Appomattox Courthouse Surrender: History & Facts

Instructor: Amy Lively

Amy has an M.A. in American History. She has taught history at all levels, from university to middle school.

This lesson explains the importance of the Appomattox Court House in Virginia during the Civil War. Learn more about the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, which led to the end of the battle between the Union and Confederate armies.

Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee

As the Civil War entered its fourth year in 1864, President Abraham Lincoln may have wondered if he would ever find a commander for the Union troops who could bring the brutal war to an end. Lincoln had given several generals the opportunity to lead the Union, but it was not until Ulysses S. Grant took command that he finally found the general for which he had been looking. In Grant, Lincoln found a general who agreed with his strategy of overwhelming the Confederates with total war as well as one who could win some battles. On the other side of the war, Robert E. Lee had risen to become leader of all Confederate armies. Ironically, Lee had been Lincoln's first choice to command the Union troops, but, as a native Virginian, Lee felt he had to remain loyal to the South.

Prelude to Surrender

By the time that the Union launched the Appomattox Campaign in March 1865, the Confederates were running out of men, food, and time. Union soldiers had cut off all but one of Lee's supply lines, leaving only the South Side Railroad as a lifeline. Desperate for food, clothing, and even shoes, many Confederates deserted the army and returned home. On April 2, Union soldiers captured the railroad, forcing Lee to try to retreat; however, the Union cavalry, led by General Phillip Sheridan, chased the Confederates through the Virginia countryside until they had the Southerners surrounded. When Union soldiers took approximately 6,000 Confederates prisoner at Sayler's Creek on April 8, Lee was out of options. He sent word to Grant on April 9 that he wanted to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia.

The McLean House

McLean House in the village of Appomattox Court House
mclean house

Grant and Lee met in the parlor of Wilmer McLean's house in the village of Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. McLean's farm was the site of the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861. Too old to volunteer for the Confederate army, McLean left his house to get away from the war. While he was away, he made a small fortune smuggling sugar to the Confederate troops through the Union blockade, although his Confederate dollars were worth nothing when the war ended. McLean lost the so-called 'Surrender House' in 1867 when he could no longer make the payments. When the McLean House was dedicated as a National Historic Park in 1940, direct descendants of Grant and Lee had the honor of cutting the ceremonial ribbon.

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