This post was originally published as an article by Trevor Plante in the Spring 2015 issue of Prologue magazine. Trevor K. Plante is chief of the Reference Services Branch at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. He is a supervisory archivist who specializes in 19th- and early 20th-century military records and is an active lecturer and a frequent contributor to Prologue.
To many Americans the word Appomattox is synonymous with the end of the Civil War.
The war, however, did not officially conclude at that tiny village west of Petersburg, Virginia. But what happened there in early April 150 years ago certainly marked the beginning of the end for the Confederacy.
After the fall of Richmond, the Confederate capital, on April 2, 1865, officials in the Confederate government, including President Jefferson Davis, fled. The dominoes began to fall. The surrender at Appomattox took place a week later on April 9.
While it was the most significant surrender to take place during the Civil War, Gen. Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy’s most respected commander, surrendered only his Army of Northern Virginia to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.
Several other Confederate forces—some large units, some small—had yet to surrender before President Andrew Johnson could declare that the Civil War was officially over.
The Grant-Lee agreement served not only as a signal that the South had lost the war but also as a model for the rest of the surrenders that followed.
After Richmond fell and Davis fled, Confederate commanders were on their own to surrender their commands to Union forces. Surrenders, paroles, and amnesty for many Confederate combatants would take place over the next several months and into 1866 throughout the South and border states.
Not until 16 months after Appomattox, on August 20, 1866, did the President formally declare an end to the war.
Lee’s Last Campaign: Starved for Supplies
The string of events marking the end of the war all began with Lee’s Appomattox campaign.
General Lee’s final campaign began March 25, 1865, with a Confederate attack on Fort Stedman, near Petersburg. General Grant’s forces counterattacked a week later on April 1 at Five Forks, forcing Lee to abandon Richmond and Petersburg the following day. The Confederate Army’s retreat moved southwest along the Richmond & Danville Railroad. Lee desperately sought a train loaded with supplies for his troops but encountered none.
Grant, realizing that Lee’s army was running out of options, sent a letter to Lee on April 7 requesting the Confederate general’s surrender.
“The result of last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia in this struggle,” Grant wrote. “I feel that it is so, and regard it as my duty to shift from myself 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.”
Lee responded, saying he did not agree with Grant’s opinion of the hopelessness of further resistance of his army. However, he did ask what terms Grant was offering. This correspondence would continue throughout the following day.
Meanwhile, Union Gen. Philip Sheridan’s cavalry, along with two rapidly moving infantry corps, marched hard from Farmville, in central Virginia, along a more southerly route than Confederate forces. Union cavalry reached Appomattox Station before Lee and blocked his path on April 8.
The next morning, Lee faced Union cavalry and infantry in his front at Appomattox Court House and two Union corps to his rear three miles to the northeast at New Hope Church. At dawn, Confederate Gen. John B. Gordon’s corps attacked Federal cavalry, but Gordon quickly realized he could not push forward without substantial help from other Confederate forces.
Lee, upon learning of this news and realizing his retreat had been halted, asked Grant for a meeting to discuss his army’s surrender. He later asked for “a suspension of hostilities” pending the outcome of the surrender talks.
Grant received Lee’s request four miles west of Walker’s Church, about six miles from Appomattox Court House. One of Grant’s aides, Lt. Col. Orville Babcock, and his orderly, Capt. William McKee Dunn, brought Grant’s reply to Lee. The meeting place was left to Lee’s discretion. Lee and two of his aides rode toward Appomattox Court House, accompanied by Babcock and Dunn. Soon Lee sent the aides ahead to find a suitable location for the surrender.
Lee’s Men Get to Keep Horses: Rations Go to Confederate Soldiers
Soon after entering the village, the two Confederates happened upon a homeowner, Wilmer McLean, who showed them an unfurnished and somewhat run-down house. After being told that would not do for such an important occasion, he offered his own house for the surrender meeting. After seeing the house, they accepted and sent a message back to Lee.
Lee reached the McLean house around 1 p.m. Along with his aide-de-camp Lt. Col. Charles Marshall and Babcock, he awaited Grant’s arrival in McLean’s parlor, the first room off the center hallway to the left. Grant arrived around 1:30. His personal staff and Generals Phil Sheridan and Edward Ord were with him. Grant and Lee discussed the old army and having met during the Mexican War.
