Weird History

What Were The Final Hours Of The Civil War Actually Like?  

Genevieve Carlton
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When did the Civil War officially end? Though fighting continued even after General Robert E. Lee surrendered in Appomattox, VA, the war officially ended on April 9, 1865. But what were the final hours of the Civil War like? Many men lost their lives on the last day of fighting, as the Confederacy tried to escape the advancing Union forces. But when Lee's army was surrounded, even the general had to finally admit these were the last moments of the Civil War.

The bloodiest war in US history almost ended a few days earlier. Lee's officers pleaded with their commander in chief to surrender, as their ragged army starved. Lee held out, declaring the South had "sacred principles to maintain and rights to defend." Union General Ulysses S. Grant even sent Lee a note reminding him of the "hopelessness of further resistance."

But Lee fought on until he was surrounded. "There is nothing left me to do but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths," Lee declared.

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Photo: E&T.H. Anthony/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
'The Beginning Of The End Was Now At Hand'

For four years, Union and Confederate troops had clashed on the field. But by April 1865, as General Robert E. Lee's close confidant James Longstreet said, "The beginning of the end was now at hand."

On April 7, 1865, Lee's closest military officers confronted him. According to General Long:

Perceiving the difficulties that surrounded the army, and believing its extraction hopeless, a number of the principal officers, from a feeling of affection and sympathy for the commander-in-chief, and with a wish to lighten his responsibility and soften the pain of defeat, volunteered to inform him that, in their opinion, the struggle had reached a point where further resistance was hopeless, and that the contest should be terminated and negotiations opened for a surrender of the army.

Longstreet disagreed, instead urging the Confederates to fight on.

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Photo: Elbridge Wesley Webber/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
'He Knew Their Devotion To The Cause And Their Devotion To Him, But He Was Not Ready To Consider The Necessity For Surrender'

Confederate General John Brown Gordon recalled "the Army of Northern Virginia had become the mere skeleton of its former self" by April 1865.

But Lee refused to give up. According to Gordon, "General Lee was riding everywhere and watching everything, encouraging his brave men by his calm and cheerful bearing. He was often exposed to great danger from shells and bullets."

When Lee's officers suggested surrender, the general said, "We had, I was satisfied, sacred principles to maintain and rights to defend, for which we were in duty bound to do our best, even if we perished in the endeavor."

Gordon later explained, "He knew their devotion to the cause and their devotion to him, but he was not ready to consider the necessity for surrender."

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Photo: Alfred R. Waud/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
'A Flag Of Truce Appeared Under Torchlight In Front Of Mahone’s Line Bearing A Note To General Lee'

After debating his officer's proposal, Lee was still determined to fight on.

Lee's rival, Union General Ulysses S. Grant, had spoken with a captured Confederate general the night before. "[General] Ewell had said that when we had got across the James River he knew their cause was lost, and it was the duty of their authorities to make the best terms they could while they still had a right to claim concessions."

As the Confederate officers tried to convince their commander in chief to surrender, Grant sent Lee a note.

"A flag of truce appeared under torchlight in front of Mahone's line bearing a note to General Lee," recalled Longstreet

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Photo: Mathew Brady/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
'The Results Of The Last Week Must Convince You Of The Hopelessness Of Further Resistance'

In his April 7 note to Lee, Grant wrote:

The results of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia in this struggle. I feel that it is so, and regard it as my duty to shift from myself the responsibility of any further effusion of blood by asking of you the surrender of that portion of the Confederate army known as the Army of Northern Virginia.

Lee wrote back saying he disagreed with Grant on "the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia."