Who Won the Battle of Appomattox Courthouse?

In the spring of 1865, the Confederate States of America was on the brink of collapse. A final battle between two famous generals signaled the end of the war.

Jan 12, 2024By Owen Rust, MA Economics in progress w/ MPA

who won battle of appomattox


Almost exactly four years after the thunderous start to the American Civil War with the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter, South Carolina, the Confederate States of America was on the verge of collapse. The Union forces finally broke the defensive stalemate between Washington DC and the nearby Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. A week after Richmond’s fall, the stage was set for a final confrontation.


Victory Goes to the Union

map virginia appomattox
A map of Virginia showing the final campaigns of the American Civil War in 1865, with a yellow star around Appomattox (to the west of Richmond, the Confederate capital) added by the author, via the Library of Congress


The Battle of Appomattox Courthouse was a definitive Union victory and has been memorialized as the end of the American Civil War. However, this is an oversimplification, as the war dragged on for up to two more months. The last Confederate general, Stand Watie, did not actually surrender until June 23, 1865, in present-day Oklahoma. Only on August 20, 1866, did US President Andrew Johnson formally declare the rebellion against the Union (United States) to be completely over. However, the Union victory at Appomattox was the end of the Army of Northern Virginia, the Confederacy’s largest and most prestigious army.


On April 9, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee still held out hope that his forces could escape the Union troops and make it to North Carolina to regroup. Lee had recently been defeated in the Battle of Sailor’s Creek, and his Union counterpart, General Ulysses S. Grant, informed him that surrender was the only option. After realizing there was little chance of breaking through Union lines to escape, Lee agreed to meet Grant under a flag of truce. At approximately 1:30 PM, both generals met at the courthouse. Two written memos – five sentences from Grant and a responding three sentences from Lee – surrendered the once-vaunted Army of Northern Virginia.


Timeline of the Battle of Appomattox Courthouse

fall of richmond timeline 1865
A map showing the Union invasion of Virginia between May 1864 and April 1865, resulting in the Confederate withdrawal to Appomattox, via Thomas’ Legion


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On March 29, 1865, the Union forces under Ulysses S. Grant began a major offensive that finally broke the Confederate defenses between Washington DC and Richmond, Virginia. Confederate forces under Robert E. Lee were under constant retreat during this Appomattox Campaign, moving west and hoping to eventually link up with other Confederate armies. On April 6, Lee was defeated in the Battle of Sailor’s Creek, further worsening his troops’ morale and supply situation. On April 7, Lee lost a similar skirmish, the Battle of Cumberland Church, and tried to desperately out-march his Union pursuers.


The next day, April 8, Union cavalry forces under Brigadier General George A. Custerlater [in]famous during the Indian Wars out West – raced ahead to Appomattox Station and captured unguarded Confederate supply trains. Unable to resupply, Lee faced a difficult decision: surrender, or try to fight.


appomattox courthouse april 9 1865
A map showing movements of Union and Confederate armies during the Battle of Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865, via the National Park Service


On the evening of April 8, aware that Union had beaten him to Appomattox, Lee decided to try to fight through and continue escaping westward if he only faced cavalry. However, if he faced massed Union infantry, Lee knew that surrender was likely his only option as April 9 dawned.


Just before 8:00 AM on April 9, Confederate soldiers attacked the Union cavalry, temporarily pushing them back.


However, Union infantry arrived as Lee had feared, and between 10:00 AM and 11:00 AM, a final decision was made by Lee to raise the white flag of truce.


What Caused the Battle of Appomattox Courthouse?

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A Currier & Ives image of the fall of Richmond, Virginia to Union forces on April 2, 1865, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The fall of Richmond on April 2, 1865 directly precipitated the Battle of Appomattox Courthouse. Without a functioning national government, the Confederate States of America was on borrowed time. However, Robert E. Lee thought that all was not lost, for he had felt constrained in the war by having to constantly defend Richmond from Union forces, whose capital of Washington DC was only a hundred miles away. Unfortunately for Lee, he no longer had the manpower or equipment to put up much resistance against the forces of Ulysses S. Grant. Lee hoped to march south and link up with fellow Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston, but his men lacked energy and rations.


Lack of supplies and exhaustion allowed pursuing Union forces to catch up to Lee’s men. Finding Union forces blocking their path, Lee tried to outflank them rather than fight them. By April 6, Confederate unit cohesion had largely been lost due to exhaustion and starvation, and it was doubted that much of a fight could still be mounted. On April 7, a chance to take rations was interrupted by the swift arrival of Union troops, leading Grant to send a request that Lee surrender his army. Lee refused and figured his men could still take rations at Appomattox, Virginia.


Why Was the Battle of Appomattox Courthouse Significant?

lee surrenders april 1865
A painting of the famous surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee (right) to Union General Ulysses S. Grant (left) at Appomattox, via the American Battlefield Trust


The Battle of Appomattox Courthouse was the last stand of the Confederacy’s famed Army of Northern Virginia. Its defeat guaranteed that the war was lost and that the Union would prevail very quickly. Despite not being much of a battle, with only a cursory Confederate attempt to break through Union lines that completely surrounded them, the surrender of Robert E. Lee was considered the de facto end of the Confederacy. The terms of the surrender, which allowed Confederate soldiers to keep their personal belongings and officers to keep their horses and sidearms, previewed the complexity of the upcoming Reconstruction Era and the treatment of the defeated South.


