The Life of Robert E. Lee for Boys and Girls
By J. G. De Roulhac Hamilton and Mary Thompson Hamilton


LEE had now a choice between two courses only. Either he must disperse his men and send them south to continue resistance at a later time and so keep up hostilities indefinitely; or he must surrender his beloved army, which would mean that the cause of the Confederacy would be hopelessly and finally lost. The first plan was generally expected. All of Europe looked to see the war drag on and on through fighting by scattered parties, such as had taken place during the Revolution throughout Georgia and the Carolinas. In the South most of the people refused to believe in the possibility of final defeat and desired that the struggle should go on, no matter how long it took to reach a victorious end and independence. President Davis, by proclamation on April 4, announced this as the policy of the Government, and the Federal leaders greatly feared that it might be carried out. There is no doubt that in this way the contest could have been indefinitely prolonged, as in the case of the Boer War, but at the cost of frightful loss of life and at the greater cost of all humanity on both sides.

The very thought of surrender broke Lee’s heart. On April 7 he was approached by several of his corps commanders who told him that the army could not hold out any longer. Surrender was suggested. Lee’s eyes flashed and he said, “Surrender! I have too many good fighting men for that!”

On April 7 also Grant wrote Lee and pointed out the hopelessness of further resistance, and, for the sake of putting an end to bloodshed, suggested that he surrender. Lee, in reply, declined to admit that his cause was hopeless, but asked Grant what terms would be offered. The next day Grant wrote that, since peace was his great desire, the only condition he would insist upon was that the officers and men surrendered should be disqualified from taking up arms against the United States until exchanged. He also suggested meeting Lee to arrange the terms of surrender, but Lee replied that he had not proposed surrender, but, desiring peace, he wished to learn how General Grant proposed to effect it, and suggested a meeting at ten o’clock the next day. Grant replied that, as he had no power to treat for peace, a meeting could do no good, and continued:—

I will state however that I am equally desirous of peace with yourself, and the whole North entertains the same feeling. The terms upon which peace can be had are well understood. By the South laying down their arms, they would hasten that most desirable event, save thousands of human lives, and hundreds of millions of property not yet destroyed. Seriously hoping that all of our difficulties may be settled without the loss of another life, I subscribe myself, etc.,

U. S. Grant, Lieutenant General.


Lee had hoped that a general peace might be arranged, but he now saw that Grant would not discuss this. On the evening of the 8th, Lee directed a last attack, and early the next morning his troops with dash attacked Sheridan and drove his cavalry back in confusion. But timely Federal reinforcements came to Sheridan’s aid and the way of the Confederates as an army was finally barred. When Lee saw the situation, he said, “There is nothing left but to go to General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths.” At this one of his staff exclaimed, “Oh, General, what will history say of the surrender of the army in the field?” Lee replied: “Yes, I know they will say hard things of us; they will not understand how we were overwhelmed by numbers; but that is not the question, Colonel; the question is, is it right to surrender this army? If it is right, then I will take all the responsibility.” He had already talked it over with several of his officers. General Alexander had urged him to disperse his army for the purpose of further resistance, and had received this notable reply:—

No! General Alexander, that will not do. You must remember we are a Christian people. We have fought this fight as long as, and as well as, we knew how. We have been defeated. For us as a Christian people, there is now but one course to pursue. We must accept the situation; these men must go home and plant a crop, and we must proceed to build up our country on a new basis. We cannot have recourse to the methods you suggest.

But surrender was, even if right, a bitter task for Lee. “How easily,” he said, “I could get rid of this and be at rest. I have only to ride along the line and all will be over. But it is our duty to live. What will become of the women and children of the South if we are not here to protect them?” So Lee now wrote Grant, asking for a meeting to arrange terms for the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia. Grant agreed, and the two met at the McLean house, which was of brick, set back in the trees, with rosebushes dotting the lawn. Lee and Colonel Marshall, one of his staff, were first, to arrive. Traveler was freed of his bridle and turned loose to graze, a great treat after what had gone before. Shortly afterwards Grant with his staff came up, and Grant joined Lee. The appearance of the two men was in striking contrast. General Horace Porter, an eye-witness of the scene, thus described Lee, who, in honor of his last appearance as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, had put on the very best clothes he possessed:—

He wore a new uniform of Confederate gray, buttoned up to the throat, and a handsome sword and sash. The sword was of exceedingly fine workmanship. It had been presented to him by some ladies in England who sympathized with his cause. He had a thick head of hair, except in front, where it had become a little thin. His spurs were handsome and had very large rowels. He wore a pair of top boots which seemed to be perfectly new and which were stitched with red silk. His gray hat, matching in color his uniform, and a pair of gray gauntlets, apparently new, had been thrown on the table by his side.

Of Grant, General Porter wrote:—

General Grant was forty-three years of age, quite slim, and weighed only one hundred and thirty pounds. He was five feet, eight inches in height, with shoulders slightly stooped. He wore a soldier’s blouse and soldier’s trousers, with nothing to indicate his rank but the shoulder straps of a lieutenant-general. His slouch hat was lying on the table. He had on a pair of partly worn brown-colored thread gloves, which he took off soon after he went into the room. He was without sword, sash, or spurs. He wore a pair of ordinary top boots with his trousers inside. These as well as his clothes were spattered with mud. His hair was a dark brown with no trace of gray.

