Lee Raises the White Flag!

“The contrast between the two commanders was striking, and it could not fail to attract marked attention they sat ten feet apart facing each other.” So wrote General Horace Porter when he recalled the moment 150 years ago today when General Ulysses S. Grant and General Robert E. Lee faced each other inside the McLean house at Appomattox. Grant’s army had pursued Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia since the fall of Petersburg and Richmond at the beginning of April 1865. Soon Lee found his army surrounded, and thus he consented to Grant’s demand for surrender. On April 9th, at the Appomattox Court House, the two adversaries met and the terms of Lee’s surrender were laid out. Grant, in a magnanimous gesture, was generous in his demands of Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, allowing the officers the dignity of keeping their swords. With this meeting the Civil War was brought much closer to its end.

News of Lee’s surrender was sent to Washington, and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton sent Grant a message of congratulations which read: “Thanks be to Almighty God for the great victory with which He has this day crowned you and the gallant army under your command. The thanks of this Department, and the Government of the U. States, their reverence and honor have been deserved, and will be rendered to you and the brave and gallant officers and soldiers of your army, for all time.” Stanton further ordered a two hundred-gun salute to be fired in every post and headquarters in commemoration of the surrender. Word quickly spread, and celebrations broke out throughout the Union.

Among the white citizens of the Confederacy, the reaction to the surrender was one of sadness and disappointment. As Mary Chesnut recorded in her diary, “Just now Mr. Clay dashed up the stairs, pale as a sheet. ‘General Lee has capitulated.’ I saw the news reflected in Mary Darby’s face before I heard him. She staggered to the table, sat down, and wept aloud. Mr. Clay’s eyes were not dry.” Many Southerners tried to console themselves with the notion that Lee had been overwhelmed by numbers, rather than conquered, and that he commanded Grant’s immense respect. Black southerners, especially former slaves, rejoiced at the victory, knowing that the promise of freedom would come to pass. Fanny Berry, a former slave, remembers that when slaves in Pamplin, Virginia learned of Lee’s surrender, they burst into spontaneous song, for they at that moment “knew dat dey were free.” For people like Berry, that moment 150 years ago carried a deep significance.