Two of the most eventful weeks in American history took place between April 1 and April 15, 1865, during which Richmond (the capital of the Confederacy) fell, General Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse and President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.
After the Union won Petersburg, they became a threat to the capital of Richmond
During the Civil War, the two government capitals - Washington D.C. and Richmond, VA. - were barely 100 miles apart. But despite attempts and missed opportunities on both sides, neither army posed any serious threat to the other's capitol. That is, until Union forces won a decisive victory near Petersburg on April 1, 1865.
Petersburg, which protected and supplied the capital, had been under siege by Union General Ulysses S. Grant since June of 1864. Meanwhile, General William T. Sherman was heading north following his successful March to the Sea, putting even more pressure on Lee. By March 1865, it was becoming clear that Petersburg was lost and Richmond was at risk. Confederate General Robert E. Lee abandoned Petersburg and advised an evacuation of Richmond on Sunday, April 2, 1865.
People rushed about in frenzied anticipation of the arriving northern troops, but because of the damage inflicted to the region's railroads, there was only one open rail line. Wealthy residents clamored for space on outbound trains that struggled under their burdens. While some sources say the family of Confederate President Jefferson Davis had left the city much earlier, other sources report that the South's first lady was caught up in the bedlam and that the steam engine carrying her actually broke down and spent the night being repaired. Legend says she could only find milk and crackers to feed her family at a cost of $100. Meanwhile, President Davis and his cabinet burned documents and prepared to move the capitol to Danville, VA.
The damage to the railroads in the South meant there was only one open rail line to leave the area
As the Confederate government headed south, they gave orders to burn the armory, bridges, storehouses of tobacco and other locations. They also gave orders to dump all liquor and scuttle Confederate ships. The city erupted into chaos. Families looted stores of provisions that greedy merchants had hoarded. Whiskey poured through the streets, to which many men helped themselves. Tobacco flames surged through the alcohol-laden streets and whipped out of control. More than 900 businesses and homes burned down.
The order to destroy Confederate ships also had unintended results. Thousands of artillery shells stored on the boats exploded, and rained further devastation on the city. The next day, April 3rd, the Union army occupied the city, led by an African American regiment. President Lincoln visited Richmond on the 4th, and everyone knew the end was in sight.
General Lee Surrenders
Confederate troops had fled the city, hoping to meet up with what remained of the army farther south. President Davis approved arming slaves to fight. General Grant sent General Lee a message, begging him to surrender and end the bloodshed. But Lee held out hope that the last 9,000 men under his command could keep up the fight until the slaves joined them, especially if he could reach his supply train at Appomattox Courthouse.
General Lee and his cavalry arrived at the train station on April 8th, where they were quickly surrounded. By 8:30 in the morning, Lee sent messengers to inform Grant that he was ready to surrender.
On April 8th, Lee was ready to surrender to Grant
On April 9th, General Grant and General Lee met at a home in the town of Appomattox Courthouse to determine the terms of surrender. Lee requested that all the men be allowed to take their horses, which they owned, and Grant conceded, recognizing that they wouldn't be able to plant their fields without the animals. In his memoirs, Grant recalled how he had admired a ceremonial sword Lee was wearing. Traditionally, a surrendering commander would give his sword to the other general - implying that Lee brought it with him for this purpose. But Lee left the house with the beautiful sword, and his officers were, likewise, allowed to keep their own side arms, as a matter of honor. The Confederate army was given food from the supply trains. Lee left the house in tears, commenting to soldiers on the lawn, 'Men, we have fought through the war together. I have done the best that I could for you.' When Grant's men began to cheer, he reprimanded them and reminded them that the Confederates were their countrymen.
On April 12, 1865, nearly 30,000 Confederates paraded in a silent, formal ceremony. They were saluted before stacking their arms and allowed to return home in peace. Though it was a few weeks before all parts of the Confederate army were rounded up, the war was over.
President Lincoln is Assassinated
Two days later, President Lincoln was enjoying some well-deserved R&R. He took his wife to see a play at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C. on the night of April 14, 1865. John Wilkes Booth, a famous actor and Confederate sympathizer, burst into the president's box, shot him in the back of the head and escaped - part of a conspiracy to assassinate the president, vice president and secretary of state simultaneously. President Lincoln died the following morning, April 15, 1865, but the secretary of state recovered and the vice president's assassin lost his nerve and never even attacked. An 11-day manhunt finally trapped Booth in a barn in Virginia. He was shot onsite and four of his conspirators were hanged.
Lincoln was shot two days after the Civil War ended and died the following morning
President Jefferson Davis was captured in Georgia on May 10, en route to Florida and ultimately, Europe. Though he was indicted for treason, several prominent abolitionists posted his bail two years later and charges against him were dropped. He lived until 1889.
The Civil War lasted four long years, from 1861 until 1865. The financial and human costs of the Civil War were astronomical. By some estimates, the Civil War killed more Americans than all other wars from the Revolution until Vietnam combined. Somehow, the survivors managed to pick up their lives again and move forward, no matter how difficult it seemed at the time. It took generations for society to heal, but if you're watching this video, it means that America, even if it's imperfect, has survived to this day.
Beginning on April 1, 1865, a rapid 2-week succession of events brought the war to its conclusion. Confederate General Lee abandoned his defense of Petersburg and called for the evacuation of Richmond the following day. It was a scene of utter chaos, and the Confederates thoroughly destroyed the city as they emptied it. Still, Lee held out hope, believing if he could get to his nearby supply train and boost his numbers with armed slaves, he might be able to fight yet. But he was surrounded at the train depot on April 8th. The following day, Generals Lee and Grant met at a home in Appomattox Courthouse to discuss terms of surrender. After surrendering their weapons on the 12th, all troops were allowed to go free, taking their animals with them. Two days later, President Lincoln was shot at Ford's Theater. He died the following morning, April 15, 1865.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Understand the reason for the evacuation of Richmond and the results
- Describe the surrender of General Lee and the assassination of President Lincoln