For three years, the Unionhad targeted the Confederate capital. came closest to capturing Richmond early in the summer of 1862 during the , after which suffered humiliating defeat at in December 1862 and was bested at in May 1863. But then Union fortunes improved. In July 1863, led Union troops to victory at , and the following May, Grant took personal control of Meade’s Potomac army and the under . While Butler marched up the James River, Grant led Union troops through a series of bloody encounters at the , , and Cold Harbor, eventually laying siege to Petersburg, beginning in June. By the autumn, Union forces had cut three of the four rail lines into the city, leaving the as the only means of rail supply for the Army of Northern Virginia. By March 1865, Grant’s two armies had stretched Confederate forces across a thirty-five-mile front, applying constant pressure and thereby limiting Lee’s offensive capability.
Union general William Tecumseh Sherman, meanwhile, had marched his army first to Atlanta, Georgia, and then north through South Carolina and North Carolina. If his forces were allowed to unite with Grant’s, Union numbers would be doubled. Lee was forced to act. Because of bad road conditions and fatigued horses, Confederates had remained in their trenches through much of the spring, but on March 25, Lee attempted a surprise, pre-dawn assault against Fort Stedman. His goal was to break Grant’s stranglehold, cut his supply line, and force him to draw back his left flank, with the possible idea of creating an escape route. After an initial breakthrough, Union forces counterattacked, and in the end, Grant’s men were positioned even closer to Confederate lines.
In order to provide the attack on Fort Stedman more punch, Lee had borrowed troops from his right flank. Grant saw the opening and seized the initiative, sending a joint infantry and cavalry force of 21,000 men to strike the Confederate right flank and capture the South Side Railroad. Union general Gouverneur K. Warren’s Fifth Corps engaged Confederate troops under Bushrod Johnson in the battles of Quaker Road (Lewis Farm) on March 29 and White Oak Road on March 31. Union general Philip H. Sheridan‘s cavalry, meanwhile, continued farther southwest. On March 31, Sheridan maneuvered beyond the Confederate right flank but was defeated at Dinwiddie Court House by Confederates led byand W. H. F. “Rooney” Lee.
On April 1, the arrival of Warren’s Fifth Corps at Pickett’s rear caused the Confederate general to fall back to an intersection known as Five Forks. There, in what has come to be known as the “Waterloo of the Confederacy,” Sheridan and Warren overwhelmed Pickett’s forces, losing fewer than a thousand men compared to Confederate casualties of about 3,000. (Warren, a hero of Gettysburg, was nevertheless relieved of his command by Sheridan after the battle. Pickett, whose name was similarly carved into history at Gettysburg, was, like Warren, humiliated at Five Forks. He was famously absent during the battle, attending a shad bake.)
Petersburg fell the next day, as did the South Side Railroad, which was captured after the Battle of Sutherland’s Station. (In another blow, Confederate general, long one of Lee’s most trusted lieutenants, was killed in the fighting.) A stubborn defense at Fort Gregg allowed Lee’s army to escape to the west, and he ordered the evacuation of the capital that night. Marching on previously determined routes, Confederate forces from Richmond, Bermuda Hundred, and Petersburg all marched toward Amelia Court House. Once Lee reassembled his army, he planned to head south along the line of the Richmond and Danville Railroad to link forces with Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee, which was moving north from North Carolina. With the two armies joined, Lee could establish a defensive line near and possibly even take the offensive against Sherman.
As the march began, many Confederate soldiers were in high spirits, elated to be freed from the trenches after ten months. But after just a day, fatigue and hunger set in. On April 3, Confederate cavalry general Rufus Barringer was captured after his brigade was routed by forces under George A. Custer at Namozine Church. When Lee reached Amelia Court House on April 4, he discovered that the rations had not been delivered from Richmond as planned. Although moving quickly was essential, the Army of Northern Virginia needed supplies. Lee also needed to concentrate his forces, and decided to pause his march to wait for‘s command—which included Lee’s son, General Custis Lee—from Richmond. In the meantime, he sent wagons into the countryside to gather provisions. Local farmers had little to spare, however, and the wagons returned virtually empty. The delay proved costly. A day’s march was lost and pursuing Union troops were allowed to draw near.
Resuming its southward march on April 5, Lee’s army traveled only a few miles before encountering dug-in Union troops at Jetersville, along the Richmond and Danville Railroad. Rather than attack, Lee maneuvered to the west toward Farmville in an attempt to outflank the Union troops and resupply his own. He did so under continuous pressure: Union cavalry general Henry Davies captured a Confederate wagon train at Painesville before being driven away by Confederate cavalry under, Robert E. Lee’s nephew. In order to get ahead of his Union pursuers, Lee ordered a night march, but the tired and hungry Confederate soldiers fell out of their ranks to search for food. Some simply went home.
On April 6, a Union force attempted to capture High Bridge near Farmville and prevent Lee from crossing the Appomattox River. It was defeated and captured whole by Confederate cavalry. Still, dangerous gaps began to develop in Lee’s retreating forces, the result of constant attack by Union cavalry. At Sailor’s Creek, the Union cavalry managed to exploit such a gap, cutting off two Confederate corps under generals Richard H. Anderson and Richard S. Ewell as the Union Sixth Corps arrived to their rear. Ewell’s men repulsed an initial charge by the Sixth Corps but surrendered when overwhelmed by the second. At the same time, Union cavalry charged Anderson’s men at Marshall’s Crossroads until his two divisions, led by Pickett and Bushrod Johnson, disintegrated.
