Captains of the Civil War; a Chronicle of the Blue and the Gray

Author: William Charles Henry Wood

Chapter XII. The End: 1865

By ’65 the Southern cause was lost. There was nothing to hope for from abroad. Neither was there anything to hope for at home, now that Lincoln and the Union Government had been returned to power. From the very first the disparity of resources was so great that the South had never had a chance alone except against a disunited North. Now that the North could bring its full strength to bear against the worn-out South the only question remaining to be settled in the field was simply one of time. Yet Davis, with his indomitable will, would never yield so long as any Confederates would remain in arms. And men like Lee would never willingly give up the fight so long as those they served required them. Therefore the war went on until the Southern armies failed through sheer exhaustion.

The North had nearly a million men by land and sea. The South had perhaps two hundred thousand. The North could count on a million recruits out of the whole reserve of twice as many. The South had no reserves at all. The total odds were therefore five to one without reserves and ten to one if these came in.

The scene of action, for all decisive purposes, had shrunk again, and now included nothing beyond Virginia and the Carolinas; and even there the Union forces had impregnable bases of attack. When Wilmington fell in January the only port still left in Southern hands was Charleston; and that was close-blockaded. Fighting Confederates still remained in the lower South. But victories like Olustee, Florida, barren in ’64, could not avail them now, even if they had the troops to win them. The lower South was now as much isolated as the trans-Mississippi. Between its blockaded and garrisoned coast on one side and its sixty-mile swath of devastation through the heart of Georgia on the other it might as well have been a shipless island. The same was true of all Confederate places beyond Virginia and the Carolinas. The last shots were fired in Texas near the middle of May. But they were as futile against the course of events as was the final act of war committed by the Confederate raider Shenandoah at the end of June, when she sank the whaling fleet, far off in the lone Pacific.

For the last two months of the four-years’ war Davis made Lee Commander-in-Chief. Lee at once restored Johnston to his rightful place. These two great soldiers then did what could be done to stave off Grant and Sherman. Lee’s and Johnston’s problem was of course insoluble. For each was facing an army which was alone a match for both. The only chance of prolonging anything more than a mere guerilla war was to join forces in southwest Virginia, where the only line of rails was safe from capture for the moment. But this meant eluding Grant and Sherman; and these two leaders would never let a plain chance slip. They took good care that all Confederate forces outside the central scene of action were kept busy with their own defense. They also closed in enough men from the west to prevent Lee and Johnston escaping by the mountains. Then, with the help of the navy, having cut off every means of escape—north, south, east, and west—they themselves closed in for the death-grip.

By the first of February Sherman was on his way north through the Carolinas with sixty thousand picked men, drawing in reinforcements as he advanced against Johnston’s dwindling forty thousand, until the thousands that faced each other at the end in April were ninety and thirty respectively. On the ninth of February (the day Lee became Commander-in-Chief) Sherman was crossing the rails between Charleston and Augusta, of course destroying them. A week later he was doing the same at Columbia in the middle of South Carolina. By this time his old antagonist, Johnston, had assumed command; so that he had to reckon with the chances of a battle, as on his way against Atlanta, and not only with the troubles of devastating an undefended base, as on his march to the sea. The difficulties of hard marching through an enemy country full of natural and artificial obstacles were also much greater here than in Georgia. How well these difficulties could be surmounted by a veteran army may be realized from a recorded instance which, though it occurred elsewhere, was yet entirely typical. In forty days an infantry division of eight thousand men repaired a hundred miles of rail and built a hundred and eighty-two bridges.

Sherman took a month to advance from Columbia in the middle of South Carolina to Bentonville in the middle of North Carolina. Here Johnston stood his ground; and a battle was fought from the nineteenth to the twenty-first of March. Had Sherman known at the time that his own numbers were, as he afterwards reported, "vastly superior," he might have crushed Johnston then and there. But, as it was, he ably supported the exposed flank that Johnston so skillfully attacked, won the battle, inflicted losses a good deal larger than his own, and gained his ulterior objective as well as if there had not been a fight at all. This objective was the concentration of his whole army round Goldsboro by the twenty-fifth. At Goldsboro he held the strategic center of North Carolina, being at the junction whence the rails ran east to Newbern (which had long been in Union hands), west to meet the only rails by which Lee’s army might for a time escape, and north (a hundred and fifty miles) to Grant’s besieging host at Petersburg. Sherman’s record is one of which his men might well be proud. In fifty days from Savannah he had made a winter march through four hundred and twenty-five miles of mud, had captured three cities, destroyed four railways, drained the Confederate resources, increased his own, and half closed on Lee and Johnston the vice which he and Grant could soon close altogether. Nevertheless Grant records that "one of the most anxious periods was the last few weeks before Petersburg"; for he was haunted by the fear that Lee’s army, now nearing the last extremity of famine, might risk all on railing off southwest to Danville, the one line left. Lee, consummate now as when victorious before, masked his movements wonderfully well till the early morning of the twenty-fifth of March, when he suddenly made a furious attack where the lines were very near together. For some hours he held a salient in the Federal position. But he was presently driven back with loss; and his intention to escape stood plainly revealed.

