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This Week in History – Aug. 30

August 30, 1776 – Washington escapes Long Island.

Entering the summer of 1776, American spirits vis-a-vis the conflict with England were at a high point. Earlier that year, in March, British forces had abandoned Boston in the face of a strengthening siege by colonial forces. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, which urged colonists to fight for a complete break with England, had become an overnight best-seller. Continue reading “This Week in History – Aug. 30”

This Week in History – Apr. 9

April 9, 1865 – After over 600,000 American deaths, the Civil War effectively ended as Confederate General Robert E. Lee formally surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant in the village of Appomattox Court House.

By early 1865, the Civil War which had begun in 1861 was close to its conclusion, as the Confederacy was in its death throes. The Union’s plan to win the war – the Anaconda Plan – had slowly but surely squeezed the Confederacy into submission. Union forces controlled the Mississippi River, Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, and the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. The Union naval blockade had strangled the Southern economy. General William T. Sherman’s 90,000 man army had marched relatively unopposed through the heartland of the Confederacy destroying everything in its path, including Atlanta and Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, which Sherman had burned to the ground.

The final key to the North’s victory – the capture of the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, was all that remained. Towards that end, General U.S. Grant’s army had been laying siege to the city of Petersburg since the summer of 1864. Petersburg was the key to capturing Richmond, as it was the main supply line to the capital. While Confederate General Robert E. Lee was able to hold Grant off, in late March Sherman’s army was approaching to help capture the city, and Lee knew the end was near.

On April 2, 1865, a Union onslaught on Petersburg broke through the Confederate defenses, forcing Lee to flee Petersburg with his remaining army of fewer than 30,000 men. By abandoning Petersburg, Lee left Richmond undefended as well. Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, along with the rest of the Confederate government, promptly fled Richmond. The next day, April 3, 1865, Grant marched into Richmond.

President Lincoln, who had been nearby to consult with Grant, toured the city on April 4, 1865, accompanied by his son, Tad. As soon as Lincoln arrived, he was mobbed by newly freed slaves who instantly recognized him. One former slave who came to see the President was heard to remark, “I know that I am free, for I have seen father Abraham.” Lincoln left the city on April 5, 1865, never to return.

Even with the fall of Richmond, Lee and his army remained in the field. Lee’s plan was to flee south and link up in North Carolina with Confederate General Joseph Johnson’s remaining forces. That direction, however, was blocked by Union General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry, and Lee’s forces instead fled west towards Appomattox Station, where a supply train waited for him. Close on his heels was Grant, intent on capturing Lee and forcing his surrender.

Sheridan shadowed Lee’s route, and on April 6th cut through the Confederate lines, capturing a quarter of Lee’s remaining men. Sheridan was then able to reach Appomattox before Lee, capturing Lee’s badly needed supplies and cutting off his route. Making matters worse for Lee, Grant and his Army of the Potomac were close behind.

In the early morning of April 9, 1865, Lee tried one final, desperate attempt to break through Sheridan’s lines. After early success pushed Sheridan’s forces back, Lee’s advance soldiers came into view of the bulk of Grant’s army, lines up and ready for battle, and quickly retreated. Upon hearing that there was nothing more that could be done, Lee admitted to an aide that “there is nothing left for me to do but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths.”

Lee sent a letter to Grant requesting a meeting, and for the rest of the morning the two commanders exchanged notes discussing where to meet and when. Grant actually let Lee choose the place of his surrender, and Lee decided upon the house of Wilmer McLean, located in the small town of Appomattox Courthouse. There he went and waited for Grant to arrive.

Later that afternoon of the 9th, with a cease-fire in place, Lee met Grant at McLean’s house to accept Lee’s formal surrender. Terms of the surrender provided by Grant, with the approval of President Lincoln, were very generous. There would be no arrests for treason; instead, Lee’s men would simply have to swear never to take up arms again against the government of the United States and would then be allowed to return home. Confederate soldiers were allowed to keep their horses and mules, to help with farming, and Lee’s officers were allowed to keep their swords and side arms. Food was to be immediately distributed to Lee’s starving army. Grant and Lincoln wished to make the terms of surrender generous in order to help facilitate the national healing that had to follow the end of the war. Lee, clearly relieved by Grant’s generosity, told him that, “This will have a very happy effect on my army.”

The surrender terms were written down by one of Grant’s officers, Ely Parker, who happened to be a member of the Seneca tribe. When Lee learned of Parker’s heritage, he is said to have remarked, “It is good to have one real American here.” Parker is reported to have replied, “Sir, we are all Americans.” True to Lincoln’s wish that Lee’s surrender should begin the national healing which would be necessary after such a war, Grant ordered that his men not cheer in celebration, noting that, “The Confederates were now our countrymen, and we did not want to exult over their downfall.”

Three days later, on April 12, Lee’s army of 28,000 ceremonially laid down their arms and began their journey home. While Lee’s surrender did not officially end the war – there were nearly 200,000 Confederate soldiers still scattered throughout the South and West – it had the effect of bringing it to a conclusion without much further bloodshed. On April 26th, General Joseph Johnson surrendered his army of nearly 100,000 men, and the other Confederate commanders soon followed. The final Confederate army to surrender was the Army of the Trans-Mississippi, made up of Cherokee and Seminole Indians from Oklahoma and commanded by Stand Wattie, the only Native-American general in the Confederacy. Wattie surrendered his army on June 23rd.