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  • Writer's pictureGordon Thorsby

Questioning Accepted Facts About The Surrender at Appomattox

by Gordon Thorsby

At Appomattox (Library of Congress)

Publications in the past fifteen to twenty years do not hesitate to challenge already accepted facts regarding events of the Civil War. If they didn’t, the question is raised why the book or article is relevant. The challenge is to question whether previously accepted explanations need revision based on new evidence or if those interpretations were unbiased. Even a “quiet” Palm Sunday that ended with a quiet surrender at Appomattox demanded some re-evaluation. Here are some of the questions:

The battle of Five Forks was not as a result of a cavalry charge breaking the Confederate infantry line that led to Appomattox. Actually, Union cavalry was quite beaten. Warren’s V Corps found a gap, exploited it and flanked the Confederate line which collapsed. Warren was relieved by Sheridan. The truth is Grant and Meade were exhausted by Warren’s foot-dragging and Grant directed Sheridan to relieve Warren if Sheridan chose to and Sheridan did just that.

The surrender was not completed with a simple meeting and signed by Grant and Lee. True, but to implement it there was a six member commission consisting of Union John Gibbon, Charles Griffin, and Wesley Merritt and Confederate James Longstreet, John B. Gordon, and William Pendleton to hammer out details and who met at least twice.

Lee was out of supplies and was forced to surrender. False. He had supplies. It seems several people “dropped the ball” on the supply logistics issue. The army was starving but the supplies could be had. There was a lot of chaos on the field. The real reason and Lee admitted it was that he knew his Army could not be depended to fight. His evidence was what he witnessed on a ridge above at Sailor’s Creek on April 6.

Union soldiers shared their food with starving Confederates as a sign of brotherhood does not match the facts. Sheridan did distribute Confederate rations captured by Custer because that was all there was and a full day later after the surrender . The Union soldiers were starving as well and they had no food to share. Their wagons were well to the rear as the roads were prioritized for the troops to chase of the ANV. Efforts were made and the problem was resolved within a couple of days for both sides.

Lee had few troops left after four years and faced an army three times its size or more. Not true. The numbers and sources are confusing but the story of 25,000 or less is incomplete and faulty. The numbers considered could have been more than 50,000 (yes, more than at Antietam). Lee had his ANV, but add Ewell’s Richmond defense corps, the mounted cavalry forces, some heavy artillery units and beached naval units. Subtract casualties at Five Forks, large numbers at Sailor’s Creek, rearguard actions and massive desertions each day after April 2, because Lee’s army was dissolving. Let’s also consider large numbers had thrown away their rifles and simply straggled along. The Confederate soldier of 1862-3 was not the same of 1865. Yes, 25,000 took parole papers. This did not count the thousands who did not even show up to the surrender ceremony and started for home.

The Confederate army did not simply march over the next day and stack arms. Longstreet wanted nothing to do with the ceremony so it went to Gordon. Gordon refused to participate. He preferred to fight on so he and his corps had a private ceremony in the evening with no Union officer present and there had the arms stacked. Union Gen Gibbon finding out about the separate surrender, called the commission back into session, and in no uncertain terms informed Gordon the official ceremony was not an option. The surrender proceeded forward.

As Lee proceeded into the McLean House, the area around Appomattox was not quiet. Musket fire and artillery booming in the distance and somewhat heavy. Gordon’s corps was fighting Union advances off and men were still dying. Palm Sunday was not so quiet.

The meeting at the McLean House to surrender a was not immediately agreed to by Grant and Lee. A couple of days earlier, Grant proposed a meeting to discuss terms of surrender and Lee rejected one discussing surrender. He did accept to meet. Grant rejected a meeting for anything but surrender. On April 9th, Lee offered to meet again and Grant was not about to, until Lee offered to discuss surrender. Grant immediately agreed. This is not a precise description but the intent of this point is that the final meeting was not easily accomplished.

There is rare discussion of the surrendering of the Confederate artillery. The column of Confederate artillery caissons was lined up for almost a mile. Many guns and caissons had already been lost or destroyed in the retreat. Quite a large number of guns were tallied and then by a discovery, approximately 50 Confederate tubes were discovered buried nearby. Their wheels and frames had been chopped up. The burial was intentional. These were also taken into Federal possession.

We see paintings showing a large group of Union officers, some well known in the room.

When Lee and Grant started, it was just them and others trickled in over time to become the larger number. One doesn’t really think much about it. No, Meade was not there. He was in the back of an ambulance suffering great stomach pain.

One final thought. The uniforms. Yes, Grant was muddy and Lee was dressed in his best. Grant’s look was not because he was slovenly as it consistently is inferred. Every Union Officer appeared this way from the marching. Grant had to travel several miles over muddy roads to get to the McLean House that Lee chose (a good choice) thus the mud splattered uniform. The days before Appomattox , it rained…a lot. The fact April 9th did not rain was a great relief to soldiers.

The documents indicate Lee left for Richmond and home on April 12th. There is an error in the date of the records, a simple error of the date recorded by the Confederate staff officer. He left on the 11th. A simple error at a very chaotic time.

Are there other points to understand about Appomattox? There certainly are and reading more contemporary historical readings on the final campaign is eye opening. It reveals the chaos in both armies, conflicts between officers within both armies, and the exhaustion of soldiers on both sides. Many Confederate soldiers had given up and many others were willing to fight on. Make an effort to read about this period in the war. It will be most informative. Feel free to comment.


Lee’s Last Retreat, by Marvel, William, edited by Gary Gallagher, University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Confederate Waterloo, by McCarthy Michael J., Savas Beatie, 2017.

The Final Battles of the Petersburg Campaign, by Greene, A. Wilson, University of Tennessee Press, 2008.

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