Generous terms of surrender at Appomattox, though perhaps controversial, have been viewed as successful in ending the war with less bloodshed. There was a spirit of forgiveness with the surrender, with Confederate troops who willingly laid down their weapons receiving the promise of not being prosecuted for treason or other crimes. In a second meeting on April 10, Grant hoped that Lee would encourage other Confederate generals to surrender, but Lee refused. Similar to the lingering end of the Civil War resulting from Lee’s refusal to push for a broader surrender, the Reconstruction Era (1865-76) would also be known for its lengthy and often unsatisfying results in redeveloping the South and providing freedom to formerly enslaved people.


5 Facts About the Battle of Appomattox Courthouse

pamphlet lee surrender 1865
A Vermont news pamphlet from a Vermont on April 14, 1865, proclaiming Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, via the Vermont Digital Newspaper Project (VTDNP)


1. Casualties

The brief morning battle fought between 8:00 AM and about 10:00 AM, resulted in only a relative handful of casualties. Similar to other post-Gettysburg engagements, the Confederates took the worst of it: some 500 casualties to only about 150 on the Union side. Surrounded by Union forces, Lee decided not to cause needless bloodshed. Ulysses S. Grant enjoyed an almost 2-to-1 numerical advantage, making it unlikely that any combat performance would have saved the Southerners.


2. Commanders

The classic confrontation between the Union’s Army of the Potomac and the Confederacy’s Army of Northern Virginia was a showdown between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. Unlike many of his Union predecessors, Grant was renowned for his aggression, which often upset his critics due to the higher rate of casualties. However, US President Abraham Lincoln famously supported Grant’s tactics, stating: “I can’t spare this man – he fights.” In March 1864, Grant was named general-in-chief of all Union armies by Lincoln.


Lee, like Grant, was a West Point graduate and Mexican-American War veteran. He was often considered more tactically skilled and regal in bearing than Grant but was promoted to the role of general-in-chief of all armies only in February 1865, almost a year after Grant. Both generals survived the war, with Lee moving to Lexington, Virginia and becoming the president of Washington College. Grant became president of the United States in 1868 as a Republican, effectively becoming Abraham Lincoln’s genuine successor. Lee passed away in 1870, while Grant lived until 1885.


3. Number of Forces Involved

The “battle,” though most forces were not committed, saw almost 90,000 troops present at Appomattox. Union forces consisted of over 63,000 men, while the Confederate total was around 28,000. On April 9, only about 9,000 Confederate troops were prepared for a fighting breakout. Due to a lengthy period of exhausting conditions and meager rations, most Confederate soldiers were not in good shape for combat.


4. Visiting Appomattox Courthouse

Today, the Appomattox Courthouse is a National Historic Park and is free for the public to visit. There is a visitor center and museum that opens at 9:00 AM daily, along with guided tours. Tourists can stay in the nearby town of Appomattox, Virginia, which hosts a Civil War museum separate from the Appomattox Courthouse and the surrender of Robert E. Lee. The area is also popular for its beautiful nature and many outdoor activities.


5. Trivia: Lee and Grant After the War

After his surrender, Lee urged his former soldiers to work on rebuilding the nation and avoid thoughts of revenge or reprisal. In September 1865, Lee wrote that the issues between the North and South had been decided; he did not wish to re-argue them. Although Lee was initially nervous about being prosecuted for treason, this did not occur. In 1869, he met privately with his former foe, Ulysses S. Grant, at the White House during Grant’s presidency.


The legacies of both Lee and Grant have been marred with controversy. Grant left the presidency under a cloud of scandal and was personally considered to be a drunkard who made terrible choices in political appointments. More recently, however, Grant’s legacy has improved due to his support for African Americans in the South and enforcing Reconstruction. After his death, Robert E. Lee was often revered for his military leadership and personal integrity, even by Northerners. However, Lee’s support for slavery prior to 1865 has seen his legacy eroded in recent decades.


The Aftermath of Appomattox: A Slow End to the War

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A reproduction of the order to free all enslaved people in Texas given on June 19, 1865 after the arrival of Union troops in Galveston, via the Galveston Historical Foundation


The Union victory at Appomattox was heralded as the end of the war, but some Confederate leaders still fought onward. Not until April 26, two weeks after the official surrender ceremony at Appomattox (held on April 12 to mark the four-year anniversary of the Battle of Fort Sumter that began the war), did Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston surrender with 90,000 troops in the largest surrender of the war. A week later, Confederate President Jefferson Davis was still on the run with his cabinet. On May 10, after camping out in hopes of evading capture – amplified by a $100,000 reward – Davis was caught by Union troops. A few days later, the final skirmish of the war occurred in Texas with the Battle of Palmito Ranch.


Due to the remoteness of Texas from most of the Civil War fighting, the state was not occupied quickly by Union troops. Only on June 19, 1865, did Union troops arrive in Galveston to secure the state’s Gulf Coast. This forced the final end of slavery in the United States and is now the latest federal holiday: Juneteenth. Today, many commemorate this holiday as the official end of the American Civil War because the goal of the Emancipation Proclamation, issued by President Lincoln days after the Battle of Antietam, was not realized until then.

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By Owen RustMA Economics in progress w/ MPAOwen is a high school teacher and college adjunct in West Texas. He has an MPA degree from the University of Wyoming and is close to completing a Master’s in Finance and Economics from West Texas A&M. He has taught World History, U.S. History, and freshman and sophomore English at the high school level, and Economics, Government, and Sociology at the college level as a dual-credit instructor and adjunct. His interests include Government and Politics, Economics, and Sociology.