Prelude to Surrender

Surrender. The word reverberated with equal anxiety through the battle weary ranks of the Union and confederate armies facing each other northeast of the tiny Virginia hamlet of Appomattox Station. The courageous and resolute soldiers of General Ulysses S. Grant's Army of the Potomac met the morning dawn of April 9, 1865, with the unbridled hopes of Rebel submission. The equally brave and tenacious warriors of General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, however, faced the new day determined to continue their fight for Southern independence.

The April 2, 1865 fall of Petersburg coupled with the Confederate flight from Richmond that same night, seemingly spelled the end for General Lee's fatigued and half-starved forces. The obstinate Lee, nevertheless, defiantly pushed his tattered, yet, noble army west towards a desirable linkup with General Joseph Johnston's Army of Tennessee forces in North Carolina. Leaving the two fallen cities, and trudging along multiple routes, Lee's four corps under Generals James Longstreet, Richard Ewell, John Gordon, and Richard Anderson united at Amelia Court House on April 5th.

General Grant, sensing an impending victory, ordered General Andrew Humphreys' II Corps and General Horatio Wright's VI Corps in pursuit of Lee's rear. To turn the Confederate southern flank, Grant directed the advance of General Phil Sheridan's cavalry troops and General Charles Griffin's V Corps soldiers. For good measure, Grant augmented this flanking force with elements of General Edward Ord's Army of the James, to include the capable black soldiers of the XXV Corps.

On April 6, the Union II and VI Corps tandem hammered the rebels at the Battle of Sayler's Creek and captured 6,000 men of their rearguard. The bulk of Lee's forces, however, repulsed the Union follow-on attack at Farmville on April 7, and crossed to the north bank of the Appomattox River. Grant's flanking force, led by the fiery General Sheridan, attained Lee's rear at Appomattox Station and began to tighten the Union noose around the beleaguered neck of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Confident of success, an optimistic General Grant penned the following message:

Headquarters Armies of the United States
April 7, 1865 - 5 P.M.

General R.E. Lee,
Commanding C.S. Army.
General: The results of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia in this struggle. I feel it is so, and regard it as my duty to shift from myself the responsibility of any further effusion of blood by asking of you the surrender of that portion of the C.S. Army known as the Army of Northern Virginia.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

U.S. Grant, Lieutenant General,
Commanding Armies of the United States

The next day, General Lee rebuked Grant's offer and ordered his troops to prepare for an attempted breakout through Sheridan's blockade. During the morning hours of April 9, Lee's strong Confederate force, spearheaded by the famed indomitable Stonewall Brigade, pressed forward their final forlorn hope. Opposite the advancing rebels, stood the cavalry division of General Thomas Devin, alone to stem the stubborn onslaught.

General Sheridan, sensing the desperate tenacity of the Confederate attack, urgently requested infantry to support his thinning lines. The V Corps brigade of General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was the first to arrive, followed closely by the black soldiers of the XXV Corps. In Chamberlain's words:

"It has come at last, - the supreme hour. No thought of human wants or weakness now: all is for the front; all for the flag, for the final stroke to make its meaning real - these men of the Potomac and the James, side by side, at the double in time and column, now one and now the other in the road or the fields beside. One striking feature I can never forget, - Birney's black men abreast with us, pressing forward...Sharp work now. Pushing through the woods at cavalry speed, we come right upon Sheridan's battle flag gleaming amidst the smoke of his batteries in the edge of an open field. Weird-looking flag it is: fork-tailed, red and white, the two bands that composed it each charged with a star of the contrasting color; eyes sternly glaring through the cannon cloud. Beneath it, that storm-center spirit, that form of condensed energies, mounted on the grim charger Rienzi, that turned the battle of the Shenandoah, - both rider and steed, of an unearthly shade of darkness, terr ible to look upon as if masking some unknown powers. Right before us, our cavalry, Devin's division, gallantly stemming the surges of the old Stonewall Brigade, desperate to beat its way through. I ride straight to Sheridan. A dark smile and impetuous gesture are my only orders. Forward into double lines of battle, past sheridan, his guns, his cavalry, and on for the quivering crest! For a moment it is a glorious sight: every arm of the service in full plat, - cavalry, artillery, infantry...rally under their bugle calls with beautiful precision and promptitude, and sweep like a storm-cloud beyond our right to close in on the enemy's left and complete the fateful envelopment." The Passing of the Armies

Through the efforts of Major General Sheridan, Brigadier General Chamberlain, Brigadier General Devin and their men, the Union forces retained command of the field. In doing so, they forever sealed the fate of the Army of Northern Virginia. General Lee surrendered his forces to General Grant during the afternoon of April 9, 1865.

By: Rick Reeves

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