Myths About Lee’s Surrender


This was Patrick Schroeder’s presentation at the 2015 Bridgewater College Civil War Institute, held March 21, 2015 at Bridgewater College in Bridgewater, Virginia.

He said he started compiling these myths while working as a seasonal ranger at Appomattox Court House.  He said that people would come through and tell the staff all kinds of crazy stories that had been handed down in their families over the years.

After Grant heard some of these stories he said, “Wars produce many stories of fiction, some of which are told until they are believed to be true.”  Later, when he was asked about supposedly returning General Lee’s sword in the parlor of the McLean House, Grant said, “I for one never believed those stories.”

These stories get started in numerous ways.  The simplest mirrors the old school room game where one person tells another a story and that person passes it along to another person who passes it to another person and so on, by the time the story gets to the last person it’s a completely different story.  Sometimes it generated with the soldiers themselves.  They didn’t witness an event, but they heard about it from a fellow soldier and they passed it on, adding their own twist to it, and it comes out completely different.  Sometimes it was journalists and reporters who started it.  Reporters often come to Appomattox and they’re not experts on the subject and will get facts and details mixed up.  But when it comes out in print, people believe it.  Sometimes historians start or perpetuate myths.  Sometimes it happens when a historian takes on a large project and doesn’t research the subject completely and they borrow from other people, and those other people may not have had their facts correct.  Some writers may not like someone and they research with a bent to make that person look bad.  Sometimes it’s because we live in 2015 and we don’t understand what life was like and what the military was like in the 1860s.  And then sometimes it’s because people prefer the romantic version.  They like the story of “Keep your sword, General,” even though it didn’t happen.

People like to tell you things when they come to visit Appomattox.  People come up and say things like, “You know, Lee and Grant were classmates at West Point.”  But they weren’t.  Both attended the US Military Academy at West Point, but Lee was sixteen years older than Grant.  At the time of the surrender, Lee was 58 years old and Grant was 42. [Actually, Lee was just slightly more than fifteen years older than Grant.  Lee was born January 19, 1807 and Grant was born April 27, 1822.  Patrick’s just started his own myth.  🙂 ]  Interestingly enough, both men died at age 63.  Lee attended West Point from 1825 to 1829.  Grant attended from 1839 to 1843.  Interestingly, Robert E. Lee returned to the US Military Academy to be the Superintendent from 1852 to 1855.

Another thing people like to say is, “You know, Lee finished first in his class at West Point.”  But Lee did not finish first in his class at West Point.  He finished second.  Charles Mason finished first.  You’ve never heard of Charles Mason because after being in the army for two years he left and went to Wisconsin where he became a patent lawyer, and then he went to Iowa where he became the first Supreme Court Justice for the State of Iowa [actually, first Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court.  Patrick is a bit off here, also].  Patrick said that he learned from a lady who lived in Iowa that there is a city, Mason City, Iowa, that was named after Charles Mason [I’m not so sure about that].  People also used to say Lee graduated with no demerits.  That’s true, but Lee wasn’t the only one.  There were six other cadets who also graduated with no demerits.  Grant finished 21st in a class of 39 and was known as an excellent horseman.

Patrick said he heard people say, “Ulysses Simpson Grant.  That wasn’t his real name.  He changed his name.  That was true.  He did.  Then the person would say, “I think his name was Jerome.”  He was never known as “Jerome Grant.”  He was born Hiram Ulysses Grant, but like so many people in the Civil War period [and today as well], he went by his middle name, Ulysses.  When the congressman who put in his recommendation for West Point was filling out the paperwork, he only knew Grant as Ulysses, and assumed his middle name was his mother’s maiden name, Simpson.  So when Grant gets to the US Military Academy there is no Hiram Ulysses Grant on the roll, but there is a Ulysses Simpson Grant [Actually, no.  There is a Ulysses S. Grant.  Patrick is creating another myth here.  Congressman Thomas L. Hamer nominated Ulysses S. Grant, not Ulysses Simpson Grant, though it’s probably true that it was because he thought Grant’s middle name was his mother’s maiden name].