Grant proposed that the Confederates, with the exception of officers, lay down their arms, and after signing paroles, return to their homes. Lee agreed with the terms, and Grant began writing them out.
One issue that Lee brought up before the terms were finalized and signed was the issue of horses. He pointed out that unlike the Federals, Confederate cavalrymen and artillerymen in his army owned their own horses. Grant stated that he would not add it to the agreement but would instruct his officers receiving the paroles to let the men take their animals home. Lee also brought up the subject of rations since his men had gone without rations for several days. Grant agreed to supply 25,000 rations to the hungry Confederate soldiers. Most of the rations were provided from Confederate supplies captured by Sheridan when he seized rebel supply trains at Appomattox Station the previous day.
Lee and Grant designated three officers each to make sure the terms of the surrender were properly carried out.
Grant and Lee met on horseback around 10 in the morning of April 10 on the eastern edge of town. There are conflicting accounts to what they discussed, but it is believed that three things came out of this meeting: each Confederate soldier would be given a printed pass, signed by his officers, to prove he was a paroled prisoner; all cavalrymen and artillerymen would be allowed to retain their horses; and Confederates who had to pass through Federal-occupied territory to get home were allowed free transportation on U.S. government railroads and vessels.
Printing presses were set up to print the paroles, and the formal surrender of arms took place on April 12. For those who stayed with Lee until the end, the war was over. It was time for them to head home. Lee left Appomattox and rode to Richmond to join his wife.
Lee’s Wife Asserts that the General Did Not Surrender the Confederacy
In a statement about her husband, Mary Custis Lee remarked that “General Lee is not the Confederacy.”
Her assessment was spot on, for the Confederacy still lived. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s army—the next largest after Lee’s still at war—was operating in North Carolina. Lt. Gen. Richard Taylor controlled forces in Alabama, Mississippi, and part of Louisiana. Lt. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith’s men were west of the Mississippi, and Brig. Gen. Stand Watie was in command of an Indian unit in the Far West. Nathan Bedford Forrest had men in Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi.
The day after Lee’s surrender, the federal War Department was still trying to work out who was included in the terms of the agreement; its terms had not yet been received in Washington. Was it all members of the Army of Northern Virginia or just those who were with Lee at the time of surrender?
Maj. Gen. Godfrey Weitzel, the Union commander in charge of Richmond, telegraphed Grant that “the people here are anxious that [John] Mosby should be included in Lee’s surrender. They say he belongs to that army.” The unit they were referring to was Mosby’s Rangers, also known as the 43rd Battalion of Virginia Cavalry, who harassed Union forces in Virginia for the last few years of the war.
In addition, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton requested from Grant further clarification about forces in Loudoun County, Virginia, that belonged to the Army of Northern Virginia and whether they fell under Lee’s surrender. Grant clarified the matter in a telegram to Stanton on the night of April 10:
The surrender was only of the men left with the pursued army at the time of surrender. All prisoners captured in battle previous to the surrender stand same as other prisoners of war, and those who had escaped and were detached at the time are not included. I think, however, there will be no difficulty now in bringing in on the terms voluntarily given to General Lee all the fragments of the Army of Northern Virginia, and it may be the army under Johnston also. I wish Hancock would try it with Mosby.
This matched a telegram sent mid-afternoon from Chief of Staff Gen. Henry W. Halleck to Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock in which the chief of staff advised the general that the secretary of war wanted him to print and circulate the correspondence between Grant and Lee concerning the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia. Halleck then provided further guidance that “All detachments and stragglers from that army will, upon complying with the conditions agreed upon, be paroled and permitted to return to their homes.”
The “Gray Ghost” Gives Up Without Surrendering
Since not everyone was yet in a surrendering mood, Halleck further advised that those who did not surrender would be treated as prisoners of war. He ended the telegram with one exception, “the guerrilla chief Mosby will not be paroled.”
Mosby’s response was delivered to Hancock on April 16. Mosby was not ready to surrender his command but would meet to discuss terms of an armistice. After reading the letter, Hancock agreed to meet at noon on April 18; a cease-fire would begin immediately. That evening the War Department wired that Grant had authorized Hancock to accept the surrender of Mosby’s command.
