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Civil War, April 1865 - Appomattox

Linda Roorda

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Whether or not we had ancestors or extended relatives who served in the American Civil War, it’s only fitting that we commemorate the 159th anniversary of its conclusion this past April.  This was the war that gave freedom to all slaves, despite that issue not being the war’s original intent. 

It all began when seven states from the south seceded from the bonds of the United States of America upon Abraham Lincoln’s election as president in November 1860.  By February 1861, the Confederate States of America had formed, whereupon the United States government declared its existence was illegal.  Four more states seceded from the Union with the April 12, 1861 firing by Confederates on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, a Union-held fort.  Only later did the slavery issue become the leading bone of contention between the north and south. 

Not until September 22, 1862 did President Lincoln declare that as of January 1, 1863 “all slaves in states in rebellion against the Union ‘shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.’”  Lincoln was also astute enough to know this would be "the central act of my administration, and the greatest event of the 19th century."

And so, one hundred and fifty-nine years ago, men on both sides of our nation’s civil war lay down their arms after four long years.  But, few knew when dawn broke on Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865, that it was the beginning of the end.  General Robert E. Lee of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was backed into a corner on the battlefield with nothing left to do but accept the offer of surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant of the Union (i.e. Northern) Army. 

Grant had pursued Lee’s army relentlessly.  In fact, Grant’s troops were entrenched around Petersburg and Richmond, Virginia.  Grant thus kept Lee under a loose siege in an attempt to sever the supply lines which enabled the Confederate armies to remain viable.  As the Union Army drew Lee’s forces into battle on April 1, 1865 and cut their supply lines, Lee had no choice but to abandon ground he had held for virtually ten months.  In retreat, he expected to meet up with other Confederate units in order to regroup as designated supply trains arrived with fresh provisions.  Unfortunately, the Union cavalry found and attacked remnants of Lee’s army enroute, forcing several thousand Confederates to surrender.  Supplies were also captured by the Northern Army, preventing the Southern troops from getting their designated supplies in order to continue fighting.

On April 7, and after several small skirmishes, Grant sent a message to Lee suggesting that he surrender.  Though Lee refused, he did ask Grant to spell out the terms being offered, hoping to buy sufficient time to meet up with additional Southern troops.  The next day, however, three Confederate supply trains were captured and burned at Appomattox Station by Brevet Maj. Gen. George Armstrong Custer.  This left two more Southern armies which were arriving to support Lee without their desperately-needed supplies of food and more.  Knowing there was just one more supply train available a little farther west at Lynchburg, Lee decided to fight on and push his army through the Northern Army’s lines of defense. 

On Sunday morning, April 9, the Southern Army forced back a section of the Northern Army’s line of defense.  As they pushed forward, however, the next line of the Union Army slowed the Confederates down.  Desperately continuing their charge forward, they finally broke through the Union defense… only to find that, as their cavalry reached the summit of a hill, the Union Army lay spread out before them fully prepared to repel the Southern Army. 

Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon sent a message to Gen. Lee stating, “…I have fought my corps to a frazzle, and I fear I can do nothing unless I am heavily supported by Longstreet’s corps.”  Knowing that Lt. Gen. James Longstreet was fully engaged by the Northern Army and unable to come to Gordon’s aid, Lee knew he had no other choice but to surrender.  “Then there is nothing left for me to do but to go and see General Grant and I would rather die a thousand deaths,” Lee replied to Gordon.  [The Appomattox Campaign: March 29-April 9, 1865, by Joe Williams, National Park Service.  Per Wikipedia]

General Robert E. Lee went to meet Grant that Palm Sunday, April 9, dressed impeccably in full uniform.  General Ulysses S. Grant (having allowed Lee to select their meeting site) arrived as is from the battlefield in an unkempt uniform spattered by mud with his pants tucked into well-worn muddy boots.  Lee’s men had been hounded as they tried to gain the upper hand over his fellow graduate of West Point.  Even supply trains seemed to contrive against him as they were prevented from meeting his Southern troops at designated stops.  The great Confederate effort had begun to unravel… rapidly.  Though his soldiers were bone weary, starving hungry, emaciated, emotionally and physically drained, they were ready to follow their beloved commander wherever he led them.  And this was where Lee brought them… to Appomattox Court House, Virginia, to the country home of Wilmer and Virginia McLean… to surrender.

