After Union victories at Petersburg and Five Forks, Gen. Robert E. Lee abandoned Petersburg and Richmond and headed west to Appomattox Station, where a supply train awaited him. From there he hoped to move south to join with Gen. Joseph E. Johnston's army in North Carolina.
On April 8, Union cavalry under Brig. Gen. George A. Custer captured and burned 3 supply trains waiting for Lee's army at Appomattox Station. Now both the Army of the Potomac and the Army of the James were converging on Appomattox.
With his supplies at Appomattox destroyed, Lee now looked to the railway at Lynchburg, where more supplies awaited him. The Union army was closing in on Lee, but all that lay between him and Lynchburg was the Union cavalry. Lee hoped to break through the cavalry before Union infantry arrived. His hopes restored, he sent a note to Grant saying that he did not wish to surrender his army just yet but was willing to discuss how Grant's terms would affect the Confederacy.
Grant, with a throbbing headache, stated that "it looks as if Lee still means to fight." The Union infantry was close, but the only unit near enough to support Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan's cavalry was the XXIV Corps of the Army of the James. This corps traveled 30 miles in 21 hours to reach the cavalry. Maj. Gen. Edward O. C. Ord, commander of the Army of the James, arrived with the XXIV Corps around 4:00 A.M. with the V Corps close behind. Sheridan deployed 3 divisions of cavalry along a low ridge to the southwest of Appomattox Court House.
At dawn on April 9, the II Corps under Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon attacked Sheridan's cavalry and quickly forced back the first line. The Confederate cavalry under Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee moved around the Union flank. The next line, held by Brig. Gen. Ranald S. Mackenzie and Brig. Gen. George Crook, fell back. Gordon's troops charged through the Union lines and took the ridge. As they reached the crest of the ridge they saw the entire Union XXIV Corps in line of battle with the V Corps to their right. Fitz Lee's cavalry saw the Union force and immediately withdrew and rode off towards Lynchburg. Ord's troops began advancing against Gordon's corps while the Union II Corps began moving against Lt. Gen. James Longstreet's corps to the northeast. Soon Longstreet and Gordon would be fighting back to back. Lee finally stated "…there is nothing left, but to go and see General Grant, and I had rather die a thousand deaths".
Many of Lee's officers, including Longstreet, agreed that surrendering the army was the only option left. The only notable officer opposed to surrender was Lee's chief of artillery, Col. Edward Porter Alexander, who prophetically stated that if Lee surrenders then "every other [Confederate] army will follow suit".
The following letters exchanged by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Gen. Robert E. Lee give the terms under which Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia and practically brought to a close the Civil War:
From U.S. Grant To R.E. Lee
Appomattox Court-House, Virginia April 9, 1865. General: In accordance with the substance of my letter to you of the 8th instant, I propose to receive the surrender of the army of Northern Virginia on the following terms, to wit: Rolls of all the officers and men to be made in duplicate, one copy to be given to an officer to be designated by me, the other to be retained by such officer or officers as you may designate. The officers to give their individual paroles not to take up arms against the government of the United States until properly exchanged; and each company or regimental commander to sign a like parole for the men of their commands. The arms, artillery, and public property to be parked and stacked, and turned over to the officers appointed by me to receive them. This will not embrace the side-arms of the officers nor their private horses or baggage. This done, each officer and man will be allowed to return to his home, not to be disturbed by United States authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside. U.S. Grant, Lieutenant-General. General R. E. Lee.
From R.E. Lee To U.S. Grant
Head-Quarters, Army of Northern Virginia April 9, 1865. General: I received your letter of this date containing the terms of the surrender of the army of Northern Virginia, as proposed by you. As they are substantially the same as those expressed in your letter of the 8th instant, they are accepted. I will proceed to designate the proper officers to carry the stipulations into effect. R. E. Lee, General. Lieutenant-General U.S. Grant
At 8:00 A.M., Lee rode out to meet Grant, accompanied by 3 of his aides. With gunshots still being heard on Gordon's front and Union skirmishers still advancing on Longstreet's front, Lee received a message from Grant. After several hours of correspondence between Grant and Lee, a cease-fire was enacted and Grant received Lee's request to discuss surrender terms. Lee's aid, Col. Charles Marshall, was sent to find a location for Grant and Lee to meet. Marshall selected the home of Wilmer McLean, ironically the same man who was forced to lend his home to Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard at the First Battle of Bull Run, the first major battle of the war.
Dressed in an immaculate uniform, Lee waited for Grant to arrive. Grant, whose headache had suddenly disappeared when he received Lee's note, arrived in a dirty private's uniform with only his shoulder straps showing his rank. Suddenly overcome with sadness, Grant found it hard to get to the point of the meeting and instead the two generals briefly discussed a previous encounter during the Mexican War. Lee brought the attention back to the issue at hand, and Grant offered the same generous terms he had before—that the officers and men of Lee's army were to surrender and be paroled, and all arms, with the exception of officers' swords as well as the private horses of all the men, were to be gathered as captured property. After writing down the terms, both generals signed the document of surrender.
Lee, after all was completed and before taking his leave, remarked that his army was in a very bad condition for want of food, and that they were without forage; that his men had been living for some days on parched corn exclusively, and that Lee would have to ask Grant for rations and forage Grant told him that he would give him food. He asked for how many men he wanted rations , and Lee told him that he didn't know how many men he now had. Grant authorized Lee to send his commisary and quartermaster to Appomattox Station, 2 or 3 miles away, and they could collect 25,000 rations out of the trains, containing tons of rations,that were there. This was one of the last true "gentleman like" gestures of the war.
The papers were signed, at which time Lee left for his headquarters in the court house. As he passed his men with tears streaming down his face, he said, "Men, we have fought through the war together. I have done the best that I could for you.Go home now. If you make good citizens as you have made good soldiers, you will do well. I shall always be proud of you. Good-bye and God bless you all." He turned and dissappeared in his tent.
The surrender terms Grant wrote for Lee were generous. Grant would not take any prisoners, but simply secure the paroles of officers and men not to take up arms "until properly exchanged"; for although the principal Confederate army had been vanquished, the war was not yet over. Other Confederate troops under other commanders remained in the field. Officers were permitted to retain their sidearms, and officers and men could keep their horses and their personal effects. Everyone would be "allowed to return to their homes, not to be disturbed by United States authority so long as they observe their paroles..."
As Lee rode away, the Union soldiers began to cheer. Grant ordered them to stop. He said "The Confederates are now our prisoners, and we do not want to exault over their downfall. The war is over, they are our countrymen again". Lee's men lined the road to his camp. As he approached, his men began to cheer, as he passed by, those who could speak said good-bye, those who could not just stood silent and watched.
On April 10, Lee gave his farewell address to his army. The same day a 6-man commission gathered to discuss a formal ceremony of surrender, even though no Confederate officer wished to go through with such an event. Brig. Gen. Joshua L. Chamberlain was the Union officer selected to lead the ceremony. As Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon passed, followed by the famous Stonewall Brigade, Chamberlain gave the order to salute. Gordon reared his horse and facing Chamberlain touched his sword to his toe returning the salute. Chamberlain said "It was honor answering honor."
The surrender started the unification of the country.