On April 9, 1865, Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in the small village of Appomattox Court House. While the official end of the American Civil War would come later, Lee’s surrender marked the effective end to a war that had raged for four years and claimed more than 620,000 lives.
The decision to surrender came after the Battle of Appomattox Court House. Lee’s men were outnumbered and starving, so, when Lee’s generals advised him that surrender was their best and only option, he agreed. He wrote to Grant, indicating his desire to surrender. Grant responded immediately and offered Lee the chance to pick the surrender site. Lee’s aide scouted locations and settled on the home of Wilmer McLean, in the village of Appomattox Court House.
In the parlor of the McLean house, Lee waited for Grant’s arrival. Grant, when he arrived, found it hard to talk about the surrender. The two made small talk instead, talking about the last time they had seen each other, decades before, during the Mexican-American War. It was Lee who directed their attention back to the surrender.
The terms were generous. Lee’s men would not be imprisoned or prosecuted for treason, but all Confederate military equipment was to be handed over. Confederate officers could keep their horses and personal belongings. The Soldiers, too, could keep their horses and mules, on Lee’s request. He told Grant that, in the Confederate Army, Soldiers owned their horses and they would need them once they made their way back home, for farming. Lee also mentioned his men had been without food for days, so Grant sent 25,000 food rations to the starving and defeated men.
Afterwards, as Lee rode away, Union troops started cheering, but Grant ordered them to stop immediately. He said, “The Confederates were now our countrymen, and we did not want to exult over their downfall.”
Today, Appomattox Court House Historical Park preserves part of the battlefield and the village of Appomattox Court House. The park includes original and reconstructed buildings that made up the town more than 150 years ago. In 1935, the National Park Service took control of the site from the War Department. Five years later, Congress designated the site a national historical monument. In 1941, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, work on the project stalled until 1947. Finally, in 1949 the National Park Service opened the site to the public for the first time and, in a ceremony held on April 16, 1950, descendants of Lee and Grant cut the ceremonial ribbon at a dedication ceremony attended by approximately 20,000.
6 THINGS I LEARNED AT APPOMATTOX
1. Appomattox Courthouse is in the town of Appomattox Court House.
See the distinction? There’s a common misconception that the surrender happened in the courthouse of Appomattox, but it didn’t. The courthouse was locked, which is why they ended up in Wilmer McLean’s parlor. Turns out, it was common practice for the county seat to be named for the county – in this case Appomattox – with “Court House” added to the end. Previously, the town had been called Clover Hill but, once the courthouse and jail were built, it was changed to Appomattox Court House.
2. The Civil War started in Wilmer McLean’s front yard and ended in his parlor.
The First Battle of Bull Run, in Manassas, took place on McLean’s farm, the Yorkshire Plantation. The Union Army fired at his house, which Brig. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard was using as a headquarters. McLean was too old to fight and did not enjoy the whole war in his front yard thing, so he moved his family to Appomattox Court House.
Two years later, the Civil War ended in his parlor with Lee’s surrender. After the surrender, Union Soldiers started taking things from the house – tables, chairs, furnishings, even a doll that belonged to one of McLean’s daughters. They gave him some money, but not much. McLean smuggled and sold sugar during the war, but all his money was Confederate which was useless after the war. He defaulted on the loan repayment for the house and it was sold at public auction in 1869. It changed hands a few times and was eventually dismantled with the intention of moving it to Washington, D.C., where it could be reconstructed and opened to paying visitors. That never happened and the house sat dismantled for fifty years before the National Park Service rebuilt it.
3. A Native American recorded the terms of surrender.
His name was Ely S. Parker, a Seneca Indian from New York who had earned Grant’s friendship after the Mexican-American War. According to legend, after learning Parker’s background, Lee said, “it is good to have one real American here.” Parker eventually became a brigadier general.
4. Confederate Soldiers received parole passes to help them get home.
Surrender terms declared Confederate troops would not be imprisoned or prosecuted following their surrender. Still, Lee worried his men would face harassment as they made their way home from Appomattox. The solution was the parole pass and 30,000 blank copies were printed in the town’s tavern. The name of each Soldier was written on the pass, which identified them as a “Paroled Prisoner of the Army of Northern Virginia,” and said the bearer had “permission to go to his home and remain there undisturbed.”
5. Lee’s surrender didn’t end the war, not officially.
Other armies were still in the field when Lee surrendered and while the Battle of Appomattox Court House was the last major battle of the Civil War, the final battle was fought at Palmetto Ranch May 11-12, in Texas and the surrender of forces continued for the next few month or so. Gen. Stand Watie surrendered the last large organized Confederate force at the end of June, in Choctaw County, Oklahoma, and the CSS Shenandoah, a Confederate commerce raider, didn’t surrender until November.
6. The surrender was negotiated in letters, not through a treaty.
As the ranger in this video explains, “American wars tend to end in treaties, but its largest war can’t; that would be diplomatic recognition.” Grant instead sat down to draft a letter of surrender terms for Lee to review. He accepted the terms with his own letter, then wrote “General Order #9,” which served as a farewell to his men.
“After four years of arduous service marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources,” Lee wrote. “With an increasing admiration of your constancy and devotion to your country, and a grateful remembrance of your kind and generous considerations for myself, I bid you all an affectionate farewell.”
Appomattox Court House National Historical Park is open daily 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Admission is free. Living history interpreters and NPS rangers provide presentations on various aspects of Appomattox and the Civil War throughout the day, and the website recommends visitors allocate at least two hours for their visit.