At meeting, the two generals shook hands cordially, and at once began to speak of their previous meeting in Mexico. Some time was passed in this way until at last Lee recalled the real object of their meeting to Grant, who had delicately refrained from alluding to it. Lee said: “General, I am here to ascertain the terms upon which you will accept the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia; but it is due to proper candor and frankness that I should say at once that I am not willing to discuss, even, any terms incompatible with preserving the honor of my army, which I am determined to maintain at all hazards and to the last extremity.” Grant replied: “I have no idea of proposing dishonorable terms, General, but I should like to know what terms you would consider satisfactory.” Lee answered that he felt that the terms offered by Grant in his letter were fair enough and asked that they be put in writing. Grant immediately asked for his order book and rapidly wrote the following letter:—

Commanding C.S.A.

APPOMATTOX C. H. April 9, 1865.

In accordance with the substance of my letter to you of the 8th inst., I propose to receive the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia on the following terms, to wit:

Rolls of all the officers and men to be made in duplicate, one copy to be given to an officer designated by me, the other to be retained by such officers as you may designate.

The officers to give their individual parole not to take arms against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged; and each company or regimental commander to sign parole for the men of their commands. The arms, artillery, and public property to be packed and stacked and turned over to the officers appointed by me to receive them.

This will not embrace the side arms of the officers, nor their private horses, nor their baggage.

This done each officer and man will be allowed to return to their homes, not to be disturbed by United States authorities so long as they observe their parole, and the laws in force where they may reside. Very respectfully,

U. S. GRANT, Lieutenant-General.

Lee put on his glasses and read it slowly, and as he finished, said, “This will have a very happy effect upon my army.” Grant asked for suggestions, and Lee called his attention to the fact that the Confederate cavalrymen owned their own horses, and asked if they would be allowed to keep them. Grant at first said that only officers might do so, but, noting Lee’s keen disappointment, he added that he knew crops could not be raised without horses, and so, without changing the written order, he would give instructions to his officers to let the Confederate soldiers keep their horses. Lee immediately showed his relief and said: “This will have the best possible effect upon the men. It will be very gratifying, and will do much toward conciliating our people.” While the letter was being copied in ink, Lee had this letter prepared and signed it:—

April 9, 1865.

General:—I have received your letter of this date containing the terms of surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, as proposed by you. As they are substantially the same as those expressed in your letter of the 8th inst., they are accepted. I will proceed to designate the proper officers to carry the stipulations into effect. Very respectfully, Your obedient servant,

R. E. LEE.

Grant now offered to send twenty-five thousand rations to Lee’s men who had been living only on parched corn. When he noticed that Lee wore his sword, he apologized for the absence of his, saying, “I started out from camp several days ago without my sword, and as I have not seen my headquarters baggage since, I have been riding about without my side-arms.”

At nearly four o’clock in the afternoon the interview closed. Lee shook hands with Grant, bowed to the other Federal officers in the room, and went out on the porch. As he stood waiting and looking over toward the gallant army he had just surrendered, he struck his hands together three times and then mounted his horse and rode away to his men. At his appearance the “rebel yell,” as given by the Army of Northern Virginia, sounded for the last time. The men crowded around him to touch his hand and hear his voice once more. His words to them were brief. “Men,” he said, “we have fought through the war together. I have done my best for you. My heart is too full to say more.”

The behavior of both Grant and Lee during that momentous meeting was fine in every way. Both hated anything theatrical and their interview was marked throughout by its utter simplicity. Grant showed no elation and said himself of the surrender: “My own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on receipt of Lee’s letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and so valiantly and had suffered so much for a cause.” He sought in every way to save Lee and his army from humiliation and, by his generosity, he won the gratitude and affection of the whole South. Lee, though in deep dejection, was calm, dignified, and, as usual, impressive. He proved here and in his later life the truth of his own saying, “Human virtue ought to be equal to human calamity.” General Morris Schaff, a Federal officer, referring to the surrender, at which he was present, said of Lee:—

He was one who, though famous, was not honeycombed with ambition or tainted with cunning or cant, and though a soldier and wearing soldier’s laurels, yet never craved or sought honors except as they bloomed on deeds done for the glory of his lawfully constituted authority; in short a soldier to whom the sense of duty was a gospel and a man of the world whose only rule of life was that life should be upright and stainless. I cannot but think that Providence meant, through him, to prolong the ideal of the gentleman in the world. . . . It is easy to see why Lee has become the embodiment of one of the world’s ideals, that of the soldier, the Christian, and the gentleman. And from the bottom of my heart I thank Heaven . . . for the comfort of having a character like Lee’s to look at.

