Who Won the Surrender?

Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865. Each man had objectives he wanted to achieve in this action, so I asked Professor Gary Gallagher who he thought “won” the surrender. He thought it was obvious Grant won because Lee didn’t want to surrender, Lee didn’t, in Gallagher’s words, “threaten to hold his breath if confederates didn’t get to keep their horses.” Professor Gallagher said there was no negotiation at the surrender and Grant held all the cards. To be frank, I don’t think Professor Gallagher thought it through.

Once Lee made the decision that he would have to surrender, he entered into the process with some objectives. First, he didn’t want his officers and men to be subjected to treason trials. Second, he didn’t want his officers and men to be humiliated. Third, he didn’t want his officers and men to suffer in prison camps. He was looking to get the best deal for his men to keep their honor intact and to protect them from retribution. Grant wanted to begin the process of peace.

Let’s look at Professor Gallagher’s assertion that there was no negotiation. I submit there was, and that the largest amount of negotiation took place prior to the two men meeting face-to-face.

On April 7, Grant sent this message to Lee:

APRIL 7, 1865

General R. E. LEE:

The result of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia in this struggle. I feel that it is so, and regard it as my duty to shift from myself the responsibility of any further effusion of blood, by asking of you the surrender of that portion of the C. S. Army known as the Army of Northern Virginia.

U.S. GRANT,
Lieutenant-General [OR Series I, Vol 46, Part 3, p. 619]

Lee replied:

HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA,
APRIL 7, 1865

Lieut. Gen. U.S. GRANT:

I have received your note of this date. Though not entertaining the opinion you express on the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia, I reciprocate your desire to avoid useless effusion of blood, and therefore, before considering your proposition, ask the terms you will offer on condition of its surrender.

R. E. LEE,
General. [Ibid.]

According to the reporter Sylvanus Cadwallader, who claimed to be present, “A careful study of Gen. Lee’s last dispatch to Grant confirmed Gen. Rawlins in the belief that it had been very carefully prepared after a consultation with the Confederate corps commanders, and one or two of his ablest and confidential Staff officers. Rawlins expressed the opinion very confidently that its apparent refusal to surrender his army just then, was solely to obtain the best possible terms for many of his officers, who had made themselves liable to severe punishment by the Federal government; and the natural dread Lee would have, that Gen. Grant would take the utmost advantage that circumstances permitted. Grant soon coincided with this interpretation of the note, and made his arrangements accordingly.” [Sylvanus Cadwallader, Three Years With Grant, pp. 316-317] On April 8, Grant sent this message:

APRIL 8, 1865

General R. E. LEE:

Your note of last evening, in reply to mine of same date, asking the condition on which I will accept the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, is just received. In reply I would say that, peace being my great desire, there is but one condition I would insist upon, namely, that the men and officers surrendered shall be disqualified for taking up arms again against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged. I will meet you, or will designate officers to meet any officers you may name for the same purpose, at any point agreeable to yell, for the purpose of arranging definitely the terms upon which the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia will be received.

U.S. GRANT,
Lieutenant-General. [Ibid., p. 641]

Lee replied to Grant:

HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA,
APRIL 8, 1865

Lieut. Gen. U.S. GRANT:

I received at a late hour your note of to-day. In mine of yesterday I did not intend to propose the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, but to ask the terms of your proposition. To be frank, I do not think the emergency has arisen to call for the surrender of this army, but as the restoration of peace should be the sole object of all, I desired to know whether your proposals would lead to that end. I cannot, therefore, meet you with a view to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia, but as far as your proposal may affect the C. S. forces under my command, and tend to the restoration of peace, I should be pleased to meet you at 10 a.m., to-morrow; on the old stage road to Richmond, between the picket-lines of the two armies.

R. E. LEE,
General. [Ibid.]

According to Horace Porter, on reading this message Grant “shook his head, expressive of his disappointment, and remarked, ‘It looks as if Lee still means to fight; I will reply in the morning.’ [Horace Porter, Campaigning With Grant, p. 463] Cadwallader claimed, “The reading of this cool disingenuous dispatch threw Gen. Rawlins into unusually bad temper, and he began at once: ‘He did not propose to surrender,’ he says. ‘Diplomatic but not true. He did propose, in his heart, to surrender. He now tries to take advantage of a single word used by  you, as a reason for extending such easy terms. He now wants to entrap us into making a treaty of peace. You said nothing about that. You asked him to surrender. He replied by asking what terms you would give if he surrendered. You answered, by stating the terms. Now he wants to arrange for peace–something beyond and above the surrender of his army–something to embrace the whole Confederacy, if possible. No Sir! No Sir. Why it is a positive insult; and an attempt in an underhanded way, to change the whole terms of the correspondence.’ To this outburst Grant replied: ‘that it amounted to the same thing. Lee was only trying to be let down easily. That he could meet him, as requested, in the morning, and settle the whole business in an hour.’ But Rawlins was inexorable; said it: ‘would be presumptuous to undertake to teach Gen. Lee the force of words, or the use of the English language. That he had purposely proposed to arrange terms of peace to gain time, and better terms. That the dispatch was cunningly worded to that end, and deserved no reply whatever. ‘He don’t think the emergency has arisen! That’s cool, but another falsehood. That emergency has been staring him in the face for forty-eight hours. If he hasn’t seen it yet, we will soon bring it to his comprehension! He has to surrender. He shall surrender. By the eternal, it shall be surrender, and nothing else.’ Then came Grant’s soft, moderate, persuasive, and apologetic voice: ‘Some allowance must be made for the trying position in which Gen. Lee is placed. He is compelled to defer somewhat to the wishes of his government, and his military associates. But it all means precisely the same thing. If I meet Lee, he will surrender before I leave.’ ” [Sylvanus Cadwallader, Three Years With Grant, pp. 318-319]

