What Lee and Grant didn’t bother to debate
Lee. Grant. Appomattox. The three names have become almost shorthand for an end to four ghastly years of a war, all of whose casualties were Americans turned against one another. It is worth revisiting the correspondence and other documents of April 8, 9, and 10, 1865, to preserve for the historical record three essential realities.
First, what Robert E. Lee surrendered were the 30,000 troops of his Army of Northern Virginia.
Second, both Lee and Ulysses S. Grant acknowledged in their agreements the existence of other “armies of the Confederate States” – 90,000 men — still at large under the overall command of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston.
Third, there was what some may have thought a dangerous loophole: The surrendered troops might at some point join or support those armies after having met the terms of their parole until properly exchanged.
The odds against such an eventuality were poor, both militarily and because it would have required the consent of both sides, which the Union had no incentive to give. What makes it historically important is that both commanders formally acknowledged that the war was still on, and that there were troops enough to prolong it.
It was Johnston who, having long since concluded that the war was all but over, defied Jefferson Davis’ orders and surrendered not only the army that had fought its way out of Bentonville, but all troops in his department. That left historians with a footnote to deal with here and there, but the war was over on April 26, more than two weeks after Lee departed Appomattox.
Lee’s April 10 farewell to his troops made no effort to close any doors, but neither did it show any signs of fight. He spoke, instead, of homecomings and gratitude. It therefore deserves reading (in its entirety; a few romantics seem unable to include Lee’s own first sentence in their “transcripts” of General Order Number 9):
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 brave 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 valor and devotion could accomplish nothing that could compensate for the loss that would have attended the continuance of the contest, I 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 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 unceasing admiration of your constancy and devotion to your country, and a grateful remembrance of your kind and generous consideration of myself, I bid you all an affectionate farewell.
R E Lee Genl