The Appomattox Campaign is the most overlooked campaign in the Civil War.  It’s the campaign that leads to the elimination of the confederacy’s best army.  At Appomattox the NPS has the parole list.  It’s the list of all the confederate soldiers who received a parole pass to return home after the surrender.  Some confederate cavalry escape, some men are captured on April 8, and there are 28,231 parole passes given to the confederate soldiers to return home.  Now, there were a little over 30,000 men around Appomattox on April 8, so if you go backwards there’s a battle called Sailor’s Creek, and Lee has about 8,000 men killed, wounded, and captured at the Battle of Sailor’s Creek.  But if you go into many of the history books, they’ll say that Lee lost half of his army at Sailor’s Creek.  Or even the National Park Service’s old slide show said Lee lost a third of his army there.  But actually he lost a fifth of his men there [actually not quite one-fifth.  Patrick rounds up to 40,000 men at Sailor’s Creek and Lee losing 8,000, whereas adding 8,000 to just over 30,000 gives just over 38,000, and some of the wounded surely came along with the army when it left Sailor’s Creek].  It is the most significant battle of the campaign because Lee also lost eight generals at that battle, including Richard Ewell and his eldest son, Custis Lee, who was in his first battle [hard to believe, but this is probably true.  Custis was in charge of Richmond local defenses in 1864 and may have seen some skirmishing during that time, but it looks as if Sailor’s Creek was his first actual battle].  When he left Richmond and Petersburg, Lee’s plan was not to head west, but to go to North Carolina and join forces with General Joseph Johnston, deal with Sherman, and then turn against Grant with better odds.  Grant continuously blocks Lee’s efforts to turn south.  There are small battles every day.  The two armies marched over a hundred miles, but not in a straight line.  In six days they probably covered close to 200 miles.  When Lee sees the remaining men returning from the battle at Sailor’s Creek he says, “My God, has the army been dissolved?”

One would think that Sailor’s Creek provided Grant the first opportunity to suggest that Lee surrender.  But it is not Grant who first proposes surrender to Lee.  It’s actually one of Lee’s generals, William Nelson Pendleton.  Pendleton says they had a meeting of high-ranking generals and they felt they should lift the burden from General Lee’s shoulders.  Probably around noon on April 7, Pendleton proposes that Lee surrender the Army of Northern Virginia.  General Lee declines that.  He says, “I hope it hasn’t come to that.  We must all determine to die at our posts.”  Grant doesn’t write a letter to Lee proposing Lee’s surrender until about five o’clock the evening of April 7.  By this time the Federal army has gotten into Farmville, they have stopped General Lee from getting supplies at Farmville, and Lee has to move the army north of the Appomattox River.  The next place they can cross the river is at Appomattox Court House.

How Grant determines to write the letter to Lee is an interesting story itself.  General Richard Ewell, captured at Sailor’s Creek, happens to have a cousin in the United States forces, a surgeon named Smith.  They happened to meet each other after Sailor’s Creek, and Ewell mentioned to Smith that he thought Lee would surrender if Grant asked.  Grant hears of this and writes the letter.  General Lee receives the letter at about nine o’clock, near Cumberland Church.  Lee reads the letter and hands it to General James Longstreet.  Longstreet reads the message and replies, “Not yet.”  That opens the correspondence between Lee and Grant that will continue through April 8 and into April 9.  Many people think Lee was trying to get to Lynchburg, but he wasn’t.  He never intended to go to Lynchburg.

