The siege was broken, but not the way Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee hoped. For eight long months, the Confederate Army of the Confederate States of America had held their capitol of Richmond, Virginia, and Petersburg to the north. But finally in early April 1865, supply lines that had been pinched were completely severed. If Confederates stayed any longer in Richmond, they would starve.
Lee’s strategy became a fluid thing, hoping to join forces with other units of the Confederate Army. But Lee’s men were battle worn, shabby, low on ammunition and starving.
Lee turned his troops toward Amelia Courthouse in Virginia, where supplies waited. They were disappointed to find no supplies waiting there. Lee sent his men out foraging and cost himself a day.
Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant knew how desperate Confederate troops were for supplies. He anticipated that they would turn toward Appomattox Station. He sent Brevet Maj. Gen. George Armstrong Custer, (later of Little Big Horn fame), to Appomattox Station to intercept and burn the supply trains that waited there.
As the Confederates began to converge, the Union Army anticipated their movements and met them en route. When their paths crossed, the Confederates attacked the Union troops. The battle went to the Union who captured nearly 7,700 troops and officers. Union Gen. Grant sent Lee a note urging him to surrender once and for all. Lee’s return note refused to surrender but did ask Grant what terms for surrender he had in mind.
The proud South could not accept the inevitable. They launched a new battle with many different facets in the surrounding countryside. Minor victories were short-lived.
At last, news began to reach Lee. The supplies at Appomattox were burned. There were far more Union troops in the area than Lee had ever anticipated. They were outnumbered. As information poured in, Lee reached the conclusion. “Then there is nothing left for me to do but to go and see General Grant and I would rather die a thousand deaths,” he commented.
All but one of his generals agreed that surrender was inevitable. Only Gen. Edward Alexander opposed the decision. He correctly predicted that if Lee surrendered to Grant, all the rest of the Confederate generals would follow suit.
But far to the west, the fall of Vicksburg on the Mississippi had already made surrender in the west inevitable.
Lee requested a suspension of fighting. Gen. Longstreet carried a flag of truce, made of a white dishtowel, to Gen. Custer, but bluster and threats prevailed. Longstreet urged Custer to honor the truce and informed him that Lee had already sent a messenger to Grant to arrange terms and place of their meeting.
Grant received the message with grace, instructing Lee to choose the place of the meeting. Lee dispatched his aide, Charles Marshall, to choose a suitable place. He decided on the courthouse in the small village of Appomattox Court House. Once chosen, the two generals agreed to a ceasefire. Grant and Lee proceeded with their armies toward the village.
Grant entered the town, but found the courthouse too austere a location for such a delicate event. Anticipating the extreme humiliation Lee and his men would feel, he chose to move the meeting to the comfortable private residence of Wilmer McLean. Ironically, McLean had fled Manassas, Virginia, to Appomattox Court House immediately after the very first battle of the Civil War, the Battle of Bull Run, to avoid the conflict.
Grant surprised Lee with the leniency of the terms. Confederate soldiers were made to surrender all large arms, but were allowed to keep their sidearms, such as pistols and swords, as well as their horses.
The documents were signed and the bloodiest war in American history, even to date in 2020, was over. Grant instantly ordered his men to feed and minister to the defeated soldiers.
As the Confederates turned their faces toward home, Union troops stood at attention, saluting their fallen countrymen.
Now, Appomattox Court House is a national museum. The scars of battle in the surrounding woods have healed or been hidden in the overgrowth. The slave cabin behind the McLean house is an apt symbol of the terrible conflict. The great evil of the “peculiar institution” of slavery is defeated. Peace reigns and freedom rules.
God bless America!