General Lee and General Grant salute each other following the negotiations. Image Source: Appomattox Court House, National Park Service, 2002, Archive.org.
On Sunday, April 9, 1865 — Palm Sunday — Confederate forces under the command of General Robert E. Lee fought their last battle of the Civil War at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. It was there that Lee — who was surrounded by Union forces under the command of General Ulysses S. Grant — finally decided he could no longer continue the fight.
After one final attempt to escape, Lee sent a white flag, indicating he wanted to meet with Grant. In the afternoon, they met at the home of Wilmer McLean. After a lengthy negotiation that lasted approximately two hours, Lee’s surrender was complete. As he left the house, Union officers gathered outside saluted him, as did General Grant as he left.
Although the war continued for a short time, and President Lincoln was assassinated a few days later, Lee’s Surrender at Appomattox Court House signaled the beginning of the final days of the Civil War.
The Eyewitness Account of George Forsyth and the Events of April 8–9, 1863, at Appomattox Court House
This account of Lee’s surrender was written by Colonel George Alexander Forsyth, the aide-de-camp to General Philip Sheridan. Forsyth’s account was published in Strange Stories of the Civil War by Robert Shackleton, which was published in 1907.
April 8 — Forsythe Prepares for Savage Fighting
When, on the night of the 8th of April, 1865, the cavalry corps of the Army of the Potomac reached the two or three little houses that made up the settlement at Appomattox Depot — the station on the South-side Railroad that connects Appomattox Court House with the traveling world — it must have been nearly or quite dark.
At about nine o’clock or half-past, while standing near the door of one of the houses, it occurred to me that it might be well to try and get a clearer idea of our immediate surroundings, as it was not impossible that we might have hot work here or near here before the next day fairly dawned upon us.
My “striker” had just left me with instructions to have my horse fed, groomed, and saddled before daylight. As he turned to go he paused and put this question: “Do you think, Colonel, that we’ll get General Lee’s army tomorrow?”
“I don’t know,” was my reply; “but we will have some savage fighting if we don’t.”
As the sturdy young soldier said “Goodnight, sir,” and walked away, I knew that if the enlisted men of our army could forecast the coming of the end so plainly, there was little hope of the escape of the Army of Northern Virginia.
Forsyth Views the Cavalry Headquarters
I walked up the road a short distance and looked carefully about me to take my bearings. It was a mild spring night, with a cloudy sky, and the soft mellow smell of earthiness in the atmosphere that not infrequently portends rain.
If rain came then it might retard the arrival of our infantry, which I knew General Sheridan was most anxious should reach us at the earliest possible moment. A short distance from where I stood was the encampment of our headquarters escort, with its orderlies, grooms, officers’ servants, and horses.
Just beyond it could be seen the dying campfires of a cavalry regiment, lying close to cavalry corps headquarters.
Forsyth Remembers the Battle of Appomattox Station
This regiment was in charge of between six and eight hundred prisoners, who had fallen into our hands just at dark, as Generals Custer and Devin, at the head of their respective cavalry commands, had charged into the station and captured four railway trains of commissariat supplies, which had been sent here to await the arrival of the Confederate army, together with twenty-six pieces of artillery.
For a few moments, the artillery had greatly surprised and astonished us, for its presence was entirely unexpected, and as it suddenly opened on the charging columns of cavalry it looked for a short time as though we might have all unwittingly fallen upon a division of infantry.
However, it turned out otherwise. Our cavalry, after the first recoil, boldly charged in among the batteries, and the gunners, being without adequate support, sensibly surrendered.
The whole affair was for us a most gratifying termination of a long day’s ride, as it must have proved later on a bitter disappointment to the weary and hungry Confederates pressing forward from Petersburg and Richmond in the vain hope of escape from the Federal troops, who were straining every nerve to overtake them and compel a surrender.