On the morning of April 9, Grant sent the following:

APRIL 9, 1865

General R. E. LEE:

Your note of yesterday is received. I have no authority to treat on the subject of peace; the meeting proposed for 10 a.m. to-day could lead to no good. I will state, however, general, that I am equally anxious for peace with yourself, and the whole North entertains the same feeling. The terms upon which peace can be had are well understood. By the South laying down their arms they will hasten that most desirable event, save thousands of human lives, and hundreds of millions of property not yet destroyed. Seriously hoping that all our difficulties may be set-tied without the loss of another life, I subscribe myself, &c.,

U.S. GRANT,
Lieutenant-General. [Ibid., p. 664]

Lee responded:

HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA,
APRIL 9, 1865

Lieut. Gen. U.S. GRANT:

I received your note of this morning on the picket-line, whither I had come to meet you and ascertain definitely what terms were embraced in your proposal of yesterday with reference to the surrender of this army. I now ask an interview in accordance with the offer contained in your letter of yesterday for that purpose.

R. E. LEE,
General. [Ibid.]

Lee requested a suspension of hostilities during these negotiations and a duplicate request to meet. Grant replied that he’s pressing on to the front to meet with Lee.

As Cadwallader reports the scene when Rawlins read this note, “Presently Grant turned to Rawlins with a smile and said: ‘How will that do Rawlins?’ to which the latter replied: “I think that will do’ laying strong emphasis on the word ‘that.’ ” [Sylvanus Cadwallader, Three Years With Grant, p. 323] Grant then wrote:

APPOMATTOX COURT-HOUSE, VA.
April 9, 1865

General R. E. LEE:

In accordance with the substance of my letter to you of the 8th instant, I propose to receive the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia on the following terms, to wit: Rolls of all the officers and men to be made in duplicate, one copy to be given to an officer to be designated by me, the other to be retained by such officer or officers as you may designate. The officers to give their individual paroles not to take up arms against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged; and each company or regimental commander sign a like parole for the men of their commands. The arms, artillery, and public property to be parked and stacked, and turned over to the officers appointed by me to receive them. This will not embrace the side-arms of the officers, nor their private horses or baggage. This done, each officer and man will be allowed to return to his home, not to be disturbed by U. S. authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.

U.S. GRANT,
Lieutenant-General. [Ibid., p. 665]

What did Lee want? First, he didn’t want his officers and men to be subjected to treason trials. Second, he didn’t want his officers and men to be humiliated. Third, he didn’t want his officers and men to suffer in prison camps. What was Grant offering? First, by saying the officers and men “will be allowed to return to his home, not to be disturbed by U. S. authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside,” Grant was telling Lee [in Lee’s interpretation] there would be no treason trials or retribution. Second, the officers and men will be paroled, so none would go to prison camps. Third, in saying the surrender “will not embrace the side-arms of the officers, nor their private horses or baggage,” Grant was telling Lee there would be no humiliation. Grant, in Lee’s view, was offering to give Lee everything Lee wanted out of the surrender. All Grant was asking in return was to turn over arms, artillery, and public property and for the officers and men to obey the laws and observe their paroles. Lee went to Appomattox knowing this. What else did he need to negotiate? We’ll see in a minute.

Lee didn’t “threaten to hold his breath” if he didn’t get what he wanted, as Dr. Gallagher so eloquently termed it, but he was prepared to react if Grant didn’t follow through on his note at the surrender. According to James Longstreet, “While waiting, General Lee expressed apprehension that his refusal to meet General Grant’s first proposition might cause him to demand harsh terms. I assured him that I knew General Grant well enough to say that the terms would be such as he would demand under similar circumstances, but he yet had doubts. The conversation continued in broken sentences until the bearer of the return despatch [sic] approached. As he still seemed apprehensive of humiliating demands, I suggested that in that event he should break off the interview and tell General Grant to do his worst. The thought of another round seemed to brace him, and he rode with Colonel Marshall, of his staff, to meet the Union commander.” [James Longstreet, From Manassas to Appomattox, pp. 627-628]

