When General Robert E. Lee reached the neighborhood of Appomattox Court-House, he was met by the intelligence of the capture of the stores placed for his army at the station two miles beyond.
Notwithstanding this over-whelming news, he determined to make one more effort to force himself through the Federal toils that encompassed him. Therefore he made preparations for battle, but under circumstances more desperate than had hitherto befallen the Army of Northern Virginia. The remnant of that noble army, now reduced to ten thousand effective men, was marshalled to cut its way through a host seventy-five thousand strong; but, notwithstanding the stupendous odds, there was not in that little band a heart that quailed or a hand that trembled; there was not one of them who would not willingly have laid down his life in the cause they had so long maintained, and for the noble chief who had so often led them to victory.
On the evening of that day the last council of the leaders of the Army of Northern Virginia was held around a bivouac-fire in the woods, there being present Generals Lee, Longstreet, Gordon, and Fitz Lee. This conference ended in a determination to make a renewed effort on the following morning to break through the impediments in front, of which there was still a possibility if only cavalry should be found and no heavy force of infantry had reached that point.
At three o'clock on the morning of the 9th of April the Confederates moved silently forward. The advance under Gordon, reaching the heights a little beyond the court-house at dawn, found that the route was obstructed by a large force of Federal cavalry. Gordon then deployed the Second Corps, now less than two thousand strong and supported by thirty pieces of artillery under General Long, with Fitz Lee's cavalry on the flank.
This artillery consisted of parts of the commands of Colonel Carter, Lieutenant-Colonels Poague and Duke Johnston, and Major Stark, and the guns were served with the usual skill and gallantry. A well-directed fire from the artillery and an attack from the cavalry quickly dislodged the force in front. Gordon then advanced, but was arrested by a greatly superior force of the enemy's infantry, whereupon he informed General Lee that a powerful reinforcement was necessary to enable him to continue his advance.
Lee being unable to grant that request, but one course remained. A flag of truce was sent to General Grant requesting a suspension of hostilities for the arrangement of preliminaries of surrender. Then an order to cease firing passed along the lines. This order, on being received by General Long, was sent by him, through Major South-all and other members of his staff, to the different batteries to direct them to discontinue firing. General Long then proceeded to the court-house.
On reaching that point he discovered that the order had not been carried to a battery that occupied the hill immediately above the village, which continued to fire rapidly at an advancing line of Federal infantry. He at once rode in person to the battery and gave the order to the captain to cease firing and to withdraw his battery to a point east of the town, where the artillery was ordered to be parked. These were the last shots fired by the Army of Northern Virginia. .
The artillery had been withdrawn from the heights, as above stated, and parked in the small valley east of the village, while the infantry, who were formed on the left, stacked arms and silently waited the result of the interview between the opposing commanders.
The flag of truce was sent out from General Gordon's lines. Grant had not yet come up, and while waiting for his arrival General Lee seated himself upon some rails which Colonel Talcott of the Engineers had fixed at the foot of an apple-tree for his convenience. This tree was half a mile distant from the point where the meeting of Lee and Grant took place, yet wide-spread currency has been given to the story that the surrender took place under its shade, and "apple-tree" jewelry has been profusely distributed from the orchard in which it grew.
About eleven o'clock General Lee, accompanied only by Colonel Marshall of his staff, proceeded to the village to meet General Grant, who had now arrived. The meeting between the two renowned generals took place at the house of a Mr. McLean at Appomattox Court-House, to which mansion, after exchanging courteous salutations, they repaired to settle the terms on which the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia should be concluded.
A conversation here took place which General Grant, as he himself tells us, led to various subjects divergent from the immediate purpose of the meeting, talking of old army matters and comparing recollections with General Lee. As he says, the conversation grew so pleasant that he almost forgot the object of the meeting.
General Lee was obliged more than once to remind him of this object, and it was some time before the terms of the surrender were written out. The written instrument of surrender covered the following points. Duplicate rolls of all the officers and men were to be made, and the officers to sign paroles for themselves and their men, all agreeing not to bear arms against the United States unless regularly exchanged. The arms, artillery, and public property were to be turned over to an officer appointed to receive them, the officers retaining their side-arms and private horses and baggage. In addition to this, General Grant permitted every man of the Confederate army who claimed to own a horse or mule to retain it for farming purposes, General Lee remarking that this would have a happy effect. As for the surrender by General Lee of his sword, a report of which has been widely circulated, General Grant disposes of it in the following words: "The much-talked-of surrendering of Lee's sword and my handing it back, this and much more that has been said about it is the purest romance."
After completion of these measures General Lee remarked that his men were badly in need of food, that they had been living for several days on parched corn exclusively, and requested rations and forage for twenty-five thousand men. These rations were granted out of the car-loads of Confederate provisions which had been stopped by the Federal cavalry. As for forage, Grant remarked that he was himself depending upon the country for that. The negotiations completed, General Lee left the house, mounted his horse, and rode back to head-quarters.
It is impossible to describe the anguish of the troops when it was known that the surrender of the army was inevitable. Of all their trials, this was the greatest and hardest to endure. There was no consciousness of shame; each heart could boast with honest pride that its duty had been done to the end, and that still unsullied remained its honor. When, after his interview with Grant, General Lee again appeared, a shout of welcome instinctively ran through the army. But, instantly recollecting the sad occasion that brought him before them, their shouts sank into silence, every hat was raised, and the bronzed faces of the thousands of grim warriors were bathed with tears.
As he rode slowly along the lines, hundreds of his devoted veterans pressed around the noble chief, trying to take his hand, touch his person, or even lay a hand upon his horse, thus exhibiting for him their great affection. The general then, with head bare and tears flowing freely down his manly cheeks, bade adieu to the army. In a few words he told the brave men who had been so true in arms to return to their homes and become worthy citizens.
Thus closed the career of the noble Army of Northern Virginia.
The surrender of Lee's army was followed, a few days afterwards, by that of General Johnston, and within a month all the armies of the Confederacy had laid down their arms and accepted the lenient terms proposed to General Lee. This leniency was soon in danger of being replaced by harsher measures. Two days after Lee's surrender an event occurred which stirred the North as no event of the war had done, an act of brutal violence, which, with a different people, might have led to deeds of bloody and terrible reprisal. This was the murder of President Lincoln, who was shot in a Washington theatre by a frantic partisan of the South, eager for that infamous glory which has led in all ages to acts of destructive violence. Thus, by the pistol of an assassin, fell the man whose hand had guided the ship of state through all the perils of its dangerous way, and whose wise and judicious counsel and unbounded influence would have been of incalculable value in healing the wounds of the war. In the act of its pretended avenger the South lost its best friend, and a long period of divided counsels and bitter feeling was the direct consequence of this fatal blow.
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