The Civil War had ripped the country in two for four years. Brother fighting brother; friend fighting friend. The armies of the Northern unified states fought for freedom and equality among men; the armies of the Southern unified states and the Confederacy, fought for the rights of the states to make the decisions about who did what, rather than the Federal government. The sharecroppers vs. the shareholders. It was a bloody war with battles that saw more carnage in a single day than any of the modern wars fought against other countries. General Lee, commander of the Confederacy, brought an end to the years of carnage on April 9, 1865 at the Appomattox courthouse in Appomattox, Virginia.
The War for Southern Independence
As in any conflict, there are two sides to the story. Many people in the United States are fed the one side of the story—he who wins the war, writes the history. But, in order to understand the significance of Lee’s choice to surrender his army, and thus, the Southern resistance to Grant, one must understand why the South was even fighting to begin with. Many, many blogs are out there as to the causes and the impact and the perspectives, I’ll link several of them at the end of this article. They are well-worth the read and very comprehensive. I would, however, like to just list some of the common “Southern” causes of the War Between the States or the War for Southern Independence, according to Georgia’s Blue and Gray Trail:
- Tariffs: Tariff of 1816; Tariff of 1828 (which precipitated the first secession crisis in 1832)
- State’s Rights: Based on the 10th Amendment of the Bill of Rights
- Sectional Differences: North, South, and West. All three had different needs from the Federal government; the South, however, went from sectionalism to nationalism over a 10-year period.
- Presidential Turmoil: By the time Lincoln was elected in 1860, 9 Presidents had served in a 24 year span, most serving only one term. No one was talking about the issues the South had, and that just made the Southern states feel more alienated.
- Political Turmoil: The downfall of the Whigs and the rise of the Republicans whose focus was abolition
- Regional Conflict: Mexico, Texas, Kansas, and Utah all had wars of various kinds going on pre-1861.
- Rise of Abolition: Slavery was a cause, but it was hardly the cause of the War.
When the War first started, many Southerners eagerly enlisted in their local units. They were proud to serve with their brothers and fight for the freedoms they felt were being stripped from them. By 1864, however, they were growing tired. Tired of fighting; tired of watching family and friends die; tired of marching in inadequate clothing, carrying inadequate weapons; tired of being destitute.
Messages of the End
The Confederate Army had suffered a crippling defeat at Manassas weeks before Lee chose to march his Army of Virginia to Richmond. He desperately needed supplies and was hopeful of intercepting the supply train for his men. Grant pursued him in the retreat and Lee was unable to hold Richmond. April 3, 1865, saw Lee retreating from Richmond, further West with Grant pursuing. April 7, 1865, Grant began sending messages to Lee in an attempt to bring an end to the bloody war. The first message informed Lee that any further attempts to secure victory would only lead to more bloodshed. The South’s plight was hopeless and he had a proposition for Lee. Lee responded that he did not feel the situation hopeless, but did agree that the bloodshed needed to stop, therefore, “before considering your proposition, [Lee wanted to] ask the terms [Grant] will offer on condition of its surrender.”
Apparently, Grant misunderstood Lee’s message and responded with, “Your note of last evening in reply to mine of the same date, asking the conditions on which I will accept the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, has been received.” Grant went on to delineate the exact circumstances acceptable for surrender and sent the note off to Lee.
During the time the messages were being carried back and forth, the fighting continued. On April 8th, in the evening, Lee received Grant’s response and made his reply, stating he was not interested in surrendering, but rather, interested in the proposition Grant had for a peaceful treaty. With that goal in mind, Lee established a meeting point and time—the old state road to Richmond, 10AM the following day—and sent the response to Grant.
Grant received the note, then stated that surrender was the only way to achieve peace. Lee responded quickly by requesting a meeting with Grant the morning of the April 9th.
Meeting and Surrender
Because they were still fighting a battle, Grant had changed his location from the Richmond and Lynchburg road to the Farmville and Lynchburg road. To that end, he stated he was four miles west of Walker’s Church and would move to the front of the church for the purposes of meeting with Lee. Lee sent notice of where the meeting would occur—Wilmer McLean’s house.
Lee arrived first and sat, waiting for Grant. You can read the description of the men at Eye Witness History. They were both striking figures, but there were things about the men I never realized, personally. As the two men sat, ten feet apart, they talked about their time serving together in Mexico. If you think about that, then you begin to realize the full impact of the Civil War. Finally, Grant spoke about the terms of surrender and Lee asked that they be written down. Grant agreed and, save a change about the possession rights of the Confederate horses, Lee signed the surrender and brought a peaceable end to a torturous four years.
Conclusion and Commentary
The South supported the ten causes listed for the start of the War. If you go back over that list, none of the problems were ever actually addressed by the outcome of the War. Abolitionists got their desire—the freedom of the slaves. But, States have, since that time, given up many of their rights to the Federal government. Perhaps, if the Southern states had requested the unconditional surrender of the Northern armies, the nation would be on quite a different path—would prayer have been outlawed in public schools? Would gay rights be an issue mandated by the Federal government? Has the 10th Amendment remained an issue since its beginnings—the issue being one of interpretation? The terms “strict constructionist” and “loose constructionist” seem to have merely given way to new terminology such as “living document” (loose constructionist). Laws have been passed that prevent another War Between the States, but the people still have the right to question and challenge their government. Who knows, maybe in another fifty years, there will be another civil war—the War for States Rights.
For further study and reading:
Eye Witness History
American Civil War
Blue & Gray Trail
What is a “true and complete” Southern perspective of the Civil War?