Spring 1865 – South of the Shenandoah. The Commonwealth of Virginia, along with almost half of the other states in the former Union, are in open and full rebellion. General Robert Edward Lee commands the Army of Northern Virginia. He and his army have fought this War with such distinction that no other army will ever match their valor.
However, as Richmond burns to the north, Lee and his troops have been dug in at Petersburg for months now with little supplies or a way out of a Federal blockade that surrounds the entire area.
The time has come for Lee’s famous retreat from Petersburg. He and his hungry army surge to the west in an attempt to meet up with General Joseph Johnston’s army in the Carolinas.
However, this retreat plan will not work. President Lincoln and General Ulysses S. Grant cannot allow the retreat to be successful. If Lee reaches the mountains of North Carolina, he will have once again outmaneuvered the lesser skilled Federal field commanders. This would spell disaster for the Union.
A very depressed and desperate President Lincoln will shred the Constitution, refuse to sleep, and put his faith in a former drunken soldier to hunt down and defeat “Marsh Robert.” For it is Grant who is the only Federal commander to have had any success in stopping Lee.
Lincoln commands the unkept, unconventional, cigar chewing general to do whatever it takes to stop the retreat of the Army of Northern Virginia. The chase is on.
As Lee’s army marches west, there are many battles and skirmishes along the way. However, Grant is implementing his plan to form a pincer movement to stop the retreat. Grant’s infantry and cavalry divisions begin to form a circle around the retreating Confederates.
This encirclement will bring the armies together at the last major conflict in the War Between the States; the Battle of Saylor’s Creek.
The Battle of Saylor’s Creek will be a disaster for Lee. His emaciated army will fight with uncanny courage and effort. However, after this bloody engagement, thousands of Confederate soldiers are dead, two of Lee’s sons are captured, and the army is almost entirely surrounded.
There is but one last place to go; a very small town in western Virginia called Appomattox Courthouse. General Lee takes the main thrust of his army to the outskirts of this small town. That night, the old general knows that the end of the Federal pincer has met at Appomattox. His army is starved, outnumbered by close to 2-1, and completely encircled. It is time to meet with Grant.
As Lee plans to offer his surrender, he tells one of his junior officers, “I would rather die a thousand deaths than meet General Grant this day.” However, a thousand deaths would be better than the deaths of his remaining 30,000 troops. He knows this.
On April 9th, 1865, Lee and one lieutenant meet with General Grant. On his way to meet Grant, Lee was shown the type of respect that has never been seen before or after. Every soldier in Appomattox, which consisted primarily of Union troops, saluted the old man as he made his way to surrender.
In the parlor of the McLean’s home, Lee is surrounded by numerous Union officers, including the famous General George Custer.
In late August 2014, my mother and I travelled to Appomattox. It was an experience that is hard to describe. I could sense an extreme level of sadness as a strong breeze swept through the Virginia countryside. There was also a sense of peace on that land.
As I walked into the parlor of the McLean House, I could envision these men shaking hands, sitting down, and ending the bloodiest war in American history.
There was also a sense of great honor. These warriors, who had been at war for years were now countrymen again. Most of the men at Appomattox would go on to try to rebuild and unite our nation.
Lee would advocate for Southern States to peacefully rejoin the Union. Grant would go on to serve two terms as president of the United States himself. During his presidency, he would resist the strong calls from many northerners to “punish” the South.
I wish that every American would visit this important American historic site where our nation’s darkest period was ended with dignity and honor.