Key point: This was a meeting for the ages.
When Confederate General Robert E. Lee learned on the morning of April 9, 1865, that Union infantry was both in front and behind of his meager army of 12,500 effectives as it approached Appomattox Court House in central Virginia, he resigned himself to the sad task before him. He must ride to Union lines and request an interview with Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.
“There is nothing left me to do but go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths,” Lee told his staff.
Disaster at Sailor’s Creek Further Depleted Lee’s Already-Thin Ranks
A week earlier Lee had ordered Confederate forces in Richmond and Petersburg to retreat west toward a rendezvous at Amelia, a stop on the Richmond and Danville Railroad. At that time his army numbered about 36,000 men, but in a series of desperate clashes at Sailor’s Creek on April 6 a good chunk of his army was captured. Straggling also took a heavy tool.
Lee set out to meet with Grant shortly after Noon on Palm Sunday. He was escorted by Lt. Col. George Babcock of Grant’s staff and brought with him his adjutant, Lt. Col. Walter Taylor, his secretary, Lt. Col. Charles Marshall, and orderly Sergeant George Tucker. Grant had suggested in his correspondence that Lee choose the meeting place. So Lee sent Marshall ahead on the important task. Marshall selected sugar speculator Wilmer McLean’s red brick house.
Grant Makes Small Talk About Mexican War During Surrender
At 1:30 PM Grant entered McLean’s parlor and went immediately to shake Lee’s hand. They were a study in contrasts of age and attire. Grant in his early 40s wore a muddy and dusty uniform because his baggage had not caught up with him at the front. Lee in his late 50s was immaculately groomed in a dress uniform with polished brass buttons. Grant had difficulty reading Lee’s dignified demeanor. He did not fathom the deep sadness his adversary felt at having to surrender the remnant of a once formidable army.
Grant made small talk about their having met once in the Mexican War. When Lee asked for conditions, Grant said that the Confederates would be paroled but must pledge not to take up arms again against the U.S. government.