Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee

Chapter VIII: The Surrender: The General's farewell to his men

The Document

After his last attempt was made with Gordon and Fitz Lee to break through the lines of the enemy in the early morning of the 9th, and Colonel Veneble informed him that it was not possible, he said:

"Then there is nothing left me but to go and see General Grant." When some one near him, hearing this, said:

"Oh, General, what will history say of the surrender of the army in the field?" he 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."

There had been some correspondence with Grant just before the conversation with General Pendleton. After Gordon's attack failed, a flag of truce was sent out, and, about eleven o'clock, General Lee went to meet General Grant. The terms of surrender were agreed upon, and then General Lee called attention to the pressing needs of his men. He said:

"I have a thousand or more of your men and officers, whom we have required to march along with us for several days. I shall be glad to send them to your lines as soon as it can be arranged, for I have no provisions for them. My own men have been living for the last few days principally upon parched cord, and we are badly in need of both rations and forage."

Grant said he would at once send him 25,000 rations. General Lee told him that amount would be ample and a great relief. He then rode back to his troops. The rations issued then to our army were the supplies destined for us but captured at Amelia Court House. Had they reached us in time, they would have given the half-starved troops that were left strength enough to make a further struggle. General Long graphically pictures the last scenes:

"It is impossible to describe the anguish of the troops when it was known that the surrender of the army was inevitable. Of all their trials, this was the greatest and hardest to endure. There was no consciousness of shame; each heart could boast with honest pride that its duty had been done to the end, and that still unsullied remained its honour. When, after this interview with General Grant, General Lee again appeared, a shout of welcome instinctively went up from the army. But instantly recollecting the sad occasion that brought him before them, their shouts sank into silence, every hat was raised, and the bronzed faces of thousands of grim warriors were bathed in tears. As he rode slowly along the lines, hundreds of his devoted veterans pressed around the noble chief, trying to take his hand, touch his person, or even lay their hands upon his horse, thus exhibiting for him their great affection. The General then with head bare, and tears flowing freely down his manly cheeks, bade adieu to the army."

In a few words: "Men, we have fought through the war together; I have done my best for you; my heart is too full to say more," he bade them good-bye and told them to return to their homes and become good citizens. The next day he issued his farewell address, the last order published to the army:

"Headquarters, Army of Northern Virginia, 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 valour 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 increasing admiration of 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."

General Long says that General Meade called on General Lee on the 10th, and in the course of conversation remarked:

"Now that the war may be considered over, I hope you will not deem it improper for me to ask, for my personal information, the strength of your army during the operations around Richmond and Petersburg." General Lee replied:

"At no time did my force exceed 35,000 men; often it was less." With a look of surprise, Meade answered:

"General, you amaze me; we always estimated your force at about seventy thousand men."

General de Chanal, a French officer, who was present, states that General Lee, who had been an associate of Meade's in the engineers in the "old army," said to him pleasantly:

"Meade, years are telling on you; your hair is getting quite gray."

"Ah, General Lee," was Meade's prompt reply, "it is not the work of years; YOU are responsible for my gray hairs!"

"Three days after the surrender," says Long, "the Army of Northern Virginia had dispersed in every direction, and three weeks later the veterans of a hundred battles had exchanged the musket and the sword for the implements of husbandry. It is worthy of remark that never before was there an army disbanded with less disorder. Thousands of soldiers were set adrift on the world without a penny in their pockets to enable them to reach their homes. Yet none of the scenes of riot that often follow the disbanding of armies marked their course."

Next: His reception in Richmond after the surrender

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How to cite this article

Lee, Robert E. jr., The Recollections & Letters of Robert E. Lee, http://www.historyofwar.org/sources/acw/lee_letters/chapter08d, webpage created by Rickard, J (8 June 2006),

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