The same day Sherman railed down to Newbern over the line repaired by that indefatigable and most accomplished engineer, Colonel W. W. Wright, took ship for City Point, Virginia, and met Lincoln, Grant, and Admiral Porter there on the twenty-seventh and twenty-eighth. Grant explained to Lincoln that Sheridan was crossing the James just below them, to cut the rails running south from Petersburg and then, by forced marches, to cut those running southwest from Richmond, Lee’s last possible line of escape. Grant added that the final crisis was very near and that his only anxiety was lest Lee might escape before Sheridan cut the Richmond line southwest to Danville. Lincoln said he hoped the war would end at once and with no more bloodshed. Grant and Sherman, however, could not guarantee that Davis might not force Lee and Johnston to one last desperate fight. Lincoln added that all he wanted after the surrender was to get the Confederates back to their civil life and make them good contented citizens. As for Davis: well, there once was a man who, having taken the pledge, was asked if he wouldn’t let his host put just a drop of brandy in the lemonade. His answer was: "See here, if you do it unbeknownst, I won’t object." From the way that Lincoln told this story Grant and Sherman both inferred that he would be glad to see Davis disembarrass the reunited States of his annoying presence.

This twenty-eighth of March saw the last farewells between the President and his naval and military lieutenants at the front. Admiral Porter immediately wrote down a full account of the conversations, from which, together with Grant’s and Sherman’s strong corroboration, we know that Lincoln entirely approved of the terms which Grant gave Lee, and that he would have approved quite as heartily of those which Sherman gave to Johnston.

Next morning the final race, pursuit, defeat, and victory began. Grant marched all his spare, men west to cut Lee off completely. He left enough to hold his lines at Petersburg, in case Lee should remain; and he arranged with Sherman for a combined movement, to begin on the tenth of April, in case Johnston and Lee should try to join each other. But he felt fairly confident that he could run Lee down while Sherman tackled Johnston.

On the first of April Sheridan won a hard fight at Five Forks, southwest of Petersburg. On Sunday (the second) Lee left Petersburg for good, sending word to Richmond. That morning Davis rose from his place in church and the clergyman quietly told the congregation that there would be no evening service. On Monday morning Grant rode into Petersburg, and saw the Confederate rearguard clubbed together round the bridge. "I had not the heart," said Grant, "to turn the artillery upon such a mass of defeated and fleeing men, and I hoped to capture them soon." On Tuesday Grant closed his orders to Sherman with the words, "Rebel armies are now the only strategic points to strike at," and himself pressed on relentlessly.

Late next afternoon a horseman in full Confederate uniform suddenly broke cover from the enemy side of a dense wood and dashed straight at the headquarter staff. The escort made as if to seize him. But a staff officer called out, "How d’ye do, Campbell?" This famous scout then took a wad of tobacco out of his mouth, a roll of tinfoil out of the wad, and a piece of tissue paper out of the tinfoil. When Grant read Sheridan’s report ending "I wish you were here" (that is, at Jetersville, halfway between Petersburg and Appomattox), he immediately got off his black pony, mounted Cincinnati, and rode the twenty miles at speed, to learn that Lee was heading due west for Farmville, less than thirty miles from Appomattox.

On Thursday the sixth, Lee, closely beset in flank and rear, lost seven thousand men at Sailor’s Creek, mostly as prisoners. The heroes of this fight were six hundred Federals, who, having gone to blow up High Bridge on the Appomattox, found their retreat cut off by the whole Confederate advanced guard. Under Colonel Francis Washburn, Fourth Massachusetts Cavalry, and Colonel Theodore Read, of General Ord’s staff, this dauntless six hundred charged again and again until, their leaders killed and most of the others dead or wounded, the rest surrendered. They had gained their object by holding up Lee’s column long enough to let its wagon. train be raided.