Cavalry Corps in Position to Force the Surrender of Lee’s Army
Tonight the cavalry corps was in their front and squarely across the road to Lynchburg, and it was reasonably certain, should our infantry get up in time on the morrow, that the almost ceaseless marching and fighting of the last ten days were to attain their legitimate result in the capitulation of General Lee’s army.
The Fate of the Southern Confederacy at Hand
As I stood there in the dark thinking over the work of the twelve preceding days, it was borne in upon me with startling emphasis that tomorrow’s sun would rise big with the fate of the Southern Confederacy.
April 9 — The Battle of Appomattox Court House Begins
Just before daylight on the morning of the 9th of April, I sat down to a cup of coffee, but had hardly begun to drink it when I heard the ominous sound of a scattering skirmish fire, apparently in the direction of Appomattox Court House.
Forsyth Rushes to Report to General Sheridan
Hastily swallowing what remained of the coffee, I reported to General Sheridan, who directed me to go to the front at once. Springing into the saddle, I galloped up the road, my heart being greatly lightened by a glimpse of two or three infantrymen standing near a campfire close by the depot — convincing proof that our hoped-for reinforcements were within supporting distance.
Smith’s Union Cavalry Under Attack
It was barely daylight as I sped along, but before I reached the cavalry brigade of Colonel C. H. Smith that held the main road between Appomattox Court-house and Lynchburg, a distance of about two miles northeast from Appomattox Depot, the enemy had advanced to the attack, and the battle had opened.
When ordered into position late the preceding night, Colonel Smith had felt his way in the dark as closely as possible to Appomattox Court House, and at or near midnight had halted on a ridge, on which he had thrown up a breastwork of rails. This he occupied by dismounting his brigade, and also with a section of horse-artillery, at the same time protecting both his flanks by a small mounted force.
Smith’s Confusion Leads to a Strong Defensive Position
As the enemy advanced to the attack in the dim light of early dawn he could not see the lead horses of our cavalry, which had been sent well to the rear, and was evidently at a loss to determine what was in his front.
The result was that after the first attack, he fell back to get his artillery in position, and to form a strong assaulting column against what must have seemed to him a line of infantry.
Union Reinforcements Arrive from Appomattox Court House
This was most fortunate for us, for by the time he again advanced in full force, and compelled the dismounted cavalry to slowly fall back by weight of numbers, our infantry was hurrying forward from Appomattox Depot (which place it had reached at four o’clock in the morning), and we had gained many precious minutes.
At this time most of our cavalry was fighting dismounted, stubbornly retiring.
Confederates Push Forward
But the Confederates at last realized that there was nothing but a brigade of dismounted cavalry and a few batteries of horse-artillery in their immediate front, and pushed forward grimly and determinedly, driving the dismounted troopers slowly ahead of them.
Forsyth Moves Into the Woods
I had gone to the left of the road, and was in a piece of woods with some of our cavalrymen (who by this time had been ordered to fall back to their horses and give place to our infantry, which was then coming up), when a couple of rounds of canister tore through the branches just over my head.
Forsyth Stumbles Into the Confederate Artillery
Riding back to the edge of the woods in the direction from which the shots came, I found myself within long pistol range of a section of a battery of light artillery.
It was in position near a country road that came out of another piece of woods about two hundred yards in its rear and was pouring a rapid fire into the woods from which I had just emerged.
Forsyth Duels with a Confederate Officer
As I sat on my horse quietly watching it from behind a rail fence, the lieutenant commanding the pieces saw me, and riding out for a hundred yards or more towards where I was, proceeded to cover me with his revolver.
We fired together — a miss on both sides.
The second shot was uncomfortably close, so far as I was concerned, but as I took deliberate aim for the third shot I became aware that in some way his pistol was disabled; for using both hands and all his strength I saw that he could not cock it.
I had him covered, and had he turned I think I should have fired. He did nothing of the sort. Apparently accepting his fate, he laid his revolver across the pommel of his saddle, fronted me quietly and coolly, and looked me steadily in the face.
