Conceptualizing the Civil War’s end, even during the opening months of 1865, was nearly impossible: who could imagine Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendering himself and his men to the custody of the Union army? How many members of the Confederate government would be taken prisoner and be tried for treason and any number of other crimes for defying the United States federal government? What would come from an Abraham Lincoln presidency that was not entirely consumed with prosecuting the war? And perhaps the most troubling question of all: how, after all the fratricidal blood shed and destruction wrought against one another, could the Confederate states be readmitted and the country continue to exist? On April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, when General Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, the contours of a post-war America were beginning to be defined—and for the Confederates, it appeared, with Lee’s surrender, that the future would be one of subjugation to the northern states.
With Grant’s 120,000 soldiers near Petersburg and prepared to take on Lee, the Union commander had full confidence that he could “end the business here”—even despite the rebel commander’s well-established reputation for working miracles with inferior numbers.[i] Plagued by desertions, Lee had little chance to work the miracles of yore, and as time passed in the trenches of Petersburg, he came to understand that abandoning the lines would be a necessity.[ii] By early April, Grant and Lee’s men had exchanged shots with Lee losing more men than Grant each time, but April 2 brought a more fundamental shift in the fighting: “with more élan and power” than the Union army had previously shown, it advanced on the rebel lines—weaker than they had previously been, with its men “weary, hungry, [and] shorn of more than one-fifth of its strength” after the two weeks of fighting preceding the assault.[iii] At several points of the rebel lines came breaches, and those breaches were followed by retreats to defensive positions only long enough to fall further back after nightfall.[iv] Lee knew that not only Petersburg but Richmond must have been relinquished to the federals, and he sent word to that effect to Confederate President Jefferson Davis whom received the message while attending a Sunday service at St. Paul’s Church in Richmond.[v] His fellow parishioners saw his face go pale, and a sense of dread, then panic, swept the city.[vi] The once-impenetrable rebel capital was in disarray as its citizens found any transportation possible to leave the city and put distance between themselves and the Union army. As mobs took over the city and fires broke out—to a further extent than when Union soldiers set fire to Atlanta or Columbia—Confederate government officials took “ramshackle trains” to the new, temporary capital of Danville, Virginia.[vii]
The next morning, Union troops came into the still-smoldering city, and accompanying them was their President. In weeks prior, he had said to Admiral David Porter: “Thank God I have lived to see this. It seems to me that I have been dreaming a horrid dream for four years, and now the nightmare is gone. I want to see Richmond.”[viii] And so he did with only an escort of sailors numbering ten.[ix] If he had feared for his safety entering the rebel capital with only ten men protecting him, that fear would not have been justified for a cordon of black people quickly surrounded him and shouted, “Glory to God! Glory! Glory!” and, “Bless the Lord! The great Messiah!”[x] When one man fell to Lincoln’s feet, Lincoln said to him, “Don’t kneel to me. That is not right. You must kneel to God only, and thank Him for the liberty you will enjoy hereafter.”[xi] One reporter witnessed the scene playing out in the streets of the former rebel capital and wrote: “Richmond has never before presented such a spectacle of jubilee. What a wonderful change has come over the spirit of Southern dreams.”[xii]
Indeed Southern dreams had been crushed in those days, and Lee knew better than anyone—including his president—that their despair was justified. Lee had warned Davis just days prior that the loss of the Confederate armies would be the “greatest calamity that can befall us,” and that calamity had nearly just played out before the rebels’ eyes.[xiii] As much as Lincoln appeared careworn at this late stage of the war, Lee was not far from that feeling when he fled the Union army and prepared to fight them while being on the run and while his president and government were sitting in their new capital. Although Lee could not have known Grant’s words weeks earlier—that “everything looks like dissolution in the South”—he surely could have then taken account of his circumstances and come to the same conclusion.[xiv] Lee’s approximately 35,000-strong army gathered at Amelia Courthouse, some thirty-five miles west of Richmond, and planned to meet with Confederate General Joseph Johnston in Danville.[xv] There, despite the recent setbacks, Davis was rallying his citizens and soldiers for what would come next: “Relieved from the necessity of guarding cities . . . with our army free to move from point to point . . . and where the foe will be far removed from his own base . . . nothing is now needed to render our triumph certain, but . . . our own unquenchable resolve.”[xvi] A major obstacle stood between Lee and Danville, however: the cavalry led by Union General Philip Sheridan and three infantry corps who had cut the railroad near Danville.[xvii] Lee attempted to make his way to Lynchburg instead, but Union troops were anxious for victory and biting at rebel heels.[xviii] Scores of prisoners began to fall into federal hands, and when Union soldiers took a quarter of Lee’s men, the general exclaimed, “My God! Has the army been dissolved?”[xix] It had not then dissolved but Grant supposed that it was a prime opportunity to call for his opponent’s surrender, and he offered the same terms as he offered nearly two years before at Vicksburg: parole until exchanged.[xx] The effect of those terms was complete surrender and an end to the war. Lee countered with a vague mention of “restoration of peace,” which Grant had no authority to negotiate, leaving Grant to shake his head and say, “It looks as if Lee means to fight.”[xxi]