In the days just after President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, there were heightened personal safety concerns for top officers. Hancock sent Brig. Gen. George Chapman, a Union cavalry officer, in his place to confer with Mosby on the April 18. Mosby was still not ready to surrender and requested a 48-hour extension of the cease-fire. Chapman agreed and notified Mosby that the cease-fire would continue until noon on April 20. Hancock turned down Mosby’s requests for another 10 days until Mosby could learn the fate of Johnston’s army.
The “Gray Ghost” chose to disband his unit rather than surrender en masse. In his announcement read to his men on April 21, Mosby told them, “I disband your organization in preference to surrendering it to our enemies. I am no longer your commander.” Each man would be left to decide his own fate.
Most of Mosby’s officers, and several hundred of his men, rode into Winchester to surrender themselves and sign paroles. Federals allowed them to keep their horses. Hancock estimated that around 380 rangers were paroled. Others followed suit and started turning themselves in at other towns in Virginia. Even more joined their colleagues and signed paroles in Washington and at military posts over the next several months.
Hancock offered a $2,000 reward for the capture of Mosby the same day that the majority of his men surrendered conspicuously without their commander and raised it to $5,000 in early May.
Mosby and his younger brother, William, went into hiding, near their father’s home outside Lynchburg, Virginia, soon after learning of Johnston’s surrender to Sherman in North Carolina. In mid-June William received assurances from a local provost marshal in Lynchburg that his brother would be paroled if he turned himself in. John Mosby presented himself the next day only to be told the offer had been countermanded by Union authorities in Richmond. Several days passed before Grant himself interceded, and on June 16 Mosby was told his parole would be accepted. The following day, Mosby turned himself in and signed the parole in Lynchburg. Mosby returned to the business of law shortly after the war.
Mosby, like Lee prior to his surrender, was counting on Johnston to pull away from Sherman in North Carolina and join other Confederate forces.
But Johnston was being pursued by the forces commanded by Union Gen. William T. Sherman. After Sherman’s successful “March to the Sea,” in which his army marched from Atlanta to Savannah, Georgia, in the fall and winter of 1864, he steadily pushed Johnston’s Confederate army further north through the Carolinas.
Sherman Pursues Johnston, But Overplays His Hand
Sherman marched through South Carolina, capturing the state capital, Columbia, in February. Union forces reached Fayetteville, North Carolina, on March 11 and began a push toward Goldsboro. Sherman’s forces clashed with Johnston’s army at Averasboro on March 16 and again at Bentonville in a multiday battle that ended on March 21.
Johnston’s Confederate army was reduced to around 30,000 following the battle of Bentonville. This amounted to about half the size of Sherman’s Union command. When Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield’s Union force joined Sherman at Goldsboro several days later, the combined Union force reached approximately 80,000 men. Sherman was now on a rail line that connected him directly with Petersburg, Virginia.
Sherman went to City Point, Virginia, where he met with Grant and Lincoln on March 27 and 28 to discuss the coming end of the war. After the meetings ended, Sherman returned to his army to resume his pursuit of Johnston. As the two adversaries continued moving north, Johnston learned of the evacuation of Petersburg and Richmond and of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. The plan for Lee and Johnston to join forces had collapsed. With Grant now free from fighting Lee in Virginia, the two Union forces—Grant’s and Sherman’s—could turn their combined attention toward Johnston and crush his lone Confederate army.
Sherman’s army started marching toward Raleigh on April 10 with Johnston’s army retreating before it. Word reached Sherman of Lee’s surrender on April 11, and he informed his troops the following day. North Carolina Governor Zebulon Vance sent representatives on April 10 to begin peace talks with Sherman. Those talks stopped several days later after Union forces entered Raleigh on April 13. The following day Johnston sent a letter proposing a suspension of operations to allow civil authorities to make arrangements ending the war.
Sherman notified Grant and Stanton that “I will accept the same terms as Gen. Grant gave Gen. Lee, and be careful to complicate any points of civil policy.”
Johnston, who had received advice from both Governor Vance and Confederate President Davis regarding peace talks, reached out to Sherman to discuss terms of his surrender. Several days passed before Sherman and Johnston eventually met near Durham Station on April 17. Sherman offered Johnston the same terms as those given Lee at Appomattox.
Johnston suggested that they take it one step further and “arrange the terms for a permanent peace.” Sherman saw an opportunity to not only end the war for his opponent’s army but to end the war entirely.