The whole thing had been something in the nature of a duel, and I felt that to fire under the circumstances savored too much of murder.
Besides, I knew that at a word from him, the guns would have been trained on me where I sat.
He, too, seemed to appreciate the fact that it was an individual fight, and manfully and gallantly forbore to call for aid; so lowering and uncocking my pistol, I replaced it in my holster, and shook my fist at him, which action he cordially reciprocated, and then turning away, I rode back into the woods.
The Confederate Batteries Retreat
About this time the enemy’s artillery ceased firing, and I again rode rapidly to the edge of the woods, just in time to see the guns limber up and retire down the wood road from which they had come.
The lieutenant in command saw me and stopped. We simultaneously uncovered, waved our hats to each other, and bowed. I have always thought he was one of the bravest men I ever faced.
The Battle of Appomattox Court House Ends
I rode back again, passing through our infantry line, intending to go to the left and find the cavalry, which I knew would be on the flank somewhere.
Suddenly I became conscious that firing had ceased along the whole line.
Sheridan Sends for Forsyth
I had not ridden more than a hundred yards when I heard someone calling my name. Turning, I saw one of the headquarters aides, who came galloping up, stating that he had been hunting for me for the last fifteen minutes and that General Sheridan wished me to report to him at once. I followed him rapidly to the right on the wood path in the direction from which he had come.
As soon as I could get abreast of him I asked if he knew what the General wanted me for.
The Confederates Send a White Flag
Turning in his saddle, with his eyes fairly ablaze, he said, “Why, don’t you know? A white flag.”
All I could say was, “Really?”
He answered by a nod; and then we leaned towards each other and shook hands; but nothing else was said.
A few moments more and we were out of the woods in the open fields. I saw the long line of battle of the Fifth Army Corps halted, the men standing at rest, the standards being held butt on earth, and the flags floating out languidly on the spring breeze.
As we passed them I noticed that the officers had generally grouped themselves in front of the center of their regiments, sword in hand, and were conversing in low tones.
The men were leaning wearily on their rifles, in the position of parade rest. All were anxiously looking to the front, in the direction towards which the enemy’s line had withdrawn, for the Confederates had fallen back into a little swale or valley beyond Appomattox Court House, and were not then visible from this part of our line.
Forsyth Finds Sheridan
We soon came up to General Sheridan and his staff. They were dismounted, sitting on the grass by the side of a broad country road that led to the Court House. This was about one or two hundred yards distant, and, as we afterward found, consisted of the courthouse, a small tavern, and eight or ten houses, all situated on this same road or street.
Conversation was carried on in a low tone, and I was told of the blunder of one of the Confederate regiments in firing on the General and staff after the flag of truce had been accepted.
Lee’s Note to Grant, via Sheridan
I also heard that General Lee was then up at the little village awaiting the arrival of General Grant, to whom he had sent a note, through General Sheridan, requesting a meeting to arrange terms of surrender.
Colonel Newhall, of our headquarters staff, had been despatched in search of General Grant and might be expected up at almost any moment.
General Grant Arrives
It was, perhaps, something more than an hour and a half later, to the best of my recollection, that General Grant, accompanied by Colonel Newhall, and followed by his staff, came rapidly riding up to where we were standing by the side of the road, for we had all risen at his approach.
When within a few yards of us he drew rein, and halted in front of General Sheridan, acknowledged our salute, and then, leaning slightly forward in his saddle, said, in his usual quiet tone, “Good morning, Sheridan; how are you ?”
“First-rate, thank you, General,’ was the reply. “How are you?”
General Grant nodded in return, and said, “Is General Lee up there?” indicating the courthouse by a glance.
“Yes,” was the response, “he’s there.”
“Very well, then,” said General Grant. “Let’s go up.”
General Sheridan, together with a few selected officers of his staff, mounted, and joined General Grant and staff. Together they rode to Mr. McLean’s house, a plain two-story brick residence in the village, to which General Lee…was known to be awaiting General Grant’s arrival.
