150 years ago today, the bloodiest conflict in American History ended, in a Virginian grocer’s front parlor.
On April 9th 1865, after four years of brutal fighting that had cost the lives of an estimated 620,000 men, General Robert Edward Lee surrendered to the Commanding General of the Union Army, Ulysses S. Grant.
Although the war officially ended by declaration on May 9th, Lee’s surrender marked the end of the fighting. On April 10th, Lee issued his Farewell Address, also known as General Order No. 9, to his Army of Northern Virginia. Other Confederate Armies soon followed suit, and the war was over.
Lee and Grant are two of the most celebrated military leaders in American history. The son of a Revolutionary War officer, Lee graduated second in his class at the United States Military Academy, West Point. He repeatedly distinguished himself over the course of his 32 year career as an exceptional officer, tactician and combat engineer.
Lee was so well respected that at the outbreak of war in 1861, the commanding general of the Union Army, Winfield Scott, told Lincoln he wanted Lee for a top command. By contrast, Grant, who was Lee’s junior by 16 years, rose from relative obscurity.
Grant’s early military career was a failure, and he was forced to resign in 1854 for drunkenness. He was asked to re-join when the War began and was first appointed to train a volunteer regiment in Illinois. Grant won the Union’s first victory of war at Fort Donelson, and his reputation began to improve. He was a poor tactician though, repeatedly throwing troops at entrenched positions in near suicidal full-frontal assaults. Such follies cost thousands of lives at Vicksburg, Spotsylvania and Cold Harbour.
Grant appearing in the United States Army Enlistments 1798-1914
Grant excelled as a quarter master and strategist, however. He made certain his men were always well supplied and was excellent at planning ahead. He realised early that the Union’s greater manpower was key to its success. If he kept pressure on Lee’s army and kept it fighting, eventually Lee would run out of men and while this led to heavy Union losses, it shortened the war and lessened overall casualties.
Lee on the other hand was a brilliant defensive planner, decisive in his attacks. Unopposed to taking a gamble, Lee was able to divide his forces and completely surprise his opponents, winning battles despite being hugely outnumbered. He was however a poor quartermaster, and failed to see the bigger picture beyond his native Virginia. Whereas Grant understood what was required to achieve victory in the long term, Lee seemed unable to recognize that the South’s lack of men meant that their best hopes of survival lay in fighting defensively.
Lee’s surrender to Grant on April 9th 1865, came after the fourth in a series of battles that pitted the two generals against one another. Having fled the siege of Richmond, Lee’s retreat was cut off by Union forces. He attempted to push through but quickly realised the situation was hopeless. After several hours of correspondence with Grant a cease-fire was enacted, and Grant received Lee's request to discuss surrender terms.
When the two men finally met face to face, Grant arrived wearing a muddy field uniform, no sidearm and only tarnished shoulder straps to show his rank, and Lee was immaculate in uniform. Incredibly, the pair had met and served together twenty years earlier during the Mexican- American War. Grant was overcome with sadness when he saw Lee, and struggled to get to the point as they discussed their previous meeting.
Grant’s terms were incredibly generous as he and Lee both hoped to ease the countries reconciliation. Lee accepted around 4pm, and as he rode away to tell his loyal troops the difficult news, Grants men began to cheer. Grant ordered them to stop immediately.