This past week marked 150 years since General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Confederate Army at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. The American Civil War was an event of paramount importance to the formation of the modern United States, with remnants of social and racial division still present in relations between African Americans and Caucasians to this day. With casualties of between 650,000 and upwards of 800-850,000 (a study from 2011 has found the higher number of casualties to be more accurate), more American lives were lost between 1861-1865 than all wars the US has ever been involved.
While many reasons have been presented for the reasoning behind the war, slavery remains a constant source of tension. Great political division existed in the United States over representation of the Southern states for their ideals of slavery, possession, trade, state’s rights and regional legislation that upheld those beliefs. The threat of southern secession had been on the political table for some time, but the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 provided a catalyst for Southern secession that sparked an almost unstoppable road to war. The South felt that Lincoln would bring a halt to the slave trade and its expansion further westward. South Carolina triggered a domino affect of states leaving the Union, and by 1861 most of the Southern states had ceded from the United States.
There are some very sobering statistics from the time of the American Civil War that paint a stark and facinating picture of American society at a time of unparalleled upheaval and internal division. A wonderful article in History Today entitled “Why was the Confederacy Defeated” notes some very interesting numbers between the Union army in the North and the Confederate army in the South as a good point of comparison. The North had a population of approximately 22 million for example; while the South had only 9 million – of which only 5.5 million were whites. That means African Americans comprised almost 39% of the Southern population and were considered by many to be a potential “fifth column” against Confederate advances. The Civil War Trust estimates that African Americans constituted upwards of 10% of the entire Union Army in the North by 1865, with nearly 40,000 of them having been lost in battle over the course of the war. On the battlefield, Union forces outnumbered the Confederates roughly two to one.
The turning point of the war has frequently been cited as the Battle of Gettysburg of 1863 and the Union victory at Vicksburg that same year. Similarly, Ulysses S. Grant’s promotion allowing him to oversee all Union troops certainly gave great impetus to bringing an end to the war once and for all. The potential for any Confederate turn around was sealed after Abraham Lincoln’s re-election in 1864 over his opponent, former general George B. McClellan, who ran on a platform of a negotiated settlement with the South. An election victory by McClellan would have been seen as symbolic for the South it he had won. By 1865 the Confederate army was experienceing mass dissertions, unsustainable supply lines, disease, and famine. The final surrender by General Lee at Appomattox was a long-sought relief from the horrors of war.
General Robert E. Lee was commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, while General John Gordon led the Second Corps. It has been reported that in the early morning hours of April 9, 1865 Gordon initiated an attack against Union troops to break out. Gordon failed and the Confederate Army were surrounded. As a result, and through a number of letters between General Lee and Grant, Lee agreed to meet Grant at the Appomattox Court House to discuss the details of surrender. General Lee noted: “… then there is nothing left me but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths…” Both Lee and Grant had fought together in Mexico years before, and much of the early conversation of their meeting was to reminisce of that battle. By four o-clock on April 9th General Lee had signed the surrender document, shook Grant’s hand, exited the court house and rode back to Confederate lines to announce the surrender. Although the war did not officially end until several final battles in Texas, the surrender marked a final blow to the Confederate Army.
The wording of the surrender terms were as follows:
General R.E. Lee,
APPOMATTOX Ct H., Va.,
General; In accordance with the substance of my letter to you of the 8th inst., I propose to receive the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia on the following terms, to wit: Rolls of all officers and men to be made in duplicate, one copy to be given to an officer to be designated by me, the other to be retained by such officer or officers as you may designate. The officers to give their individual paroles not to take up arms against the Government of the United States until properly [exchanged], and each company or regimental commander to sign a like parole for the men of their commands. The arms, artillery, and public property to be parked, and stacked, and turned over to the officers appointed by me to receive them. This will not embrace the side-arms of the officers, nor their private horses or baggage. This done, each officer and man will be allowed to return to his home, not to be disturbed by the United States authorities so long as they observe their paroles, and the laws in force where they may reside.
General Grant describes his sentiments at the meeting with Lee, noting: “What General Lee’s feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassible face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result, and was too manly to show it. Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.” – Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant
The 150th anniversary of General Lee’s surrender is a poignant opportunity to recall the strife and hard-fought liberty that ushered the United States into the modern era. The American Civil War left a profound legacy in America including the freeing of slaves in 1864; the 14th Amendment which guaranteed equal citizenship; great strength was bestowed on the national government to control economics and rights protections; the war impoverished the South after slaves were emancipated, thereby decimating industry in the Confederate states; and, the civil war created a strong two-party political landscape in America between the “red states” and the “blue states” – a hallmark of US election even to this day. The legacy of the civil war is also apparent in race relations in America which have been continuously tested over the ensuing century and a half. History has shown that great nations find their routes in defining moments (often book-ended by civil conflict and revolution). The American Civil War was no exception, and, as many of us are, we sit as casual observers of history watching the social fabric of American society undergo tremendous transformation in the years to come – whether it be demographic, cultural, social, legal, political, etc. The Civil War brought our attention to the soul-searching that defines nations and their people, and how fragile and tenuous the results of history can be to future generations.
For more information on the American Civil War and some very informative links please consult the following:
National Archives Pictures of the Civil War
Library of Congress Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints
The Washington Posts Civil War 150 Special Report
The Civil War Trust – The Surrender Correspondence at Appomattox
The National Parks Services – The Surrender
The National Constitution Centre – Lee surrenders at Appomattox, 150 years ago today
The Civil War Trust – Appomattox Court House