General Robert E. Lee's Surrender at Appomattox Courthouse: Terms & Conditions

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  • 0:05 General Lee on the Road
  • 1:29 The Battle of Sailor's Creek
  • 2:38 Toward Appomattox
  • 4:37 The Surrender
  • 6:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will explore the events leading up to Confederate General Robert E. Lee's surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9th, 1865.

General Lee on the Road

After Confederate General Robert E. Lee abandoned Petersburg and Richmond on April 2nd, 1865, he began to guide his troops west, hoping to eventually join up with more Confederate forces, regroup, and continue to offer resistance to the Union. He started toward Amelia Court House, about thirty-five miles west of Petersburg, thinking there would be much-needed rations there for his nearly-starving men.

He was wrong. There was no food at Amelia Court House. Even foraging parties found very little to eat anywhere in the area. Lee was forced to order his hungry men to continue their march, now moving toward Rice's Station.

Along the way, Lee's army started to spread out. General James Longstreet's soldiers were in the lead, followed by General Richard Anderson's men, General Richard Ewell's forces, and General John Gordon's troops. Pretty soon, the thin gray line developed several gaps as the distance increased between Longstreet and Anderson, and Gordon took a wrong turn, splitting off from Ewell. This was a dangerous situation, for General Ulysses S. Grant's Union army was quickly closing in.

The Battle of Sailor's Creek

By April 6th, the Confederates were nearly surrounded. Union General Philip Sheridan was riding parallel to the Confederate column, striking now and then. General George Custer pushed his men into the gap between Longstreet and Anderson. General Horatio Wright sneaked up behind Ewell. Then the Union attacked.

The resulting battle at Sailor's Creek was actually fought on three fronts, and while the exhausted, hungry Confederates fought fiercely for a while, they didn't stand much of a chance. Soon, the long gray line broke. Some men fled. Others, who could hardly even move anymore, were taken prisoner.

Lee watched from a height overlooking the battlefield and remarked, 'My God! Has the army dissolved?' When it was all over, the Union had captured over six thousand Confederates, including Ewell and seven other generals. Lee turned sadly away and guided his remaining army toward Farmville, hoping once again to find food.

Toward Appomattox

On April 7th, Lee ordered a division of his men to burn a bridge over the Appomattox River. He was trying to buy time, to hold off the enemy just a little while longer. The soldiers failed, burning only four of the bridge's twenty-one spans. The men tried valiantly to prevent the Union force from crossing the river, but exhausted, they had to pull back. Lee continued to move with the Union army pressing closely behind.

Lee began to seriously consider surrender. He knew his options were limited, and his men were becoming weaker and hungrier as the days progressed. He had even received a letter from Grant, asking for his surrender, but Lee wasn't quite ready yet. If he could just get to Appomattox Station, there were provisions there, for certain this time. Grant knew about the supplies, too, and he was determined to keep Lee's troops away from them. Nevertheless, Lee sent a note back to Grant asking for his terms of surrender.

On April 8th, Grant replied that his only requirement was that those who surrendered could not take up arms again until they were formally exchanged. Lee was surprised at the ease of these terms, but he wasn't quite ready to give up. He wanted to meet with Grant to talk things over. Grant refused; the only meeting he would have with Lee was to accept his surrender.

On the morning of April 9th, Confederates under General Gordon made one last stand when they bumped into Union forces at Appomattox Court House. The Union quickly rolled over these Southerners and turned to attack Longstreet's men. Lee knew what he had to do, 'There is nothing left me but to go see General Grant, and I had rather die a thousand deaths.'

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