Forsyth Describes the McLean House
Dismounting at the gate, the whole party crossed the yard, and the senior officers present went up onto the porch which protected the front of the house. It extended nearly across the entire house and was railed in, except where five or six steps led up the center opposite the front door, which was flanked by two small wooden benches, placed close against the house on either side of the entrance.
The door opened into a hall that ran the entire length of the house, and on either side of it was a single room with a window in each end of it, and two doors, one at the front and one at the rear of each of the rooms, opening on the hall. The room to the left, as you entered, was the parlor, and it was in this room that General Lee was awaiting General Grant’s arrival.
As General Grant stepped onto the porch he was met by Colonel Babcock, of his staff, who had in the morning been sent forward with a message to General Lee. He had found him resting at the side of the road, and had accompanied him to Mr. McLean’s house.
Grant Enters the McLean House
General Grant went into the house accompanied by General Rawlins, his chief of staff; General Seth Williams, his adjutant-general; General Rufus Ingalls, his quartermaster general; and his two aides, General Horace Porter and Lieutenant-Colonel Babcock.
Grant Presents His Officers to General Lee
After a little time, General Sheridan, General M.R. Morgan, General Grant’s chief commissary; Lieutenant-Colonel Ely Parker, his military secretary; Lieutenant-Colonel T. S. Bowers, one of his assistant adjutants-general; and Captains Robert T. Lincoln and Adam Badeau, aides-de-camp, went into the house at General Grant’s express invitation…and they were…formally presented to General Lee.
After a lapse of a few more minutes quite a number of these officers, including General Sheridan, came out into the hall and onto the porch, leaving General Grant and General Lee, Generals Rawlins, Ingalls, Seth Williams, and Porter, and Lieutenant-Colonels Babcock, Ely Parker, and Bowers, together with Colonel Marshall, of General Lee’s staff, in the room, while the terms of the surrender were finally agreed upon and formally signed.
These were the only officers, therefore, who were actually present at the official surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia.
Babcock — “It’s All Settled.”
After quite a length of time, Colonel Babcock came to the door again, opened it, and glanced out. As he did so he placed his forage cap on one finger, twirled it around, and nodded to us all, as much as to say, “It’s all settled.”
Union Officers Gather at the McLean House
Then they, accompanied by General E.O.C. Ord, the commanding general of the Army of the James, who had just ridden up to the house, entered the house together, the hall door being partly closed again after them, leaving quite a number of us staff officers upon the porch.
While the conference between Generals Grant and Lee was still in progress, Generals Merritt and Custer, of the Cavalry Corps, and several of the infantry generals, together with the rest of General Sheridan’s staff officers, came into the yard, and some of them came up on the porch.
Colonel Babcock came out once more, and General Merritt went back to the room with him at his request; but most, if not all, of the infantry generals, left us and went back to their respective commands while the conference was still in progress and before it ended.
Traveller Patiently Waits for General Lee
Just to the right of the house, as we faced it on entering, stood a soldierly looking orderly in a tattered gray uniform, holding three horses — one a fairly well-bred-looking gray, in good heart, though thin in flesh, which, from the accoutrements, I concluded, belonged to General Lee: the others, a thoroughbred bay and a fairly good brown, were undoubtedly those of the staff-officer who had accompanied General Lee, and of the orderly himself.
He was evidently a sensible soldier, too, for as he held the bridles he baited the animals on the young grass, and they ate as though they needed all they had a chance to pick up.
Grant and Lee Negotiate for Two Hours
I cannot say exactly how long the conference between Generals Grant and Lee lasted, but after quite a while, certainly more than two hours, I became aware from the movement of chairs within that it was about to break up.
I had been sitting on the top step of the porch, writing in my field notebook, but I closed it at once, and stepping back on the porch leaned against the railing nearly opposite and to the left of the door, and expectantly waited.
