On April 8, 1865 the last hope of escape for Lee’s army flickered out. Union cavalry under Custer seized the critical supplies waiting for the Confederates at Appomattox Station. Lee’s line of march to the west was now blocked as parts of three Union corps were making forced marches to reinforce Custer and would arrive on the morning of the ninth. On the eighth Grant and Lee exchanged these letters:
APRIL 8, 1865
General R. E. LEE:
Your note of last evening, in reply to mine of same date, asking the condition on which I will accept the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, is just received. In reply I would say that, peace being my great desire, there is but one condition I would insist upon, namely, that the men and officers surrendered shall be disqualified for taking up arms again against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged. I will meet you, or will designate officers to meet any officers you may name for the same purpose, at any point agreeable to yell, for the purpose of arranging definitely the terms upon which the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia will be received.
HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA,
APRIL 8, 1865
Lieut. Gen. U.S. GRANT:
I received at a late hour your note of to-day. In mine of yesterday I did not intend to propose the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, but to ask the terms of your proposition. To be frank, I do not think the emergency has arisen to call for the surrender of this army, but as the restoration of peace should be the sole object of all, I desired to know whether your proposals would lead to that end. I cannot, therefore, meet you with a view to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia, but as far as your proposal may affect the C. S. forces under my command, and tend to the restoration of peace, I should be pleased to meet you at 10 a.m., to-morrow; on the old stage road to Richmond, between the picket-lines of the two armies.
R. E. LEE,
It was becoming clear to the officers of the Army of Northern Virginia that surrender loomed and most of them were heartsick at this fact.
We Americans today view the Civil War as part of our history. If different decisions had been made at the end of that conflict, the Civil War could still be part of our current reality. Just before the surrender at Appomattox, General Porter Alexander, General Robert E. Lee’s chief of artillery, broached to Lee a proposal that the Army of Northern Virginia disband and carry out a guerrilla war against the Union occupiers. Here history balanced on a knife edge. If Lee had accepted the proposal, I have little doubt the stage would have been set for an unending war between the North and the South which would still be with us. Douglas Southall Freeman, in his magisterial R. E. Lee, tells what happened next, based upon Alexander’s memoirs, Fighting for the Confederacy.
“Thereupon Alexander proposed, as an alternative to surrender, that the men take to the woods with their arms, under orders to report to governors of their respective states.
“What would you hope to accomplish by that?” Lee queried.
It might prevent the surrender of the other armies, Alexander argued, because if the Army of Northern Virginia laid down its arms, all the others would follow suit, whereas, if the men reported to the governors, each state would have a chance of making an honorable peace. Besides, Alexander went on, the men had a right to ask that they be spared the humiliation of asking terms of Grant, only to be told that U. S. “Unconditional Surrender” Grant would live up to the name he had earned at Fort Donelson and at Vicksburg.
Lee saw such manifest danger in this proposal to become guerillas that he began to question Alexander: “If I should take your advice, how many men do you suppose would get away?”
“Two-thirds of us. We would be like rabbits and partridges in the bushes and they could not scatter to follow us.”
“I have not over 15,000 muskets left,” Lee explained. “Two-thirds of them divided among the states, even if all could be collected, would be too small a force to accomplish anything. All could not be collected. Their homes have been overrun, and many would go to look after their families.
“Then, General,” he reasoned further, “you and I as Christian men have no right to consider only how this would affect us. We must consider its effect on the country as a whole. Already it is demoralized by the four years of war. If I took your advice, the men would be without rations and under no control of officers. They would be compelled to rob and steal in order to live. They would become mere bands of marauders, and the enemy’s cavalry would pursue them and overrun many sections they may never have occasion to visit. We would bring on a state of affairs it would take the country years to recover from. And, as for myself, you young fellows might go bushwhacking, but the only dignified course for me would be to go to General Grant and surrender myself and take the consequences of my acts.”
Lee paused, and then he added, outwardly hopeful, on the strength of Grant’s letter of the previous night, whatever his inward misgivings, “But I can tell you one thing for your comfort. Grant will not demand an unconditional surrender. He will give us as good terms as this army has the right to demand, and I am going to meet him in the rear at 10 A.M. and surrender the army on the condition of not fighting again until exchanged.”
Alexander went away a humbler man. “I had not a single word to say in reply,” he wrote years afterwards. “He had answered my suggestion from a plane so far above it, that I was ashamed of having made it.”
Robert E. Lee was a very great general, but he was something even more precious: a very good man. By his actions he spared the nation a Civil War without end. He said before he surrendered to Grant that he would have rather died a thousand deaths. However, as he had throughout his life, he put the well-being of others always before his personal wishes. Lee never said that duty was the most sublime word in the English language, but his whole life he acted as if it were. Never did he live up that ideal more than when he made sure that our Civil War came to an end, even though that end meant his defeat and the defeat of the Confederacy.