Lee did intend to fight, and he showed that intent on April 9 when he tried to break through Sheridan’s line at Appomattox Court House: his men marched forward into the Union cavalry line, even pushing them back at first, but two federal infantry corps quickly reinforced the cavalry and two other corps moved on Lee’s flank; Lee and his men were outnumbered five or six times over.[xxii] One of Lee’s men suggested that they turn the army into guerrillas, but Lee would not have it as they “would become mere bands of marauders, and the enemy’s cavalry would pursue them and overrun many sections they may never [otherwise] have occasion to visit. We would bring on a state of affairs it would take the country years to recover from.”[xxiii] With nothing further to do, he said to his officers that he must “go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths.”[xxiv]
Lee wasn’t the only one dreading the moment: Wilmer McLean had moved to Appomattox Court House after having lived in Manassas and having had a shell crash into his dining room during the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861; now, his home was slated to host the top commanders of the war for negotiations of peace.[xxv] And when they arrived, the contrast was clear. Lee, six feet tall, erect, and “in full-dress uniform with sash and jeweled sword” met his adversary whose five-feet-eight-inch-frame was shortened by his stooped shoulders and covered in the “usual private’s blouse with mud-spattered trousers tucked into muddy boots”—the dynamic of the “son of an Ohio tanner” dictating terms to the “scion of a First Family of Virginia” being overwhelmingly evident.[xxvi] Grant’s terms—that the men would go home “not to be disturbed by U.S. authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they reside”—effectively guaranteed that southern armies could safely surrender without fear of being charged with treason.[xxvii] Then, when Lee asked for the favor of permitting those who owned horses to keep them, Grant obliged so that those officers and soldiers would have a “crop to carry themselves and their families through the next winter.”[xxviii] With that, the men and their officers shook hands and consummated the surrender. Although one of Grant’s aides pronounced that the moment would “live in history,” Grant felt “sad and depressed at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought.”[xxix] Grant sent three days worth of rations across the lines, and when batteries began firing as news of the surrender spread, Grant ordered them to cease for the “rebels are our countrymen again, and the best sign of rejoicing after the victory will be to abstain from all demonstrations.”[xxx] The southerners—perhaps appreciating Grant’s gesture or sorrowful for surrendering— did not hold back their tears when they marched to stack their arms.[xxxi] As Confederate General John B. Gordon approached the head of his regiment with “his chin drooped to his breast, downhearted and dejected in appearance,” a bugle rang out: the Union soldiers “shifted from order arms to carry arms, the salute of honor.”[xxxii] Gordon “looked up in surprise,” lowered his sword in salute, and ordered his own men to return the salute by also carrying arms, and so, with the fighting having ended between the sides, they departed with “mutual salutation and farewell.”[xxxiii]
Relief that the war had ended was evident in Washington as much as anywhere in the country: “From one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other, the air seemed to burn with the bright hues of the flag. . . . Almost by magic the streets were crowded with hosts of people, talking, laughing, hurrahing and shouting in the fullness of their joy.”[xxxiv] In New York, men hugged and kissed each other, “retreated into doorways to dry their eyes and came out again to flourish their hats and hurrah” and sing “Old Hundred” and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” earning massive roars from the crowd.[xxxv]
Lincoln, joyous though he was at the peace achieved, was focused on the monumental task of reconstructing the Union, and when a crowd gathered at the White House to celebrate the victory, he proclaimed that with the Confederacy reduced to a fugitive government, there was “no authorized organ for us to treat with.”[xxxvi] He continued by expressing his hopes that literate and veteran blacks would receive the right to vote, and he promised that an announcement regarding a new policy for restoring states to the Union would be forthcoming.[xxxvii] One member of Lincoln’s audience, John Wilkes Booth, “snarled to a companion,” “That means nigger citizenship. Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.”[xxxviii]
And so he would in the days to come, adding the greatest tragedy in political assassinations to the most tragic war of American history. By war’s end, over 600,000 soldiers lost their lives with hundreds of thousands more injured. Physical casualties were only one measure of loss: the psyche of the country, and its component parts, had forever changed as a result of the war. While many Southerners would lament the Confederacy’s failure—even to this day and certain to continue into the future—others came to view it similarly to Woodrow Wilson as he explained in 1880:
“Because I love the South, I rejoice in the failure of the Confederacy. . . . Conceive of this Union divided into two separate and independent sovereignties! . . . Slavery was enervating our Southern society. . . . I recognize and pay loving tribute to the virtues of the leaders of the secession . . . the righteousness of the cause which they thought they were promoting—and to the immortal courage of the soldiers of the Confederacy.”[xxxix]
In point of fact, with the leaders of secession such as Davis and Lee and all top Confederate officers not having been convicted of any crime related to the rebellion and thus free to live out their days, the war came to a remarkable end that perhaps only a fratricidal war can produce. While the Lost Cause movement would begin just as the war concluded, there were no martyrs to inflame the passions of its followers.