Lee, I suggest, had carefully considered what he wanted and what he was getting, and I suggest Grant had carefully considered what he wanted and what he was getting as well as giving. Lee acknowledged this when the two men met. Horace Porter wrote, “Lee was evidently anxious to proceed to the formal work of the surrender, and he brought the subject up again by saying: ‘I presume, General Grant, we have both carefully considered the proper steps to be taken, and I would suggest that you commit to writing the terms you have proposed, so that they may be formally acted upon.’ ‘Very well,’ replied Grant; ‘I will write them out.’ ” [Horace Porter, Campaigning With Grant, p. 476]

There was some additional negotiation when the two men met. Porter wrote, “General Grant then said: ‘Unless you have some suggestions to make in regard to the form in which I have stated the terms, I will have a copy of the letter made in ink, and sign it.’ ‘There is one thing I should like to mention,’ Lee replied, after a short pause. ‘The cavalrymen and artillerists own their own horses in our army. Its organization in this respect differs from that of the United States.’ This expression attracted the notice of our officers present, as showing how firmly the conviction was grounded in his mind that we were two distinct countries. He continued: ‘I should like to understand whether these men will be permitted to retain their horses.’ ‘You will find that the terms as written do not allow this,’ General Grant replied; ‘only the officers are permitted to take their private property.’ Lee read over the second page of the letter again, and then said: ‘No, I see the terms do not allow it; that is clear.’ His face showed plainly that he was quite anxious to have this concession made; and Grant said very promptly, and without giving Lee time to make a direct request: ‘Well, the subject is quite new to me. Of course I did not know that any private soldiers owned their own animals; but I think we have fought the last battle of the war,–I sincerely hope so,–and that the surrender of this army will be followed soon by that of all the others; and I take it that most of the men in the ranks are small farmers, and as the country has been so raided by the two armies, it is doubtful whether they will be able to put in a crop to carry themselves and their families through the next winter without the aid of the horses they are now riding, and I will arrange it in this way: I will not change the terms as now written, but I will instruct the officers I shall appoint to receive the paroles to let all the men who claim to own a horse or mule take the animals home with them to work their little farms.’ ” [Ibid., pp. 478-479]

Grant himself adds, “General Lee, after all was completed and before taking his leave, remarked that his army was in a very bad condition for want of food, and that they were without forage; that his men had been living for some days on parched corn exclusively, and that he would have to ask me for rations and forage. I told him ‘certainly,’ and asked for how many men he wanted rations. His answer was ‘about twenty-five thousand;’ and I authorized him to send his own commissary and quartermaster to Appomattox Station, two or three miles away, where he could have, out of the trains we had stopped, all the provisions wanted. As for forage, we had ourselves depended almost entirely upon the country for that.Lee, then, got everything he wanted plus one more item out of the surrender.” [Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, p. 471] So Lee actually got everything he wanted from the surrender, plus more.

I submit Grant realized what Lee wanted and gave it to him because all Grant wanted was for the Army of Northern Virginia to lay down its arms, believing [correctly] once that happened the other confederate armies would soon surrender as well. As viewed immediately after the surrender, then, we could say there was no clear winner of the surrender. But I think the question becomes murkier if we look at the violence committed by former confederates during Reconstruction. Did they live up to the terms of the surrender themselves? Many would say they didn’t. Additionally, while Lee got as much as he could have gotten from Grant, could Grant have gotten more from Lee, or could Grant have given up less than he gave up and still secure Lee’s surrender? That’s something we’ll never know for sure, but if Professor Gallagher was correct that Grant held all the cards and Lee had no choice but to surrender, we have to think Grant could have gotten more out of the deal than he did. It seems to me, then, that if we take the long view of the results of the surrender, Lee actually came out ahead of Grant.

What do you think?

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4 comments

  1. Emory Thomas offers much the same take.

    1. Perhaps I’m not as much off the wall as I was afraid I might be, then. I’ll have to check out what he says. I read his book several years ago, but I don’t recall his take on the surrender. What set me down this particular path was Elizabeth Varon’s book, which got me to thinking about the differing interpretations and who got the better of things.

      1. I guess I’ve always read the correspondence as a negotiation w/o explicitly thinking about it in those terms, so kudos to Al for making the observation. Lee has his goals, which can be summarized crassly as getting the most out of a rapidly deteriorating situation. (By the time Grant sends his first letter, Lee is already doomed—after crossing at Farmville, Lee has conceded the short route to Appomattox to Grant.) Grant’s goal is to remove the ANV from the chessboard. As they trade letters, the noose tightens, until Lee is compelled to meet with Grant or have his army torn apart in a battle of annihilation.

        1. Lee knew he was at the point of surrender, but he always had the choice of fighting to the end, and he knew it. If Grant didn’t give Lee the minimum Lee needed, I believe Lee was fully prepared to fight on.

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