On this day in history, April 9, 1865, one of the most important scenes in American military history occurred. General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, surrendered his starving rebel troops to the Union armies commanded by Union General (and future president of the United States) Ulysses S. Grant. In doing so, the slaveowners’ rebellion started after Lincoln’s election in 1860 was demonstrated to no longer be a going concern. Though there would be some battles afterwards in various parts of the world (including on the high seas with the Confederate raider the Shenendoah), the efforts of the Confederacy after this point were like those of a chicken whose head had been cut off–ultimately futile and devoid of significance.
In examining this particular momentous event it would be useful to explain a bit on how it occurred, and what credit belongs to both the Union and Confederate leaders in making sure that this end gave honor to the valor of the Confederacy without conceding the justice of their foolish cause to rebel for the cause of protecting their ‘domestic institution’ of plantation slavery from any threat of slow and gradual liberty (since Lincoln’s election only promised a cessation of the expansion of slavery, and not any attack on the institution itself within the slave states–it was only the folly of rebellion that led to the destruction of slavery within the United States at all at that time). Additionally, it would also be worthwhile to briefly discuss the new beginning that resulted from the end of the Civil War.
Though in an alternative universe there exist histories of a successful and independent Confederate States of America , in the real history, the Confederacy was defeated and this moment serves as a symbolic picture of the many later and lesser surrenders that followed in North Carolina (at Bennett’s Farm later in April 1865), in Alabama, in Louisiana, in the Indian Territories, in Texas, and elsewhere.
The end of the Army of Northern Virginia as a going concern begins about two weeks before the events at Appomattox Court House. In late March, Lee realized that he would not be able to hold the lines at Petersburg indefinitely after the forces of General Philip Sheridan reunited with Grant after destroying the remnants of Early’s force at the “Battle” of Waynesboro Virginia, permanently ending the presence of the Confederacy in the Shenandoah Valley. With the presence of extra troops, Grant’s ability to extend his lines and cut off the Southside Railroad, the last way to supply Confederate troops in the trenches at Petersburg, appeared inevitable.
So Lee decided to strike first, sending one of his most able remaining combat generals, one General Gordon, to attack Fort Stedman in the Union lines and allow the Confederacy the chance to escape. An initial surprise attack captured the fort but the breach was sealed and the attack ultimately failed, and Gordon was forced to retreat with several thousand soldiers lost. At this point, it was only a matter of time. Grant immediately sent Sheridan and about 30,000 Union troops to attempt to break the Southside Railroad, and in a two-day battle at Five Forks (a battle marked by the immense stupidity of General George Pickett of Gettysburg fame in attending a shad bake while his troops were being overwhelmed), the Union succeded in closing the last supply line into Petersburg . The next day, the Confederate troops (and the government of Richmond) was on the run as a general assault on the Confederate lines led to the end of the long siege of Petersburg.
Everything from this moment onward that Lee did was only buying time temporarily, and in the next week his army sought to race the Union army to railroad junctions and escape. Day after day they moved further West, as Lee tried to escape South (finding his way blocked) so that he could join fellow Confederate General Joseph Johnson on interior lines. At Saylor’s Creek he lost a quarter of his army as casualties as his rearguard was overwhelmed. Finally, on April 9th, the presence of both infantry and cavalry in his line of march meant that Lee was faced with the choice of honorable surrender or the start of a destructive guerrilla war against the Union. He chose surrender .
It is this moment where Lee (and later generals) showed their most honorable side. Despite having fought in a dishonorable war for a foolish cause, the refusal to make the Confederate people suffer the destruction that a partisan war would bring and the honor to surrender when victory as a Western nation in conventional warfare was no longer possible allowed for a peaceful (if partial) reconciliation to occur. From this moment onward, the South did not seek a return to its antebellum place of prominence in the United States, accepting its role as the lesser section and merely seeking to continue as much as possible and for as long as possible its system of racial domination. It would be another century until blacks (and native American Indians) received the proper and legal recognition of their full civil rights, but the surrender of the Confederacy at least allowed this process to occur within the context of a united United States.
It was the honor of the Union army that allowed this surrender to occur as well, though. Grant was gracious enough to parole the Confederate troops (knowing they would not fight again) and avoided humiliating his defeated opponents who had fought so fiercely. He let the Confederates choose their place of surrender, and they chose the home of one Wilmer McLean, who had left the area of Manassas, Virginia after the Battle of First Bull Run damaged his home, and had moved to Appomattox Court House to escape the war, only to find the war ending in his parlor (which was soon ransacked for souvenirs by victorious Union troops) .
Nonetheless, the troops of the Union understood that the surrender of Lee’s army meant victory in the Civil War, and the reunification of the United States under the dominance of the more populous and more industrial North over the backwards and agricultural south, as well as the end of slavery. This victory would, within a few decades, catapult the United States into a recognized position as part of the “elite” nations of the world, and also lead eventually to the spread of civil rights to disadvantaged groups, and lead to the permanent destruction of the blinkered and corrupt aristocracy of the South. Such a glorious outcome is well worth celebrating, even if it meant the beginning of a new fight against a different type of corrupt aristocracy in the industrial leaders of the North.