General Lee Appears
As I did so the inner door slowly opened, and General Lee stood before me. As he paused for a few seconds, framed in by the doorway, ere he slowly and deliberately stepped out upon the porch, I took my first and last look at the great Confederate chieftain.
Forsyth’s Description of General Lee
This is what I saw: A finely formed man, apparently about sixty years of age, well above the average height, with a clear, ruddy complexion — just then suffused by a deep crimson flush, that rising from his neck overspread his face and even slightly tinged his broad forehead, which, bronzed where it had been exposed to the weather, was clear and beautifully white where it had been shielded by his hat — deep brown eyes, a firm but well -shaped Roman nose, abundant gray hair, silky and fine in texture, with a full gray beard and mustache, neatly trimmed and not over-long, but which, nevertheless, almost completely concealed his mouth.
A splendid uniform of Confederate gray cloth, that had evidently seen but little service, was closely buttoned about him and fitted him to perfection.
An exquisitely mounted sword, attached to a gold-embroidered Russia-leather belt, trailed loosely on the floor at his side, and in his right hand he carried a broad-brimmed, soft, gray felt hat, encircled by a golden cord, while in his left he held a pair of buckskin gauntlets.
Booted and spurred, still vigorous and erect, he stood bareheaded, looking out of the open doorway, sad-faced and weary: a soldier and a gentleman, bearing himself in defeat with an all-unconscious dignity that sat well upon him.
Union Officers Salute General Lee
The moment the open door revealed the Confederate commander, each officer present sprang to his feet, and as General Lee stepped out onto the porch, every hand was raised in military salute.
General Lee Returns the Salute
Placing his hat on his head, he mechanically but courteously returned it, and slowly crossed the porch to the head of the steps leading down to the yard, meanwhile keeping his eyes intently fixed in the direction of the little valley over beyond the Court House, in which his army lay.
General Lee Calls for Traveller
Here he paused, and slowly drew on his gauntlets, smiting his gloved hands into each other several times after doing so, evidently utterly oblivious of his surroundings. Then, apparently recalling his thoughts, he glanced deliberately right and left, and not seeing his horse, he called, in a hoarse, half-choked voice, “Orderly! Orderly!”
“Here, General, here,” was the quick response. The alert young soldier was holding the General’s horse near the side of the house. He had taken out the bit, slipped the bridle over the horse’s neck, and the wiry gray was eagerly grazing on the fresh young grass about him.
Descending the steps, the General passed to the left of the house and stood in front of his horse’s head while he was being bridled.
Lee Swings Himself Into the Saddle
As the orderly was buckling the throat latch, the General reached up and drew the forelock out from under the brow-band, parted and smoothed it, and then gently patted the gray charger’s forehead in an absent-minded way, as one who loves horses, but whose thoughts are far away, might all unwittingly do.
Then, as the orderly stepped aside, he caught up the bridle reins in his left hand, and seizing the pommel of the saddle with the same hand, he caught up the slack of the reins in his right hand, and placing it on the cantle he put his foot in the stirrup, and swung himself slowly and wearily, but nevertheless firmly, into the saddle (the old dragoon mount), letting his right hand rest for an instant or two on the pommel as he settled into his seat, and as he did so there broke unguardedly from his lips a long, low, deep sigh, almost a groan in its intensity, while the flush on his neck and face seemed, if possible, to take on a little deeper hue.
Colonel Marshall Joins General Lee
Shortly after General Lee passed down the steps he was followed by an erect, slightly built, soldierly-looking officer, in a neat but somewhat worn gray uniform, a man with an anxious and thoughtful face, wearing spectacles, who glanced neither to the right nor left, keeping his eyes straight before him. Notwithstanding this, I doubt if he missed anything within the range of his vision.
This officer…was Colonel Marshall, one of the Confederate adjutants-general, the member of General Lee’s staff whom he had selected to accompany him.