While scholars and thinkers have opined as to the reasons and causes for the war’s outcome, there is some consensus that the South “succumbed to internal rather than external causes.”[xl] The argument runs: it wasn’t that the Union dominated the Confederacy into submission as much as the Confederacy lost the will to fight.[xli] Perhaps more likely is that the Union had the means, in terms of leadership, industry, and capital, to fight the war to its resolution. While many have marveled at the genius of Lincoln, Davis, Grant, and Lee, none can say with certitude that any one of them alone was the dispositive factor for bringing about the war’s result. Nonetheless, generations of Americans will continue to tally up their accomplishments and analyze the most pivotal battles of the war—from Bull Run to Chickamauga to Antietam to Gettysburg.
The consequences stemming from the war would be difficult to overstate. The federal government that had once touched the lives of ordinary Americans only so much as they went to the post office had begun its run of growth that would continue well into the twenty-first century. That growth is evidenced in the Constitution: while eleven of the first twelve amendments to the Constitution limited the federal government’s power, six of the next seven would greatly expand that power at the expense of the states.[xlii] Further, the war brought a geographical change to politics as while over two-thirds of the time before the war saw a President in the White House that had owned slaves or was from a state that would join the Confederacy, it would be a century before a resident of the former Confederacy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, would become President.[xliii]
It wasn’t only presidential or even congressional politics that would change after the war. It was the way of life and the direction of the country as well: as much as the war was about two labor systems and the friction between them, it was also about the South wanting to maintain its traditions. Jefferson Davis said throughout the war that “we are not revolutionists. We are resisting revolution. . . . We are conservative.”[xliv] With defeat meant the loss, or at least the modification, of traditions as the country—now unified—pushed on into the industrial revolution without slavery and with a northern-focused economy. Those who lived through the transformation said, “It does not seem to me as if I were living in the country in which I was born,” or, “Society has been completely changed by the war.”[xlv] Indeed it had—and at great cost. Although countries around the world were also grappling with abolishing their own slavery-like institutions, such as Russia abolishing serfdom in 1861, it was never clear how the United States was going to take that step without blood being shed. But, without Lincoln’s leadership in the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment and the Emancipation Proclamation, even the blood shed on all those battlefields from 1861 to 1865 may have been nothing more than a prelude to coexisting sovereignties, continued slavery, and a potential second civil war—an unthinkable event that, to date, Americans have not repeated. And to avoid a second civil war, Americans must keep a collective memory of the war, the rhetoric that preceded it, the destruction wrought by it, and the sacrifices made to maintain our Union.
[i] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 844.
[iii] Id. at 845.
[iv] See id. at 845-46.
[v] Id. at 846.
[vii] See id.
[viii] See id.
[x] Id. at 846-47.
[xi] Id. at 847.
[xiii] See Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 844.
[xiv] Id. at 802.
[xv] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 847.
[xvi] Id. at 847 (quoting Dunbar Rowland ed., Jefferson Davis, Constitutionalist: His Letters, Papers, and Speeches, Vol. VI, 529-31 [Jackson, Miss., 1923]).
[xvii] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 847.
[xviii] See id.
[xix] See id. at 847-48.
[xx] See id. at 848.
[xxi] See id.
[xxv] Id. at 849.
[xxvi] See id.
[xxix] Id. at 849-50.
[xxx] Id. at 850.
[xxxiii] See id.
[xxxiv] See id. at 851.
[xxxvi] See id. at 851-52.
[xxxvii] Id. at 852.
[xxxviii] Id. (quoting William Hanchett, The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies [Urbana, Ill., 1983], 37).
[xxxix] Thomas J. Pressly, Americans Interpret Their Civil War (Princeton, 1962), 199-200.
[xl] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 855.
[xli] See id.
[xlii] Id. at 859.
[xliii] See id. at 860.
[xliv] Id. at 861.
[xlv] See id.