The national capital of the Confederate States of America, Richmond, Va., fell to the Union Army 148 years ago this month, after 10 months of bloody horror in the muddy bug-infested trenches around nearby Petersburg, Va., as the Union armies tightened their noose around what remained of the Confederacy and Gen. Rober E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
The Confederate defensive lines around Petersburg collapsed under steady Union pressure on the morning of April 3, 1865, and Richmond fell into Union hands later that evening.
Still, the American Civil War wasn’t over. Shattered Confederate soldiers followed Gen. Lee westward in an attempt in an attempt to link up with other Confederates still fighting in North Carolina, or at least to find supplies to keep Lee’s Army in the field. Things didn’t go as planned.
As the Union Army hunted down the ragged remains of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, the two armies clashed at places in Southern Virginia called Five Forks, Namozine Church, Amelia Springs, and finally, on April 6, Sayler’s Creek.
It became apparent that the fresh, ever-reinforced, and ever-resupplied Union Army would outlast the ragged, starving Confederates, whose armed strength dribbled away daily from continuous battlefield casualties and growing levels of desertion as exhausted gray-clad soldiers — singly and in small groups — quietly gave up made for home.
The day after the Battle for Sayler’s Creek, Union commander Gen. Ulysses S. Grant sent a note to Gen. Lee that read “The results 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 Confederate States army known as the Army of Northern Virginia.”Gen. Lee responded that same day, “I have received your note of this date. Though not entertaining the opinion you express of 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.”
Lee and Grant exchanged more notes the next day. Grant asked for the surrender of Confederate officers and men, who would not be allowed to continue waging war against the United States until properly exchanged. Lee politely thanked Grant for his terms, but declined surrender. He did, however, agree to meet face-to-face with Grant the next day between the picket lines of the armies at a small crossroads called Appomattox Court House.
The two generals met there in Appomattox, 148 years ago April 9, in the front room of a home that belonged to Wilmer McLean, a wholesale grocer. In a strange twist of fate, McLean had owned land in Prince William County, Va., where four years before the Union and Confederate armies fought one of the war’s first battles; the Union called it the First Battle of Bull Run. The Confederates called it the First Battle of Manassas.
At their meeting in McLean’s front room on April 9, 1865, Lee and Grant agreed on surrender terms. Confederate soldiers would be allowed to keep swords and pistols, as well as their personal property and horses. The spring planting season was upon them, after all. The infantry would be asked to stack their muskets and march away.
Lee agreed, and left the house.
Wilmer McLean later said the American Civil War started in his front yard, and ended in his front parlor.
At dawn three days after the surrender, Union Maj. Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain — the so-called Lion of Little Round Top — assembled soldiers from the Union 5th Corps of the Army of the Potomac along the main street of Appomattox Court House. They were to accept the surrendering Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, and witness the ceremonial stacking of arms.
Soon the surrendering Confederate army appeared on the road, led by Confederate Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon. These armies had been locked in a death struggle for nearly four years, and no one was sure how the ceremony would go. Bitterness was indescribably high, and some worried about the threats of insults, gloating, and perhaps even fist fights.
As Gordon, mounted on his horse, came astride Chamberlain, the Union general ordered his men to come to attention and carry arms as a show of respect. Seeing this, Gordon unsheathed his sword, smartly touched its point to the heel of his boot, and raised the hilt shoulder-high, its blade opposite his right eye, in the traditional officer’s salute under arms.
For all practical purposes, thus ended America’s bloodiest war. Some fighting went on briefly. Three days after the Chamberlain-Gordon salute, the last battle of the Civil War was fought in Columbus, Ga. Thirteen days after that, On 26 April 1865, Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston met Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman at Bennett Place, N.C., and surrendered the Confederate Army of Tennessee and all remaining Confederate forces still active in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.
The war was over. Over the course of its four years 646,392 Americans, Union and Confederate, were killed or wounded — nearly two percent of the entire U.S. population in 1865.
–John Keller, militaryaerospace.com