The Battle of Appomattox Court House, fought in Appomattox County, Virginia, on the morning of April 9, 1865, was one of the last battles of the American Civil War (1861–1865). It was the final engagement of Confederate General in Chief, Robert E. Lee, and his Army of Northern Virginia before they surrendered to the Union Army of the Potomac under the Commanding General of the United States Army, Ulysses S. Grant.
Lee, having abandoned the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia after the nine-and-a-half-month Siege of Petersburg and Richmond, retreated west, hoping to join his army with the remaining Confederate forces in North Carolina, the Army of Tennessee under Gen. Joseph E. Johnston. Union infantry and cavalry forces under General Philip Sheridan pursued and cut off the Confederates’ retreat at the central Virginia village of Appomattox Court House. Lee launched a last-ditch attack to break through the Union forces to his front, assuming the Union force consisted entirely of lightly armed cavalry. When he realized that the cavalry was now backed up by two corps of federal infantry, he had no choice but to surrender with his further avenue of retreat and escape now cut off as, if he had not, his forces would have been demolished.
To the South, you can rest assured, the day they heard about Appomattox was the way it was for most Northerners about the day they heard of Lincoln’s assassination. It is all over diaries, all over literature. It sometimes is just called “the surrender,” “the day we heard.” There’s so many statements of it, throughout Southern letters and diaries, as I’ve said. I’ll just read a couple, just briefly, and then one from a Northerner, to show you what this moment means on both sides and how difficult reconstruction is going to be — just look at their diaries. Remember Kate Stone? I read from her diary before, a Louisiana planter woman who fled over to Texas and lost most of her slaves. She writes into her diary. “April 28, ‘65: All are fearfully depressed,” she reports. “I cannot bear to hear them talk of defeat.” She still hoped that Confederate armies might rally and fight, as she puts it, “to be free or die.” Easy for her to say. On May 15 she opened a journal entry with this definition, that I may have read before, where the first words are “conquered, submission, subjugation,” she says, “are the words in my heart.” And then when she hears that John Wilkes Booth has shot Lincoln, she rejoiced in Lincoln’s death and honored, at least in her diary, John Wilkes Booth for, quote, “ridding the world of a tyrant. We are glad he is not alive to rejoice in our humiliation and insult us with his jokes.” There are thousands of those expressions in Southern letters and diaries.
That spring and summer an estimated 8 to 10,000 ex-Confederates, many of them former officers, would flee the country. They ended up going to Brazil, England, other parts of Europe, Mexico, Canada, and a few even went as far away as Japan, for fear — I mean, Jubal Early, that conniving old rat — more on him later — he ran to Mexico. He was certain they were all going to be executed, at least the officer corps of Lee’s army — none of them were. And let me read you a diary entry from a Northern woman, a great diarist. Her diary’s hardly known, but man, her diary is almost equal to Mary Chestnut. I first encountered it in a manuscript at the American Antiquarian Society in Worchester. Her name was Caroline Barrett White. She kept a diary for years, decades, and her war-years diary is extraordinary. This is her April 10, 1865 entry. “Hurrah, hurrah, sound the loud timbale over Egypt’s dark sea. Early this morning our ears were greeted with the sound of bells ringing a joyous peal. General Lee had surrendered with his whole army to General Grant!” She’s got exclamation marks all over the place. “Surely this is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” And she goes on and on and on, all kinds of biblical cadences to talk about the sense of jubilation she sees in the streets of her Massachusetts town.
HIST 119: The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877
Lecture 20 – Wartime Reconstruction: Imagining the Aftermath and a Second American Republic