During the winter, things had remained quiet on the Richmond-Petersburg front. However, in February, Grant resumed his efforts to thin the Confederate defenses by extending the Union lines to the west. Lee knew he had to do something and thought that if he could achieve some success near City Point, Grant would have to contract his lines. If the contraction took place, Lee would then be able to move south toward North Carolina if Petersburg fell.
Lee’s attack at Fort Stedman on March 25 achieved initial success, but Union counterattacks restored the line. Recognizing that Lee had weakened his defenses in order to concentrate his forces on Fort Stedman, Grant now believed the time was ripe for a final push. Sheridan, having returned from his successful campaign against Early in the Valley, led his cavalry against Rebel forces near Dinwiddie Court House and then defeated Pickett’s command at Five Forks. The Confederate defenses began to collapse, and on April 2 Grant ordered a general assault across the entire front.
Lee advised Jefferson Davis that he could no longer hold his position, and on the night of April 2–3, the Confederates evacuated Richmond. Lee’s troops hurried west on multiple routes toward Amelia Court House on the Richmond and Danville Railroad, where he hoped to be resupplied before turning south to link up with Johnston’s forces now in North Carolina. But when he arrived at Amelia Court House, the supplies were not there. He also learned that Union forces were blocking his path to the west.
Conducting an exhausting night march that enabled him to circumvent the Federals, Lee led his tattered army to Farmville, again hoping to be resupplied. The rations were there, but, with sizable Federal forces to his south, he was unable to execute his plan to link up with Johnston. On April 6, as he crossed the Appomattox River, his rear guard was smashed at Sayler’s Creek, costing Lee 7,000 more casualties.
On April 8, Sheridan’s cavalry reached Appomattox Court House, blocking a further move by Lee to the west. Lee attempted to break through the Union position, but the diminished size of his army and the timely arrival of elements of the Army of the James ended any chance of success. Lee now had no choice but to surrender his army.
LEE AND THE END OF THE WAR
At Appomattox, Lee’s position as general-in-chief of the Confederate armies became an important aspect of the way the war ended. As one historian has observed, “Davis and many others initially refused to accept that Lee’s surrender brought the end of the Confederacy. . . . British journalists agreed that the war did not end with Lee. Instead, they expected guerrilla warfare. Lee’s refusal to participate made such a shift difficult, if not impossible.”
Lee had already made it clear that he did not support the idea of continuing the struggle by means of guerrilla warfare. His chief of artillery, E. Porter Alexander, had suggested this option before the surrender, but Lee rejected it in favor of unifying the country. As James I. Robertson observed in 2006, “Lee’s attitude was, we did what we could, we lost, let’s look to the future and rebuild. He knew that it would take the country years to recover from a guerrilla war.”
On the other hand, Grant was disappointed that Lee did not exercise his position as general-in-chief of the Confederate Armies to encourage other Rebel commanders to surrender when he did. As Grant wrote in his Memoirs, he “suggested to General Lee that there was not a man in the Confederacy whose influence with the soldiery and the whole people was as great as his, and that if he would now advise the surrender of all the armies I had no doubt [Lee’s] advice would be followed with alacrity.”
Indeed, on April 10, 1865, the day after Lee’s surrender, Grant went so far as to suggest that Lee bypass Davis’s authority altogether and speak directly with Lincoln to negotiate terms of surrender for the whole Confederacy. Lee refused, holding firm to the position that only Davis, as president of the Confederacy, could negotiate with Lincoln toward a general surrender. But Grant maintained that the “Confederacy had gone a long way beyond the reach of President Davis, and that there was nothing that could be done except what Lee could do to benefit the Southern people.”
In retrospect, historians agree that after the fall of Atlanta in September of 1864, the Confederacy was doomed, and many of them wonder why the South did not recognize this reality. But this is an illustration of the fact that hindsight is always 20/20. As Mark Grimsley and Brooks D. Simpson, the editors of The Collapse of the Confederacy, wrote in 2001, “an air of inevitability has clung too long to the Confederacy’s final months.” Working backwards from the known outcomes at Appomattox and Durham Station, most historians argue that the Confederacy had no chance of gaining its independence after the fall of Atlanta and Lincoln’s reelection. But while the outcome may be certain to us, it was not at all certain to either Northerners or Southerners at the time.
Southern morale had certainly suffered as a result of battlefield setbacks through the end of 1864, but many in the South saw the situation in the winter of 1865 as just one more period of grave peril — no different from that of spring 1862 or even the dark days of the American Revolution — which could be reversed by courage and perseverance. As the passage from the Richmond Dispatch cited above illustrates, white Southerners were like patriots during the American Revolution who had invested their hopes for independence in Washington’s Continental Army. The Southerners looked to Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to bring about the independence of the Confederacy. As long as Lee was in the field, Southerners believed there was still hope for their cause.
Of course, Lee has long been admired. He has been portrayed as outshining all others on both sides of the conflict not only in soldierly virtue but also in magnanimity and humanity. He has been described as the perfect soldier — a Christian and a gentleman as well as a peerless commander, who led the Army of Northern Virginia to a spectacular series of victories against overwhelming odds.
This view of Lee has come under attack by some historians, most notably Thomas Connelly and Alan Nolan, although both reflect a view advanced by the British military writer J. F. C. Fuller in the 1930s. Historians of this school contend that Lee hurt the Southern cause with his single-minded offensive orientation, which led to casualties the Confederacy could not afford. According to his detractors, Lee had no grand strategy; he focused narrowly on defeating his adversary in Virginia and was willing to pay any cost to prevail. Lee’s predilection for the offensive not only hastened the demise of the South but also was a major contributing cause of that defeat. In the words of Connelly, the Confederacy would “have fared better had it not possessed” a leader as aggressive as Robert E. Lee.
Most important, these critics argue that Lee’s reputation as a gifted soldier was “manufactured history” by such “Lost Cause” writers as Jubal Early, who “distorted the record by vastly inflating Lee’s abilities and wartime stature.” But the outstanding historian Gary Gallagher has argued persuasively that Lee’s high reputation was not a postwar creation of the Lost Cause school. Relying on wartime sources — “as distinct from postwar accounts informed by full knowledge of how the war unfolded,” he concluded that Southerners retained a remarkable faith in the qualities of Lee and the prowess of his army.
Thus, Southerners did not see the setbacks at Antietam or Gettysburg as disasters. Even as Lee clung to the trenches at Petersburg, they believed that victory was ultimately possible.
— Mackubin Thomas Owens is a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College. He also teaches in the Master of Arts in American History and Government (MAHG) program at Ashland University in Ohio. He wrote this campaign description, among others, for his MAHG course on the Civil War and Reconstruction.