Grant, now feeling that his hold on Lee could not be shaken off, wrote him a letter on Friday afternoon, saying: "The results of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance." That night Lee replied asking what terms Grant proposed to offer. Next morning Grant wrote again to propose a meeting, and Lee answered to say he was willing to treat for peace. Grant at once informed him that the only subject for discussion was the surrender of the army. That evening Federal cavalry under General George A. Custer raided Appomattox Station, five miles southwest of the Court House, and held up four trains. A few hours later, early on Sunday, the famous ninth of April, 1865, Lee’s advanced guard was astounded to find its way disputed so far west. It attacked with desperation, hoping to break through what seemed to be a cavalry screen before the infantry came up; but when Lee’s main body joined in, only to find a solid mass of Federal infantry straight across its one way out, Lee at once sent forward a white flag.

Grant, overwrought with anxiety, had been suffering from an excruciating headache all night long. But the moment he opened Lee’s note, offering to discuss surrender, he felt as well as ever, and instantly wrote back to say he was ready. Pushing rapidly on he met Lee at McLean’s private residence near Appomattox Court House. There was a remarkable contrast between the appearance of the two commanders. Grant, only forty-three, and without a tinge of gray in his brown hair, took an inch or two off his medium height by stooping keenly forward, and had nothing in his shabby private’s uniform to show his rank except the three-starred shoulder-straps. When the main business was over, and he had time to notice details, he apologized to Lee, explaining that the extreme rapidity of his movements had carried him far ahead of his baggage. Lee’s aide-de-camp, Colonel Charles Marshall, afterwards explained that when the Confederates had been obliged to reduce themselves simply to what they stood in, each officer had naturally put on his best. Hence Lee’s magnificent appearance in a brand-new general’s uniform with the jeweled sword of honor that Virginia had given him. Well over six feet tall, straight as an arrow in spite of his fifty-eight years and snow-white, war-grown beard, still extremely handsome, and full of equal dignity and charm, he looked, from head to foot, the perfect leader of devoted men.

Grant, holding out his hand in cordial greeting, began the conversation by saying: "I met you once before, General Lee, while we were serving in Mexico . . . . I have always remembered your appearance, and I think I should have recognized you anywhere." After some other personal talk Lee said: "I suppose, General Grant, that the object of our present meeting is fully understood. I asked to see you in order to ascertain on what terms you would receive the surrender of my army." Grant answered that officers and men were to be paroled and disqualified from serving again till properly exchanged, and that all warlike and other stores were to be treated as captured. Lee bowed assent, said that was what he had expected, and presently suggested that Grant should commit the terms to writing on the spot. When Grant got to the end of the terms already discussed his eye fell on Lee’s splendid sword of honor, and he immediately added the sentence: "This will not embrace the side-arms of the officers, nor their private horses or baggage." When Lee read over the draft he flushed slightly on coming to this generous proviso and gratefully said: "This will have a very happy effect upon my army." Grant then asked him if he had any suggestions to make; whereupon he said that the mounted Confederates, unlike the Federals, owned their horses. Before he had time to ask a favor Grant said that as these horses would be invaluable for men returning to civil life they could all be taken home after full proof of ownership. Lee again flushed and gratefully replied: "This will have the best possible effect upon the men. It will be very gratifying and do much toward conciliating our people."

While the documents were being written out for signature Grant introduced the generals and staff officers to Lee. Then Lee once more led the conversation back to business by saying he wished to return his prisoners to Grant at the earliest possible moment because he had nothing more for them to eat. "I have, indeed, nothing for my own men," he added. They had been living on the scantiest supply of parched corn for several days; and this famine fare, combined with their utter lack of all other supplies—especially medicine and clothing—was wearing them away faster than any "war of attrition" in the open field. After heartily agreeing that the prisoners should immediately return Grant said: "I will take steps at once to have your army supplied with rations. Suppose I send over twenty-five thousand; do you think that will be a sufficient supply?" "I think it will be ample," said Lee, who, after a pause, added: "and it will be a great relief, I assure you."

Then Lee rose, shook Grant warmly by the hand, bowed to the others, and left the room. As he appeared on the porch all the Union officers in the grounds rose respectfully and saluted him. While the Confederate orderly was bridling the horses Lee stood alone, gazing in unutterable grief across the valley to where the remnant of his army lay. Then, as he mounted Traveler, every Union officer followed Grant’s noble example by standing bareheaded till horse and rider had disappeared from view.

