Reporting Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox


April 9, 1865, was the beginning of the end of Southern aspirations to separate from the United States and establish an independent nation. Gen. Robert E. Lee entered the home of Wilmer and Virginia McLean in Appomattox Court House, Va., to meet with his Northern adversary Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.

The purpose was to discuss surrender terms for Lee’s command, the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee and Grant reached agreement, and Lee signed the document put before him, which established the framework for the Civil War to be brought to conclusion.

An extensive and emotional account of the events leading up to these proceedings and the commanding generals’ negotiations from a Southern perspective appeared in Columbia, S.C.’s The Carolinian. The unnamed reporter described a Union officer arriving in Southern lines with a flag of truce, apparently to deliver a message from Grant to Lee.

Soon thereafter, the reporter describes an embellished scene of Lee’s arrival at the McLean home to tender his sword to the Union commander. He conjures up a magnanimous Grant stating, “General Lee keep that sword. You have won it by your gallantry. You have not been whipped, but overpowered, and I cannot receive it as a token of surrender from so brave a man.”

The melodramatic report described the Union and Confederate commanding generals as “deeply affected” and shedding tears. Later, as the story goes, “Federal soldiers and officers visited our camps … but there was not exultation, no shouting for joy.”

The Augusta Constitutionalist, for its part, held out implausible hope the “glorious independence of the South” was still possible, because the Confederate area west of the Mississippi River remained under the Confederate army’s control. As a result of poor communication with the “Trans-Mississippi” area, Eastern newspaper editors overestimated Rebel strength in Texas and Arkansas.

As J. Cutler Andrews wrote in “The South Reports the Civil War,” newspapers struggled to keep up with the latest happenings on the battlefield and suffered serious dislocation as well. Because of Union army occupation and threat, these “voices” fled to safer areas from cities, such as Richmond, Va., Wilmington, N.C., Charleston, S.C., Macon, Ga., and Mobile, Ala.

Louis M. Starr’s “Bohemian Brigade: Civil War Newsmen in Action” depicts Northern reporters as receiving news of Lee’s surrender with joy and exultation. James Russell Lowell waxed eloquent for the North American Review, “The news is from heaven. I felt a strange and tender exultation. I wanted to laugh and I wanted to cry.”

On April 12 from Grant’s headquarters, New York World writer Jerome B. Stillson submitted a lengthy account of Lee’s evacuation from Richmond and surrender at Appomattox. He wrote, “Crossing the river at Devil’s Bend … [Lee attempted] to escape down that road via Burke’s station to Danville, before Grant could head him off.”

Stillson related Grant was too quick for Lee. For three days and nights, the two armies marched just 15 miles apart, and the Union soldiers “sang and cheered along the road like demons.”

The Northern reporter related that the Northern soldiers taunted village residents as they passed through the Virginia countryside, “We’re the devil after Lee. O, we’re after Lee, infantree and cavalree.”

Lee’s army crossed High Bridge over the Appomattox River in order to reach Farmville. Soon thereafter, a sniper’s bullet mortally wounded one of Delaware’s finest officers, Irish-born Brig. Gen. Thomas A. Smyth, a division commander in the Union Second Corps.

Once Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia reached Appomattox Court House, the Union cavalry blocked any further movement, forcing the inevitable surrender. Stillson hesitated to characterize Gen. Robert E. Lee, yet ventured these thoughts: “Pride might have impelled Lee … to make the last attempt … to escape from the toils; but pride alone might have hesitated to assume the responsibility of sacrificing more lives in an effort so forlorn.”

Stillson then turned his attention to the victor: “The campaign has made General Grant … a great general in the estimation of the whole army.” He closed with the remark that after “four years of almost constant fighting; it has given the Union a fresh and final assurance that ‘it must and shall be preserved.’”

Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign,” available at Bethany Beach Books, at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach and at Cardsmart in Milford. His latest book, “Lee is Trapped, and Must Be Taken: Eleven Fateful Days after Gettysburg, July 4-14, 1863” is due out in August 2019, and can be pre-ordered on Amazon.com. Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.

 

By Tom Ryan

Special to the Coastal Point