Civil War - Appomattox Courthouse

Years ago, circa 1986, I was working at a theater in Roanoke, Virginia. A friend had come to visit for a long weekend. It was Fall. Just around peak leaf-peeping time. My friend asked if we could take a day trip to some place called Appomattox Courthouse. “Sure!” I replied and quickly followed with, “What is an Appomattox Courthouse?” Thus began my education and fascination with the American Civil War. 

At that time I was under the impression that this was where the Civil War ended. As I discovered through more recent research, it’s actually the beginning of the end of a war that began April 12, 1861 at Fort Sumter South Carolina.  By the time the battle reached Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia, it was April 9, 1865. 

Appomattox Courthouse Grounds (2001)

Four years; those were four very long and very bloody years. The battle at Appomattox was 56 days before the official end of the war, which took place on May 26, 1865 when General Simon Bolivar Buckner surrendered the Army of the Trans-Mississippi (an act that was finally agreed to on June 2, 1865).  While I don’t have statistics readily available up to the date of the Appomattox campaign, I think it’s very important to have a feel for the carnage that occurred throughout the war. (NOTE: The numbers for this war are not agreed upon by all outlets posting statistics. Most of the discrepancy, I am sure, is due to incomplete and destroyed records, especially on the Confederate side, and the simple fact that things get lost.)

  • Length of war: Four years 
  •  Estimated Number of Enlisted: Union – 2,672,341 / Confederate – 880,000 
  • Estimated Number of Casualties: Union – 642,427 / Confederate – 483,026 
  • Estimated number of war dead who were never identified: 40%+
  • Percentage of the American population that perished in the war: 2.5% (If 2.5% of Americans died today it would be about 7 million people . . . 7 MILLION...)
  • Estimated Number of horses killed at the Battle of Gettysburg: 3,000

Appomattox Courthouse Cemetery (2001)

Knowing these statistics helps me understand the weight on the minds of the Generals heading to Appomattox that first week of April in 1865.  On April 1st, the Confederates were defeated at Five Forks and that prompted Lee to abandon the Petersburg Richmond siege lines. Lee then decided to move his army west in hopes of joining General Johnston in North Carolina. On April 6th Lee’s army received another blow when they were cornered along the banks of Sailor’s Creek, and many of his troops were annihilated.

The major confederate losses prompted General U.S. Grant, on April 7th, to get a note through the lines to General Lee essentially telling him that the jig was up and it was time to bring out the white flag. Lee wouldn’t give. There was a bit more fight in him and he upped and moved his army to Appomattox. On April 8th there was another noted exchange between the generals. In this exchange Lee stated that he would not surrender his Army to an unknown fate, but he would be interested in hearing the terms that Grant would offer.

Appomattox Courthouse Canon (2001)

On April 9th, Confederates under the command of John Gordon were able to drive back the Union by blocking the road near the village, but it did not change the fact that 125,000 Union solders were surrounding Lee’s Army which had now dwindled to 25,000 troops (give or take). Lee was cornered.

In addition to this strategic malady he must have been exhausted. It was time to end this thing. It was time to be done. It was just time. Grant sent another note on the morning of the 9th giving Lee the opening he needed. The two of them met at the home of Wilmer McLean in Appomattox Courthouse. (Oddly, McClean had moved to Appomattox Courthouse after the war played out on his doorstep in Manassas and he decided a change of scenery was in order.)

McLean House (2001)

The Generals met in a front sitting room. Lee donned his finest, including his shiny sword and polished boots. Grant came in off of the battlefield looking rather disheveled. Grant opened with “You may not remember me, but I remember you from the little war in Mexico.” I don’t think Lee really cared for the small talk. He was there as the loser. He was the one giving up and I’m going to guess he wanted it to be quick and merciful.

Sitting Room (2001)

After some more small talk they got to the nitty-gritty of the terms. What Lee may not have known is that Grant had had a little chat with President Lincoln at some point prior. It was pretty clear that the Confederates were done and they discussed how it might play out. Old Abe, in the gracefulness that was his character said, and I paraphrase, “When it comes time just let them get back to their farms and their shops.” What he was saying was no prisoners, no restraints, let them go home. That was what Grant offered under the terms of surrender. The terms weren’t very long. There wasn’t much to it. If you were an enlisted guy you had to lay down your arms. If you were an officer you could keep your side arm and your horse if you owned them prior to the war. You were not allowed to take up arms against the government, but you were allowed to go home.

Printing press used for printing out furloughs for confederate troops (2001)

Upon the signing of the document and the formal good byes Grant made another kind gesture to his former enemy. He sent rations to the Confederate troops who had been without food for many days. There are accounts of boys in blue and gray “exchanging compliments, pipes, tobacco, knives and souvenirs.” (Knives?)

When I first went to Appomattox, it was a quiet Fall day. The chill in the air laid a cape over the quiet historic site. Walking around the grounds it felt like the soldiers were there, quietly watching over their comrades who had fallen. There was a point, in front of a fence and at the end of a road, where you could listen to a recording describing the events of those days. It was stunning and unforgettable. 

I believe the account was from Joshua Chamberlain who was responsible for the final parade and the formal surrender. To paraphrase his account, and to try to give a picture, it was essentially this:

View toward the valley (2001)

In front of him, and down into the valley, were approximately 25,000 confederate troops. To his left, leading down the road, were Union Soldiers who were instructed to salute. "It was not a 'present arms,' however, not a 'present,' which then as now was the highest possible honor to be paid even to a president. It was the 'carry arms,' as it was then known, with musket held by the right hand and perpendicular to the shoulder. I may best describe it as a marching salute in review.”

Lane to his left (2001)

As the first of the confederates approached, a bugle was blown and the entire Union line came to attention. The Confederate General Gordon, at the head of his line, had been approaching with head bowed low. At the sound of “that machine like snap of arms” General Gordon “assumed the finest attitude of a soldier.” The two men, Gordon & Chamberlain, saluted as was fitting to do. 

The Union line, understanding the occasion, stood quietly still. The only detectable movements were a few faces twitching with emotion. While to the Unions right, one by one, the Confederate Army that remained approached the union line, laid down their arms, and turned around for the long walk home. 

Appomattox Courthouse Cemetery (2001)

When I think about that day, and read the accounts, it makes me cry. Four years of bloody battle and they end it with a quiet salute. If there was respect at the end why couldn't it have been there at the beginning? Is it something that war does to a person? Is it the way of the times? While I look back at history and think that, yes, the union had to stay together and slavery absolutely needed to end. I also ask myself if war was the only road to peace. 

NOTE: I am not an historian and I do not play an historian on TV. For accurate historic data on any of these sites please go to your public library for more information.