As soon as the news of the surrender reached the Federal army, the firing of salutes began. Grant, full of that noble generosity which distinguished his conduct throughout the whole period of the surrender, ordered the firing stopped with this message, “The war is over, the rebels are again our countrymen, and the best way of showing our rejoicing will be to abstain from all such demonstration.” On this principle he refrained from going to Richmond and from entering the Confederate lines. The lofty standard of consideration and courtesy thus set by Grant was lived up to later by his officers. On April 12, when General Chamberlain, of Maine, received the surrender of_the Confederate arms and colors, the remnant of the Confederate army struck their tents, seized their muskets, unfurled and elevated their flags, and, for the last time, formed that “thin gray line” which they had made world renowned. As the column came up a bugle sounded and the whole Federal line came to “carry arms,” the marching salute. It was a fine tribute of brave men to brave men and was part of the cementing of the Union which was to follow war. General Chamberlain, in describing its reception by the Confederates, who were headed by General John B. Gordon, says:—

Gordon catches the sound of shifting arms, and, catching the meaning, wheels superbly, making with himself and his horse one uplifted figure, with profound salutation as he drops the point of his sword to his boot, then facing to his own command gives word for his successive brigades to pass us with the same position of the manual—honor answering honor. On our part, not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, not a word nor whisper of vain-glorying, nor motion of men, standing again at the order; but an awed stillness rather and breath holding as if at the passing of the dead.

There thus passed away one of the most wonderful armies in the world, an army to whose valor its opponents have consistently borne witness. Hooker said, “That army has by discipline alone acquired a character for steadiness and efficiency unsurpassed, in my judgment, in ancient or modern times.” Swinton, the historian of the Army of the Potomac, says:—

Nor can there fail to arise the image of that other army that was the adversary of the Army of the Potomac, and who that once looked upon it can ever forget it?—that army of tattered uniforms and bright muskets—that body of incomparable infantry, the Army of Northern Virginia, which for four years carried the revolt on its bayonets, opposing a constant front to the mighty concentration of power brought against it, which, receiving terrible blows, did not fail to give the like, and which, vital in all its parts, died only with its annihilation.

And Charles Francis Adams, the son of that Charles Francis Adams who, while Minister to England, proudly answered Englishmen who sought to twit him with the victories of the Confederates, “They, also, are my countrymen,” says: “My next contention is that Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia never sustained defeat. Finally, it is true, succumbing to exhaustion, to the end they were not overthrown in fight.” As commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee’s place in military history is secure. Colonel Henderson, the English military critic, says, “Lee stands out as one of the greatest soldiers of all times.” Again, he spoke of Lee as “undoubtedly one of the greatest if not the greatest soldier who ever spoke the English tongue.” Colonel Livermore calls him “the greatest general of the day.” Captain Battine, in closing an estimate of him, says, “Such as he was, brave, chivalrous, and conscientious to a fault, he will remain the most attractive personality among American heroes and one of the most famous of the world’s great generals.” Theodore Roosevelt says, “Lee will undoubtedly rank as without any exception the greatest of all the great captains that the English-speaking people have brought forth—and this although the last and chief of his antagonists may claim to stand as the full equal of Marlborough and Wellington.— And Colonel Dodge says, “A dispassionate judgment places Robert E. Lee on the level of such captains as Turenne, Eugene, Marlborough, Wellington, and Von Moltke.”

There is no need to add to the already lengthy discussion as to whether Lee or Grant was the greater general. Both were superbly great, and no finer memory has been left to Americans than the meeting of the two at Appomattox as the leaders of two noble American armies struggling for conflicting theories of government.

On the day following the surrender Lee and Grant had a short interview. A number of Federal officers who had known Lee called also. General Meade, who had known him well in the Corps of Engineers, was among them, and Lee said to him, “Meade, years are telling on you, your hair is getting quite gray.” “Ah, General Lee,” was Meade’s reply, “it is not the work of years; you are responsible for my gray hairs.”

(From the painting by Pioto)

On that last morning, Lee published to his troops this farewell address:—

April 10, 1865.

After four years of arduous service, marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources. I need not tell the survivors of so many hard fought battles, who have remained steadfast to the last, that I have consented to this result from no distrust of them; but feeling that valor and devotion could accomplish nothing that could compensate for the loss that would have attended the continuation of the contest, I have determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen. By the terms of the agreement, officers and men can return to their homes, and remain there until exchanged.

You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from the consciousness of duty faithfully performed; and I earnestly pray that a merciful God will extend to you His blessing and protection. With an unceasing admiration for your constancy and devotion to your country, and a grateful remembrance of your kind and generous consideration of myself, I bid you an affectionate farewell.

R. E. LEE, General.

On the same day he rode away from his army, setting his face toward Richmond and his loved ones there. An eye-witness of his arrival in the city gives the following account of his return:—

Next morning a small group of horsemen appeared on the further side of the pontoons. By some strange intuition it was known that General Lee was among them, and a crowd collected all along the route he would take, silent and bare-headed. There was no excitement, no hurrahing; but as the great chief passed, a deep, loving murmur, greater than these, rose from the very hearts of the crowd. Taking off his hat and simply bowing his head, the man great in adversity passed silently to his own door; it closed upon him, and his people had seen him for the last time in his battle harness.

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