People will come to Appomattox and ask, “Why did Lee come all the way out here to surrender?”  He didn’t go out there to surrender.  He was trying to get south to join up with Johnston and was cut off.  Other people come to Appomattox and say, “Well there was no fighting here.  There was just a surrender.”  But that’s not true at all.  There are two engagements that determine the surrender will take place in the village of Appomattox Court House on April 9.  Those two engagements are not battles like Antietam or Gettysburg, but they were battles for position.  They were strategic engagements that gave Grant’s troops the position to force Lee’s surrender.  Lynchburg was a huge supply depot, and the confederates had emptied the warehouses and moved it all by four trains to Appomattox Station, filled with supplies.  Some estimates are as high as 3,000 rations for Lee’s army.  There are weapons, leather goods, and new uniforms even waiting for Lee.  The Union had scouts known as “Jesse Scouts” in the Shenandoah Valley and used in this campaign.  They turned wagons down the wrong road and at the Battle of Nazarene Church at April 3, where Custer’s division overruns Rufus Barringer’s troops, these men ride up to Barringer, saying they were from the 9th Virginia Cavalry, and they capture Barringer.  At Appomattox a sergeant named White going down the southside meets these trains.  He talks with the engineer who tells him they are supplies for General Lee’s army.  White rides to his commander, who goes to Gen. Sheridan, and lets him know these supplies are at Appomattox Station.   Sheridan directs Custer to capture the supplies.  The Federals capture these supplies.  Nearby is General Ruben Lindsey Walker’s reserve artillery.  Lee had 250 artillery pieces at the start of the campaign, so they put the least effective guns under Walker and moved them along a northern route so they wouldn’t impede the army’s movement.  Walker happens to be near Appomattox Station in camp when a rider comes in telling them the Yankee cavalry was coming.  Walker has a hundred pieces of artillery but has no artillery support.  He gets about thirty cannon in a semicircle and starts firing toward the station.  Custer’s men come to see where the artillery is.  They charge about three times and are repulsed each time.  At about 8PM they capture the artillery, about a thousand prisoners, and a hospital train.  One regiment, the 15th NY Cavalry, charges into the town of Appomattox Court House, to the far end of the village.  There are North Carolinians under Gen. Ransom who repulse that charge and the Federals fall back.  Lee now has a predicament.  He’s lost his supplies and the reserve artillery.  Lee has a council that night with Longstreet, Gordon, and Fitz Lee.  They think they can break out because there’s only cavalry to the west.  They decide Gordon will attack, supported by Lee’s cavalry.  They initially sweep Union cavalry off the ridge, but they see infantry come across the next ridge.  It’s the Army of the James, the XXIV Corps and two brigades of USCT with the XXV Corps, who had marched 30-35 miles in 20 hours.  Gordon sends a message to Lee saying “I have fought my corps to a frazzle.  I cannot go forward unless I am supported by Longstreet.”  Longstreet is four miles to the rear facing off against Meade and the V and VI Corps.  Lee was effectively surrounded and writes the letter to Grant requesting terms for surrender.

Hannah Reynolds was an enslaved woman who was mortally wounded on the morning of April 9 in the Coleman House.  An artillery shell passed through and struck her.  She’s taken to a Federal surgeon, but she dies on April 12.  She’s the “Jennie Wade” of Appomattox.  A journalist was there and wrote a story saying it was very unfortunate “there was only a single civilian casualty” in the fighting at Appomattox.  So now hundreds of people reading that believed that the only person killed at Appomattox was Hannah Reynolds, which isn’t true.  Soldiers died, but Reynolds was the only civilian to die.

One story was that Custer received the surrender flag at Appomattox.  Custer did receive a truce flag, and it was the initial one sent out because his division was set to attack.  But it was not the only one sent out.  There were about 10-12 flags sent out all along the line.

People often talk about who fired the last shot and who was the last to die at Appomattox.  Just about every unit history has a claim they had someone who fired the last shot or had the last man killed.  When the fighting stops around Appomattox Court House around 10AM, Fitzhugh Lee, with his cavalry on the right flank, decided he was going to try to escape with what men he could.  He starts to flank out with two divisions.  Rooney Lee’s division is engaged and can’t get out.  The two right flank divisions under Tom Munford and Tom Rosser swing out to the North and head to the West.  They get about two miles west of the Court House and come back to the south to get on the Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road, and Federals attack them.  They fight at about 11 AM.  Two confederates, Robert W. Parker from Bedford, VA and William Price of the 1st MD Cavalry (Confederate) are killed around the Robertson House.  We don’t know which expired first, so it’s really hard to say who was the last to die, but they were the last to die.  The real men who fired the last shots and who were the last to die were in that fight around the Robertson House.  Edward Baker of the 1st Maine Cavalry was the last man to die of his wounds, and he died in August of 1865.