Talks continued the following day with Confederate Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge accompanying Johnston.
Sherman, Johnston in Accord, But Washington Says “No”
Sherman agreed to seven principal provisions. The agreement, however, went beyond military terms and the surrender of Johnston’s army. The agreement applied to any (read all) Confederate armies still in existence. The troops would disband and return to their state capitals, where they were to deposit their arms and public property at the state arsenals. The federal executive would recognize state governments, including their officers and legislatures. Where rival governments existed, the U.S. Supreme Court would decide which one would be recognized.
Federal courts would be reestablished in southern states, and the people would have their political rights and franchises guaranteed, including their rights of person and property. The war would cease, and a general amnesty would be provided.
Sherman was convinced his signed agreement with Johnston would end the war. In his cover letter awkwardly addressed to Grant or Halleck, Sherman argued that the agreement, “if approved by the President of the United States, will produce peace from the Potomac to the Rio Grande.”
In a follow-up letter to Halleck the same day, Sherman advised: “please give all orders necessary according to the views the Executive may take, and influence him, if possible, not to vary the terms at all, for I have considered everything.”
Sherman had overplayed his hand. He did not realize that neither the President nor any high-ranking member of the federal government would ever agree to the terms outlined in his accord with Johnston. The plan he worked out with Johnston was quickly rejected by federal authorities.
Sherman, thinking he ended the war, was surprised by the response he received from Washington. The Union commander had to inform Johnston that unless new military terms were reached, their armistice would end on April 26. That day the opposing army commanders met once again in Durham Station and worked out an agreement limited to military issues. Now that political matters were not included in the terms, Grant, who was sent to make sure Sherman got it right this time, quickly gave his approval, thus accepting the surrender of the largest Confederate force still in existence.
More Surrenders Follow General Johnston’s Lead
In addition to his Army of Tennessee, General Johnston also surrendered various forces under his command in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.
After Lee and Johnston capitulated, there were still armed Confederate troops operating in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, and Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma).
At the time of Johnston’s surrender, Lt. Gen. Richard Taylor, son of former U.S. President Zachary Taylor, commanded around 10,000 men in the Confederate Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana.
The city of Mobile, Alabama, surrendered to Union forces in mid-April after Union victories at two forts protecting the city. This, along with the news of Johnston’s surrender negotiations with Sherman, led Taylor to seek a meeting with his Union counterpart, Maj. Gen. Edward R.S. Canby. The two generals met several miles north of Mobile on May 2. After agreeing to a 48-hour truce, the generals enjoyed an al fresco luncheon of food, drink, and lively music. Canby offered Taylor the same terms agreed upon between Lee and Grant. Taylor accepted the terms and surrendered his command on May 4 at Citronelle, Alabama.
After Taylor surrendered, other units followed quickly.
The fleeing Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, was finally captured by Union cavalry on May 10, near Irwinville, Georgia. His capture was soon followed by the surrenders of smaller Confederate forces in Florida, Georgia, and northern Arkansas.
Nathan Bedford Forrest, who fell under the geographic command of Richard Taylor, surrendered his cavalry corps several days after his commander.
In his farewell address to his men at Gainesville, Alabama, on May 9, Forrest stated: “I do not think it proper or necessary at this time to refer to causes which have reduced us to this extremity; nor is it now a matter of material consequence to us how such results were brought about. That we are beaten is a self-evident fact, and any further resistance on our part would justly be regarded as the very height of folly and rashness.”
He ended his address by advising his men to “Obey the laws, preserve your honor, and the Government to which you have surrendered can afford to be, and will be, magnanimous.”
Several weeks later, the War Department issued a special order calling for a grand review of Union armies to be held in Washington to celebrate recent Union victories. On May 23, Maj. Gen. George Meade’s Army of the Potomac marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, followed the next day by Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s Army of Georgia and Army of the Tennessee. Despite this 19th-century equivalent of a victory lap, the war still continued in Texas and Indian Territory.
Fighting Continued West Of the Mississippi River
From January 1863 until the end of the war, Confederate Lt. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith commanded the Trans-Mississippi Department. The department included Arkansas, most of Louisiana, Texas, and Indian Territory. After Union victories at Vicksburg and Port Hudson, Smith’s command was cut off from the rest of the Confederacy. Union control of the Mississippi would keep his army west of the river for the remainder of the war.
