“After Four Years of arduous service, marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield.”. , Thus began General Robert E Lee’s farewell address to his army. The decision to yield had not come easy. Only after it became obvious that it would be useless to go on did Lee agree to surrender those who had remained steadfast to the end.
When the end came, it was not unexpected. The Confederate ranks had been thinned by battle, attrition and the realization that will and determination were not enough. The valiant defense of the Petersburg line, the battle at Sayler’s Creek southwest of Richmond, the retreat to the west and the running attacks of Major-General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry had taken their toll in dead, wounded, captured and missing.
The night sky on April 8th 1865, presented Lee’s men with visible evidence of the military situation. They had been fighting rear guard and flank attacks, but now the sky reflected the red glow of campfires to the east, south and west. The federal army had succeeded in moving past the Rebel left flank and across the route of retreat. Only to the North was there an absence of the red glow. Lee’s army was almost surrounded.
Lee met with Lieutenant James Longstreet, Major-General John Gordon and Major-General Fitz Lee during the evening of April 8th and informed them of the correspondence he had had with Union General U.S.Grant. After reading Grant’s letter of April 7th calling for a surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, Longstreet had counseled his commander with the words “not yet”. In response to Lee’s reply asking for clarification on terms, Grant had called for surrender of the army under conditions stating that the men would be on parole until properly exchanged.
Surrender was the last option for Lee and as long as he could, he would keep his army in the field. He proposed to meet with Grant to discuss the restoration of peace, not to negotiate a surrender. He had not received a reply at the time of his meeting with his general on the evening of April 8th. After discussing their option, they agreed that one more effort would be made to break through toward Lynchburg. If they could make it through, the army would turn southward. The plan called for the cavalry under Fitz Lee, supported by the II Corps under Gordon to drive the Federals back in front, wheel to the left and hold the enemy while the army moved behind the screen.
When the sun came up on Palm Sunday morning, April 9th, 1865 Gordon’s men, numbering about 1600, were in position a half mile west of Appomattox Court House. On his right, Gordon saw that Fitz Lee’s 2400 troopers extended his line.
As darkness turned to light, the Federal earthworks became visible across the field. If Federal cavalry defended them, the Gordon and Fitz lee could force them back. If the Federal infantry was up, then the end was at hand.