Simultaneously, on the Jamestown Road to the north, the Union Second Corps attacked Confederate supply wagons and John B. Gordon’s rear guard and they struggled to cross the creek near Double Bridges. Forced to fight, Gordon’s men were driven through the wagon train and across the creek. Lee witnessed the end of the battle from a distance, exclaiming, “My God! Has the army been dissolved?” Approximately 7,700 Confederate soldiers, or about one-fifth of the Army of Northern Virginia, were killed, wounded, or captured, including nine generals. What remained crossed the Appomattox River during another night march and, on April 7, arrived in Farmville, where rations awaited them. Union forces followed so quickly, however, that the Confederates had to close the supply trains and cross the river north of Farmville and fight off Grant’s pursuing forces at the Battle of Cumberland Church.
On the evening of April 7, Grant began a three-day correspondence with Lee by inviting him to surrender. Lee shared the letter with, whose reply was curt: “Not yet.” Blocked once more from heading south, Lee moved west on the Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road in hopes of resupplying at Appomattox Station. The Union Second and Sixth corps followed, while a combined force of Union cavalry, the Fifth, and parts of the Twenty-Fourth and Twenty-Fifth corps moved along shorter roads south of the Appomattox River to cut off Lee. Lee understood that he was nearly out of options. Still, if he could reach Appomattox Station first, his men could be fed before continuing toward Danville. Lee ordered another night march.
On the afternoon of April 8, the main Confederate column halted northeast of Appomattox Court House, while the reserve artillery and the ambulance and wagon trains approached Appomattox Station, several miles farther west. There, trains arrived from Lynchburg containing, among other supplies, 120,000 rations needed to feed Lee’s army. But at about four o’clock in the afternoon, Custer’s Union cavalry division captured the trains and then, in three assaults, overran the reserve artillery, securing twenty-five cannon, a thousand prisoners, and some one hundred wagons. They also blocked Lee’s line of retreat. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Lee, Union infantry marched more than thirty miles into positions to Lee’s south and west. That night, the Confederate general held a council of war with Longstreet, Gordon, and Fitzhugh Lee. Together, they determined to attempt a breakout from the looming encirclement.
At 7:50 on the morning of April 9, Gordon’s corps, supported by Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry, attacked Colonel Charles Smith’s Union cavalry brigade, which blocked Lee’s line of retreat on the stage road. Although initially successful, the assault faltered as Union infantry arrived on the field. Gordon sent word to Lee that “my command has been fought to a frazzle … I can not long go forward.” Receiving the message, Lee said, “There is nothing left for me to do but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths.”
Lee’s aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Marshall, secured a place for the conference. At 1:30 p.m. on April 9, Lee and Grant met at the home of Appomattox Court House resident Wilmer McLean. (McLean and his wife came to Appomattox after two battles were fought near their home in Manassas.) The surrender meeting lasted an hour and a half. The terms were simple: Confederate officers and men would be paroled. The officers could keep their side-arms, while enlisted men were required to relinquish all military equipment. Grant also allowed the Confederates to keep their horses, and he arranged for the delivery of 25,000 rations to feed Lee’s hungry men.
Grant’s adjutant, a Seneca Indian named Ely Parker, wrote a formal copy of Grant’s terms and Marshall drafted Lee’s acceptance. The letters were exchanged and the meeting ended. The paroling of Lee’s army and the surrender ceremonies took place over the next several days and culminated in a stacking-of-arms ceremony for the Confederate infantry on April 12, received by Union general Joshua Chamberlain and the First Division of the Fifth Corps.
After four years of bitter fighting, the war in Virginia ended with remarkable magnanimity. On the way back to Union lines, Grant heard cannon firing in celebration of Lee’s surrender and ordered it stopped, saying: “The Rebels are our countrymen again.” Lee, meanwhile, instructed his men to “Go home now. And if you make as good citizens as you have soldiers, you will do well.” With Grant’s forces now freed to turn south, the remaining Confederate armies surrendered in short order. On April 26, Johnston surrendered to Sherman near Durham, North Carolina. On May 4, Richard Taylor surrendered at Citronelle, Alabama. Finally, on June 2, Edmund Kirby Smith surrendered to Edward R. Canby at Galveston, Texas. The Civil War was over.
It is significant, then, that Appomattox, not Galveston, has become synonymous with the war’s end. The generosity of Grant’s terms and the restraint that Lee urged upon his men set the standard for subsequent Confederate surrenders and allowed for a relatively clean transition from war to peace. Unlike in other civil wars, there was no prolonged guerrilla war and no mass reprisals. There were relatively few executions. Still, bitterness remained, and the death by assassination of U.S. president Abraham Lincoln on April 15 undermined much of the good feeling created at Appomattox. If Grant and Lee made it possible at Appomattox to reconstruct what had been torn asunder, that Reconstruction (1865–1877) nevertheless would be turbulent. Political circumstances initially and briefly were positive for African Americans in the South, but over the years, many former Confederates were able to win back political power. In so doing, they instituted a regime of white supremacy that formally segregated public life and erased African American social and political advances.