General Lee’s evacuation of Richmond, Virginia in early April of 1865 was the last gasp of a Confederate army’s four-year struggle to aid the states they represented in leaving the Union. From Richmond, Lee’s forces headed west in a dual mission of foraging for food and reaching Appomattox Station, where a supply train awaited.
Harassed by Union troops along the way, they approached their goal on the 8th, only to find that Union forces under General Sheridan had already arrived and captured the Confederate supplies. Lee thought to head for Lynchburg, where another train awaited, but as fighting and maneuvering began the next morning, it became abundantly clear that most of the fight had left Lee’s men.
The Confederate General had already made a quiet inquiry into terms of surrender the day before, but now Lee’s generals agreed that surrender was the only option left, and that was the option they chose.
At 4pm on April 9, 1865, the document of surrender was completed at the home of Wilmer McLean in the small village of Appomattox Court House, Virginia and the Civil War, excepting some sporadic fighting over the next couple of months, was over.
Ulysses Grant’s terms were quite gracious when compared with other treaties signed at conflict’s end. Lee was allowed to choose the place of surrender. Confederate officers and men were pardoned on the spot, and the officers were allowed to keep their sidearms. The vanquished were fed from Union supplies and, when they left, were allowed to take their horses (after all, it was springtime, and the animals would be sorely needed for planting).
When Lee departed, some of Grant’s men began a makeshift celebration, which Grant quickly halted. “The Rebels are our countrymen again,” he said. Celebrating their defeat seemed inappropriate at this time. Lee remembered always Grant’s generosity and, in the years after Appomattox, never had an unkind thing to say about his long-time rival in the field.
Nearly 28,000 Confederate soldiers surrendered that day, leaving a mighty big pile of guns. Those guns had killed at least some of the more than 110,000 Union soldiers that died during four years of fighting. Another 90,000+ had died fighting for the Gray. In all, the “War of Northern Aggression” (as it is still sometimes called in the south) ended the lives of more than 600,000 people.
There were still dark times ahead (President Lincoln would be dead from an assassin’s bullet within a week). The harsh reality of not only rebuilding a nation, but rejoining a people ripped apart by war and ideology, would not completed quickly. In fact, some of the rebuilding continues even today.