|Battle of Appomattox Court House|
|United States (Union)||Confederate States|
|Ulysses S. Grant||Robert E. Lee|
|Military Units in Battle|
|Army of the Potomac,
Army of the James
|Army of Northern Virginia|
|Casualties and Deaths|
|164||~500 killed and wounded|
|27,805 surrendered and paroled|
|Part of the American Civil War|
The Battle of Appomattox Court House was the final battle fought by the Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by General Robert E. Lee. It took place on April 9, 1865, making it one of the American Civil War’s last battles. The engagement resulted in a victory for the Union Army of Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, after which Lee’s forces surrendered. This was the effective end of the war in the state of Virginia.
The capital of the Confederate States of America at Richmond, Virginia, came under serious threat for the first time in June 1864, when Grant’s Federal Army of the Potomac came across the James River and laid siege to both that city and neighboring Petersburg for some months. For the Confederacy, Lee had decided that his only option was to evacuate Petersburg. However, before he could move his troops, the forces of the Union acted. On April 2, 1865, Grant’s forces made their breakthrough at Petersburg, severing supply lines to the Confederate troop and forcing them to mount a hurried overnight evacuation.
Lee moved his forces to Amelia Courthouse with the intention of resupplying and then attempting a link-up with the Army of Tennessee, commanded by General Joseph E. Johnston. In the event, Lee’s men were unable to find provisions at Amelia, and were forced to waste a day of time that should have been used for marching in foraging for food in the surrounding countryside. After moving west to Appomattox Station, they met up with a train carrying supplies – but on the way, almost a quarter of the retreating Confederate troops were cut off by Union forces, whose cavalry then cut through the Confederate lines and forced most of the soldiers into surrender. This delay allowed a force commanded by Major General Philip Sheridan to reach the station first and cut off Lee’s supply lines once again.
On April 7, despite his forces having failed to win two small-scale battles in the meantime, Grant sent a message to Lee telling him that he should surrender. Lee declined to submit to the demand, but nevertheless asked what terms Grant would want. The following day, three supply trains that had been waiting for Lee’s army were destroyed by Union cavalry in what became known as the Battle of Appomattox Station. Following these events, both the Army of the James and the Army of the Potomac converged on Appomattox itself. With no supplies left there, Lee hoped to obtain more from the rail connection at Lynchburg. His intention was to break the Union cavalry line quickly, before infantry reinforcements arrived. He sent a note to Grant, who decided that it meant Lee’s forces still intended to fight.
Although infantry belonging to Union forces was now approaching, only one unit was sufficiently close to give support to the cavalry. This single corps undertook a remarkable journey of around 30 miles in a mere 21 hours in order to join up with the cavalry. Sheridan took control of a ridge to Appomattox Court House’s southwest, placing three divisions of his cavalry along it. At dawn on April 9, these forces were attacked by the Confederate Second Corps, commanded by Major General John B. Gordon, forcing them back to their second line, which held sufficiently firm to delay the Confederate troops.
Gordon’s forces managed to reach the ridge, but their pleasure was short-lived as their higher viewpoint now allowed them to see two full Union Corps, the XXIV Corps straight ahead and the V Corps to the right. Lee decided to beat a retreat in the direction of Lynchburg, while the Union forces advanced on Gordon’s men. A colonel from Lee’s staff, upon asking for a situation report, was told bluntly by Gordon that he had “fought [his] corps to a frazzle” and that without large-scale support, he would be helpless. Lee, on being told what Gordon had said, finally accepted the bitter truth that surrender was inevitable. The bulk of his officers agreed that there was no other choice.
Lee, with three aides accompanying him, set out to meet Grant at eight o’clock in the morning. Grant received the letter Lee had sent ahead of him just before noon, and later said that the severe headache from which he had been suffering had melted away at that point. In his reply, Grant magnanimously allowed Lee to choose the location at which Grant would receive his surrender. The small village of Appomattox Court House was selected, and Lee chose a solid brick dwelling – which, coincidentally, was occupied by a man named Wilmer McLean, who had retired there in order to get away from the dangers of the war.
Although a certain amount of fighting continued for several hours after this point, correspondence between the two commanders then ensured the enacting of a ceasefire. Lee, immaculately turned out, made quite a contrast in appearance with Grant, who was clad in the muddy and tarnished uniform he had been wearing in the field. Distressed at the fact that this should be their first meeting since a brief encounter during the Mexican-American War of the 1840s, Grant took some time to reach the point. In the end, it was Lee who raised the central issue of surrender. Grant’s terms allowed Lee’s defeated men to go home, rather than be treated as traitors, and to keep their animals and a supply of food. Lee suggested that this act would help with national reconciliation.
Although the surrender of Lee’s army constituted a signal victory for the Union, there were still more than 170,000 men still actively fighting in Confederate colors. However, the news of the surrender of such a prominent and storied general had a profound effect on his fellow commanders, and one by one they began to follow suit. As the spring of 1865 wore on, more and more Confederate armies laid down their arms. A few further skirmishes did take place during this time, but on June 23, 1865, Brigadier General Stand Watie’s surrender marked the end of any serious military activity by the Confederacy. Lee himself remained grateful all his life for Grant’s generosity regarding surrender terms, and refused to allow anyone to speak ill of him.