry on Lee’s left flank. At dawn, he had sent his troopers toward Appomattox, a scout reporting that four trains of cars were loaded with supplies and waiting for Lee’s men. Sheridan had a mind to allow the train to rest at Appomattox, but to sever the track to the west, so it could not escape.
This was accomplished with swiftness by George Armstrong Custer’s command, which had the advance. “These regiments set off at a gallop,” penned Sheridan in his memoirs, “and in short order broke up the railroad enough to prevent the escape of the trains, Custer meanwhile taking possession of the station, but none too soon, for almost at the moment he did so the advance-guard of Lee’s army appeared, bent on securing the trains.”
In his report, General Custer described: “The train was found to be guarded by about two divisions of infantry, in addition to over thirty pieces of artillery, all under command of Major-General Walker. Most of the enemy’s guard were placed in position and then fire concentrated upon the road over which it was necessary for me to advance. The enemy succeeded in repulsing nearly all our attacks, until nearly 9 o’clock at night, when by a general advance along my line he was forced from his position and compelled to abandon to our hands twenty-four pieces of artillery, all his trains, several battle-flags, and a large number of prisoners. Our loss was slight. Our advance reached Appomattox Court-House that night and charged into the camp of the rebel army.”
While Sheridan’s men were riding toward Appomattox, General Lee had been handed Grant’s reply. That it was not an unconditional surrender, and that the possibility of exchange was on the table must have been surprising to Lee. Discussing it with nobody, Lee sat by the side of the road and wrote:
I received, at a late hour, your note of to-day. In mine of yesterday I did not intend to propose the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, but to ask the terms of your proposition. To be frank, I do not think the emergency has arisen to call for the surrender of this army; but as the restoration of peace should be the sole object of all, I desired to know whether your proposals would lead to that end. I cannot, therefore, meet you with a view to the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia; but as far as your proposal may affect the Confederate States forces under my command, and tend to the restoration of peace, I should be pleased to meet you at ten A.M. to-morrow on the old stage-road to Richmond, between the picket-lines of the two armies.
The message was handed to a staff officer who rode with it to Grant’s headquarters, twenty or so miles northwest. He would receive it the following morning.
That night, Lee rode to within two miles of Appomattox Court House, and now heard the booming cannons fighting back Sheridan’s strikes. These were before him, and he now knew that the Federals were again barring his way. He shifted his cavalry from rear guard to front, and at midnight gathered to him his most trusted officers.
Across the dark land just a few miles to the west was the bulk of Sheridan’s cavalry, now encamped at the depot. Lee knew well of these, but had no way of knowing that not far south was General Edward Ord’s Army of the James, which had taken the lead before the Army of the Potomac. They were not encamped, but marching, drawing closer through the night as Lee’s own army rested.
The council, the last Lee would call, found Lee with Longstreet, Fitz Lee, Pendleton, and John Gordon assembled. The rest would not be long, as Lee ordered the army to march again at 1am. Longstreet was to hurry his men to Appomattox Court House, hold the village, and allow safe passage for the rest of the army and its supplies. But General Gordon had a suspicion that there was not simply cavalry before them, but infantry as well. He named Ord’s army, but Lee could not believe such a story.
In the end, Lee devised his last plan for battle. Fitz Lee’s cavalry, along with Gordon’s infantry, and a few batteries of artillery, would attempt to hack their way through Sheridan’s lines. Longstreet’s corps would then be up for support. In all, they could muster 9,000 for this fight, and would throw themselves knowingly against Sheridan’s 15,000.
But if they could break the line, break Sheridan’s hold before them, they would again be in the lead. A strong rear guard could hold them, and force of will would drive them to Lynchburg and to Johnston.
As the meeting adjourned, Gordon sent a staff officer to ask Lee if there were any specific instructions for where he should halt after breaking through, where his men might encamp the next night.
“Yes,” spoke Lee in reply, “tell General Gordon that I should be glad for him to halt just beyond the Tennessee line.”1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 46, Part 1, p1132, 1136-1137; Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant; Memoirs by Philip Sheridan; From Manassas to Appomattox by James Longstreet; Memoirs of Robert E. Lee by Armistead Lindsay Long; Reminiscences of the Civil War by John Brown Gordon; Fighting for the Confederacy by E. Porter Alexander; Out of the Storm by Noah Trudeau. [↩]