In the spring of 1864, Confederate forces in his department defeated Union Gen. Nathaniel Banks at the Battle of Mansfield in the River Red campaign. Smith later sent Maj. Gen. Sterling Price on a large cavalry raid into Missouri, which proved a huge failure after Price’s men were repulsed back into Arkansas.
Two days after President Johnson declared the war “virtually at an end,” Union Col. Theodore Barrett attacked a smaller Confederate force, half his size, commanded by Col. John S. Ford at Palmito Ranch in Texas, May 12, 1865. The overconfident Barrett was soundly defeated in what became the last engagement of the American Civil War.
Less than two weeks later, Smith, succumbing to the inevitable, surrendered his command on May 26. Following his surrender, the former West Point graduate and U.S. Army officer fled to Mexico and then Cuba to avoid prosecution for treason. After learning of President Johnson’s May 29 proclamation concerning amnesty and pardon, Smith returned to Virginia in November to take the amnesty oath.
At the outset of the Civil War, members of the Cherokee Nation tried to stay neutral. Within months, however, the Cherokee split between those who supported the Union and those who supported the Confederacy. The most famous Confederate supporter was Stand Watie, who was promoted to colonel of the First Cherokee Mounted Rifles in late 1861. Watie was eventually promoted to brigadier general in the spring of 1864 and later commanded the First Indian Brigade.
Watie still maintained a fighting force nearly a month after Smith surrendered the Trans-Mississippi Department. Realizing he was fighting a losing battle, Watie surrendered his unit of Confederate Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, and Osage Indians at Doaksville, near Fort Towson in Indian Territory, on June 23. Stand Watie was the last Confederate general to surrender his command.
The Final Surrender: Liverpool, England
While Confederate land forces surrendered throughout the late spring and summer of 1865, the Confederate raider CSS Shenandoah continued to disrupt Union shipping. The ship, originally the Sea King, involved in the Bombay trade, was purchased in England in the fall of 1864 by a Confederate agent. Precautions were taken to disguise ownership, and the ship sailed to Madeira, off the coast of Portugal, manned by an English crew.
There, the Englishmen were replaced by a Confederate crew led by James I. Wadell. The vessel was soon transformed into a war ship with the addition of armament and naval supplies, and her name was changed to CSS Shenandoah. After being outfitted, the newly christened raider sailed southward around the Cape of Good Hope, into the Indian Ocean, and into the South Pacific. The vessel was in Micronesia at the time of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
The Shenandoah continued north through the Pacific Ocean, into the Sea of Okhotsk, and settled in the Bering Sea in mid-June. Wadell was under orders to destroy the whaling fleets of New England, and the Shenandoah now focused on Yankee whalers. Because the ship’s crew were still unaware that the war had ended, the Shenandoah went to work disrupting Union vessels in the Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean. By August of 1865, the Shenandoah had captured or destroyed 38 ships, including whalers and merchant vessels.
Waddell set sail for England after learning from a British ship that the war was over. The last Confederate surrender occurred on November 6, 1865, when the Shenandoah arrived in Liverpool. The only Confederate vessel to circumnavigate the globe was surrendered by letter to the British prime minister, Lord John Russell. She was soon turned over to the Americans, who hired a merchant captain to sail her to New York. After a couple days at sea, a winter storm forced the captain to limp back to Liverpool with badly damaged sails. Eventually the vessel was sold to the sultan of Zanzibar and renamed El Majidi.
In a presidential proclamation issued on April 2, 1866, President Johnson declared that the insurrection that had existed in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Florida, and Virginia, was at an end. The one exception was Texas.
Later that summer, the President declared that the insurrection in Texas was suppressed. The President acknowledged that “adequate provisions had been made by military orders to enforce the execution of the acts of Congress, aid the civil authorities and secure obedience to the Constitution and the laws of the United States in the state of Texas.”
On August 20, 1866, President Johnson issued a proclamation announcing the end of the American Civil War: “And I do further proclaim that the said insurrection is at an end and that peace, order, tranquility, and civil authority now exists in and throughout the whole of the United States of America.”
With that proclamation the United States officially closed a costly, bloody, and deadly chapter in its nation’s history that started at Fort Sumter several years—and tens of thousands lives—earlier.