As soon as the Colonel had mounted, General Lee drew up his reins, and, with the Colonel riding on his left, and followed by the orderly, moved at a slow walk across the yard towards the gate.
General Grant Leaves the McLean House
Just as they started, General Grant came out of the house, crossed the porch, and passed down the steps into the yard.
Forsyth’s Description of General Grant
At this time he was nearly forty-two years of age, of middle height, not over-weighted with flesh, but, nevertheless, stockily and sturdily built, with light complexion, mild, gray-blue eyes, finely formed Grecian nose, an iron-willed mouth, brown hair, full brown beard with a tendency towards red rather than black, and in his manner and all his movements there was a strength of purpose, a personal poise, and a cool, quiet air of dignity, decision, and soldierly confidence that were very good to see.
On this occasion he wore a plain blue army blouse, with shoulder straps set with three silver stars equi -distant, designating his rank as Lieutenant-General commanding the armies of the United States; it was unbuttoned, showing a blue military vest, over which and under his blouse was buckled a belt, but he was without a sword.
His trousers were dark blue and tucked into topboots, which were without spurs, but heavily splashed with mud, for once he knew that General Lee was waiting for him at Appomattox Court House, he had ridden rapidly across country, over road and field and through woods, to meet him.
He wore a peculiar, stiff-brimmed, sugar-loaf-crowned, campaign hat of black felt, and his uniform was partly covered by a light-weight, dark blue, waterproof, semi-military cloak, with a full cape, unbuttoned and thrown back, showing the front of his uniform, for while the day had developed into warm, bright, and beautifully sunny weather, the early morning had been damp, slightly foggy, and presaged rain.
General Grant and General Lee Salute Each Other
As he reached the foot of the steps and started across the yard to the fence, where, inside the gate, the orderlies were holding his horse and those of several of his staff officers, General Lee, on his way to the gate, rode across his path.
Stopping suddenly, General Grant looked up, and both generals simultaneously raised their hands in military salute.
Grant Leaves the Place of Lee’s Surrender
After General Lee had passed, General Grant crossed the yard and sprang lightly and quickly into his saddle. He was riding his splendid bay horse Cincinnati, and it would have been difficult to find a firmer seat, a lighter hand, or a better rider in either army.
As he was about to go out of the gate he halted, turned his horse, and rode at a walk towards the porch of the house, where, among others, stood General Sheridan and myself. Stopping in front of the General, he said, “Sheridan, where will you make your headquarters tonight?”
“Here, or near here; right here in this yard, probably,” was the reply”
“Very well, then; I’ll know where to find you in case I wish to communicate. Good day.”
“Good day, General,” was the response, and with a military salute, General Grant turned and rode away.
As he rode forward and halted at the porch to make this inquiry, I had my wished-for opportunity, but my eyes sought his face in vain for any indication of what was passing in his mind.
Whatever may have been there, as Colonel Newhall has well written, “not a muscle of his face told tales on his thoughts,” and if he felt any elation, neither his voice, features, nor his eyes betrayed it. Once out of the gate, General Grant, followed by his staff, turned to the left and moved off at a rapid trot.
Lee Rides Off to Write His Farewell Order
General Lee continued on his way towards his army at a walk, to be received by his devoted troops with cheers and tears, and to sit down and pen a farewell order that, to this day, no old soldier of the Army of Northern Virginia can read without moistening eyes and swelling throat.
Grant Writes His Message to President Lincoln
General Grant, on his way to his field headquarters on this eventful Sunday evening, dismounted, sat quietly down by the roadside, and wrote a short and simple despatch, which a galloping aide bore at full speed to the nearest telegraph station.
The Beginning of the End of the Civil War
On its reception in the nation’s capital, this despatch was flashed over the wires to every hamlet in the country, causing every steeple in the North to rock to its foundation, and sending one tall, gaunt, sad-eyed, weary-hearted man in Washington to his knees, thanking God that he had lived to see the beginning of the end, and that he had at last been vouchsafed the assurance that he had led his people aright.