Grant next sent off the news to Washington and, true to his sterling worth, immediately stopped the salutes which some of his enthusiastic soldiers were already beginning to fire. "The war is over," he told his staff, "the rebels are our countrymen again, and the best sign of rejoicing after the victory will be to abstain from all demonstrations in the field."

In the meantime Lee had returned to his own lines, along which he now rode for the last time. The reserve with which he had steeled his heart during the surrender gave way completely when he came to bid his men farewell. After a few simple words, advising his devoted veterans to become good citizens of their reunited country, the tears could no longer be kept back. Then, as he rode slowly on, from the remnant of one old regiment to another, the men broke ranks, and, mostly silent with emotion, pressed round their loved commander, to take his hand, to touch his sword, or fondly stroke his splendid gray horse, Traveler, the same that had so often carried him victorious through the hard-fought day.

North and South had scarcely grasped the full significance of Lee’s surrender, when, only five days later, Lincoln was assassinated. "It would be impossible for me," said Grant, "to describe the feeling that overcame me at the news. I knew his goodness of heart, and above all his desire to see all the people of the United States enter again upon the full privileges of citizenship with equality among all. I felt that reconstruction had been set back, no telling how far." "Of all the men I ever met," said Sherman, "he seemed to possess more of the elements of greatness, combined with goodness, than any other."

On the very day of the assassination Sherman had written to Johnston offering the same terms Grant had given Lee and Lincoln had most heartily approved. Three days later, on the seventeenth, just as Sherman was entering the train for his meeting with Johnston, the operator handed him a telegram announcing the assassination. Enjoining secrecy till he returned, Sherman took the telegram with him and showed it to Johnston, whom he watched intently. "The perspiration came out on his forehead," Sherman wrote, "and he did not attempt to conceal his distress. He denounced the act as a disgrace to the age and hoped I did not charge it to the Confederate Government. I told him I could not believe that he or General Lee or the officers of the Confederate army could possibly be privy to acts of assassination." When Sherman got back to Raleigh he published the news in general orders, and experienced the supreme satisfaction of finding that not one man in all that mournful army had to be restrained from a single act of revenge.

After much misunderstanding with Washington now in lesser hands, the surrender of Johnston’s and the other Confederate armies was effected. Each body of troops laid down its arms and quietly dispersed. One day the bugles called, the camp fires burned, and comrades were together in the ranks. The next, like morning mists, they disappeared, thenceforth to be remembered and admired only as the heroes of a hopeless cause.

It was a very different scene through which their rivals marched into lasting fame with all the pride, pomp, and circumstance of war. On the twenty-third and twenty-fourth of May, in perfect weather, and in the stirring presence of a loyal, vast, enthusiastic throng, the Union armies were reviewed in Washington. For over six full hours each day the troops marched past—the very flower of those who had come back victorious. The route was flagged from end to end with Stars and Stripes, and banked with friends of each and every regiment there. Between these banks, and to the sound of thrilling martial music, the long blue column flowed—a living stream of men whose bayonets made its surface flash like burnished silver under the glorious sun.

Then, when the pageantry was finished, and the volunteers that formed the vast bulk of those magnificent Federal armies had again become American civilians in thought and word and deed, these steadfast men, whose arms had saved the Union in the field, were first in peace as they had been in war: first in the reconstruction of their country’s interrupted life, first in recognizing all that was best in the splendid fighters with whom they had crossed swords, and first—incomparably first—in keeping one and indivisible the reunited home land of both North and South.


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Chicago: William Charles Henry Wood, "Chapter XII. The End: 1865," Captains of the Civil War; a Chronicle of the Blue and the Gray, ed. Conway, Moncure Daniel, 1832-1907 in Captains of the Civil War; a Chronicle of the Blue and the Gray Original Sources, accessed October 4, 2022,

MLA: Wood, William Charles Henry. "Chapter XII. The End: 1865." Captains of the Civil War; a Chronicle of the Blue and the Gray, edited by Conway, Moncure Daniel, 1832-1907, in Captains of the Civil War; a Chronicle of the Blue and the Gray, Original Sources. 4 Oct. 2022.

Harvard: Wood, WC, 'Chapter XII. The End: 1865' in Captains of the Civil War; a Chronicle of the Blue and the Gray, ed. . cited in , Captains of the Civil War; a Chronicle of the Blue and the Gray. Original Sources, retrieved 4 October 2022, from