Surrender at Appomattox: The (Beginning of the) End

As Robert E. Lee was riding away from the home of Wilmer McLean after meeting with Ulysses S. Grant on the afternoon of Sunday, April 9th, 1865, one thing was clear to most of those involved: The major fighting in Virginia was finally coming to an end. With Lee surrendering to Grant, the Army of Northern Virginia, which at that time numbered under 30,000 men, would soon evaporate, and enter into legend.

The meeting between Lee and Grant at Appomattox.

The meeting between Lee and Grant at Appomattox.

It had been an ending long expected to happen, but at times it seemed a near improbability. At its height, the Army of Northern Virginia numbered over 70,000 men, and seemed poised to deal a major blow to the Union forces in the war. But their major defeat at Gettysburg, followed by Grant’s continual pressure on the army between May of 1864 and April of 1865, slowly brought this once mighty army to it’s knees. And with his army virtually surrounded at Appomattox Court House on April 9th, Lee knew that the only options available to him were to disperse the army, and carry on guerrilla warfare, or surrender. Fighting his instinct to carry on the war, Lee chose to instead meet with Grant, and surrender his forces. Although his men were willing to carry on with the fighting, Lee knew that to do so would be fruitless slaughter for his men.

But as Lee rode away from the meeting, another thing was very clear: the war was not yet over. Although the main Confederate army had been surrendered, there were still roughly 100,000 Confederate troops still in the field. Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston still commanded a small but formidable force of troops in North Carolina, while in the distant west, Confederate forces were still wreaking havoc on Union troops. And Confederate President Jefferson Davis, along with members of his cabinet, were on the run from Federal forces following the fall or Richmond on April 2nd.

In fact, the final battle of the war would take place over a month after the surrender at Appomattox. On May 12-13, 1865, Union forces under Theodore H. Barrett attacked a Confederate force at the Battle of Palmito Ranch in Texas, near the Mexican border. A small battle where forces on both sides numbered less than 500 men, the skirmish ended in a Confederate victory. So, in one of the great ironies of the war, the Confederate army won the final battle in a war that they would ultimately lose.

So, while Appomattox was not the true end of the American Civil War, it is safe to say that it was the beginning of the end. With their most formidable army now gone, Confederate officers still in the field saw the folly of continuing conflict. In the weeks and months to follow, other armies would be surrendered. Before summer set in, the war was all but over, and reconstruction set to begin.

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