One of the oldest and most enduring myths is the myth of the surrender under the apple tree.  This is a story that started with the soldiers themselves.  It was carried on and largely believed by the soldiers that Lee surrendered under an apple tree.  It was really Grant’s Memoirs that dispelled that myth.  How did it come about?  Lee and Grant were corresponding about the surrender.  Lee asks Grant about terms.  Grant will give generous terms.  He basically says he will parole the army and allow them to go home.  Gen. Lee receives the terms and writes back, changing the nature of the conversation, saying he didn’t think the occasion had arisen to surrender the army, but he would like to meet with General Grant to discuss peace.  That’s a totally different subject.  Grant gets the note late in the evening of April 8.  He shows it to Rawlins, who says only Lincoln can discuss peace.  Lee had proposed to meet the next morning on the Stage Road east of Appomattox Court House, between the lines.  Lee rides out there.  Grant isn’t there, but there’s a message from Grant.  Grant is riding to the west to join with Gens. Ord and Sheridan.  Grant’s message is they can’t meet to discuss peace.  If you want peace, the way to do that is to surrender the army.  Lee has received word from Gordon that he has “fought his corps to a frazzle.”  Lee’s out of options so he writes to Grant asking for an interview to surrender the army.  Grant is on a 22-mile ride that morning.  The courier catches up to him and he reads it.  Grant has a large contingent with him.  He has his staff, the 3rd US Cavalry, and the 3rd West Virginia Cavalry with him.  He designates Col. Orville Babcock and Lt. William McKee Dunn to ride and meet with Gen. Lee.  By this time Lee has moved close to the Appomattox River and sat under an apple tree.  When Babcock and Dunn arrive they pass through the lines to meet with Gen. Lee under this apple tree.  The fighting has stopped, the confederate troops are on a hill behind General Lee, and they see two Federal officers ride up and go to General Lee under the apple tree.  They had no idea it was Orville Babcock and not U.S. Grant.  Eventually, Lee rides up into the village to meet at the McLean House, but the next time the confederate soldiers see General Lee they learn they had been surrendered.  They mistakenly believe it was Grant and Lee under the apple tree.

People ask why didn’t they use the courthouse for the surrender?  The courthouse was closed because it was Palm Sunday.  Lee gave Charles Marshall instructions to find a private residence and Marshall found Wilmer McLean.

Often people try to cast aspersions on General Grant, saying “General Grant arrived improperly dressed and he was all covered with mud.”  That’s partially true, but we have to understand the circumstances.  Grant was on a 22-mile ride over muddy Virginia roads.  Not only Grant was mud covered, but his entire staff was covered with mud.  Lee had donned a new uniform.  Lee rides a little over a mile to the meeting, but Grant had ridden over 20 miles to get to the meeting.

Many think Appomattox ended the war, but that’s not true.  It was effectively the beginning of the end.  Lee had the strongest army, but there were additional surrenders after Appomattox.  There could have been more fighting.  There were minor skirmishes, but no major battles.

Wilmer McLean was 50 years old at the time of the surrender, and his wife was 48 and pregnant at the time.  He liked to tell people the war started in his front yard and ended in his front parlor.  His greatest mission in life was to make money and find a wealthy widow to marry, and he did that.  Virginia Beverly Hull Mason.  She had a plantation near Manassas, Virginia.  General Beauregard used it as his headquarters.  Wilmer McLean wasn’t there.  He had rented it to the confederate army.  He eventually moves to Appomattox and gets involved in sugar speculation.  At the time of the surrender he was worth $90,000 in confederate money.  He moves from Appomattox in 1867 and moves to Northern Virginia.  When Grant becomes President, McLean writes Grant to ask for a job.  Grant gets him a job in the mail office of the Treasury Department.

Most of the buildings at Appomattox are original and have been restored.  The McLean House, though, is a reconstruction.  The courthouse burned down in 1892.  It was rebuilt as the park Visitor’s Center in 1964.  The McLean House had been bought by a group of Union veterans who were going to move it to Washington, DC to be part of a Civil War museum.  They hire a firm out of Lynchburg.  The house is dismantled and the firm goes bankrupt.  The wood starts to rot, and because they don’t have the money to pay anyone to watch over it, people walking by take bricks one by one.  When the Park Service decides to reconstruct it, they do archaeology and have the house reconstructed in late 1948.  The firm that dismantled the house had the plans from when they took the house down, and they got the contract to reconstruct it.  There were 5,500 original bricks left that were deemed worth using, so they were used in the front of the house.

The news of Appomattox spread rapidly.  Grant had a telegraph strung, and they had telegraph service from Appomattox to Washington.  Grant sends a message to Washington.  That message goes out on the telegraph that night.  Many East Coast cities know of the surrender the night of April 9 or the morning of April 10.  Soldiers in Vicksburg, MS knew about it on April 10.  Within a week of surrender all the correspondence between Lee and Grant regarding the surrender is published in the newspapers in California.

This was a really good presentation and very enjoyable.



  1. Pat Young · · Reply

    8 captured Confederate generals? I thought it was 6.

    1. Custis Lee, Richard S. Ewell, Joseph B. Kershaw, Montgomery Corse, Eppa Hunton, Dudley M. DuBose, James P. Smith, and Seth Barton.

  2. Bob Nelson · · Reply

    And of course we now have the perfect petri dish for the growth and dissemination of misinformation, half truths and outright forgeries — the Internet.

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