The meeting between Grant and Lee was initially emotional as they discussed their only other meeting about 20 years earlier in the Mexican-American War.  Sitting down to business, the terms of surrender given by Grant were more generous than expected.  See Robert E. Lee's Surrender at Appomattox from the pages of Harper's Weekly.

Written documentation was provided by Grant’s adjutant, Ely Parker, a Native American of the Seneca tribe.  When Lee learned of Parker’s heritage, he commented, “It is good to have one real American here.”  Parker replied simply, “Sir, we are all Americans.”  Grant allowed that each man could keep his own horse or mule, so vital for the spring field work ahead.  The officers could keep their small sidearms, but all men were to leave their larger shotguns, rifles, artillery field pieces, and public property.  They were to refrain from taking up arms in the future against the United States of America, and to respectfully embrace all laws within the state they lived.  After the formalities were concluded inside the house, they stepped quietly outside.  As Grant’s men began cheering in a celebratory manner, he ordered them to stop immediately.  “The Confederates are now our countrymen, and we [do] not want to exult over their downfall.”  Respect was paramount in Grant’s eyes.  He even provided food rations to Lee’s starving army.  [quotes above from April 1865: The Month That Saved America, Jay Winik; New York:  HarperCollins, 2006, p.191.]

On April 12, 1865, Gen. Robert E. Lee’s soldiers lined up to stack their guns under the Union Army’s watchful eye.  Brig. Gen. Joshua L. Chamberlain, the Union officer chosen to lead the formal ceremony of surrender, wrote a moving tribute:  “The momentous meaning of this occasion impressed me deeply.  I resolved to mark it by some token of recognition, which could be no other than a salute of arms…  Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood:  men whom neither toils nor sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond – was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured?  …when the head of each division column comes opposite our group, our bugle sounds the signal and instantly our whole line from right to left, regiment by regiment in succession, gives the soldier’s salutation, from the ‘order arms’ to the old ‘carry’, the marching salute... honor answering honor.  On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glorying, nor motion of man standing again at the order, but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead!”  [Passing of the Armies, Joshua Chamberlain, pp. 260-261; per Wikipedia]

When the roughly 28,000 soldiers of Gen. Lee’s former Confederate Army of Northern Virginia stacked their arms, they must have done so with tremendous mixed emotions.  It’s not easy to lose.  It’s not easy to have fought so hard and so long for what you believed in with all your heart only to have it come to this... surrender.  But, Grant allowed them to retain their dignity.  As they walked past their former enemies, each man was saluted with respect.  With this solemn ceremony, both sides must have felt a great sense of relief that the long and bitter war was finally over. 

The Surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, April 12, 1865.  Painting by Ken Riley.  Courtesy West Point Museum, U. S. Military Academy, West Point, New York.

The respect that Gen. Grant and his men paid to the Southern soldiers was intended to be taken back home to their countrymen as each man turned and walked away... back to the family each had left behind so long ago… back to a family that might no longer be intact… back to a home or farm left tattered and ruined by the men they were surrendering to. 

It would be a long road home for men on both sides.  They faced physical and emotional difficulties as they recovered.  But, the road for men traveling south may have been fraught with a depth of anxiety the northerners likely never knew.  What remained of the family and home left behind?  Too often, very little.  It would be a long road ahead to rebuild the devastation of a countryside laid waste by war… crops to plant, homes and farms to rebuild, and cities and business to re-establish.  It would take a lot of determination to move forward, but move forward our nation would. 

Yet, thousands of men and boys did not have the opportunity to go home.  Many, if not all, of those walking home had family members and/or friends who had given the ultimate sacrifice.

By April 1865, the nation had been at war for four long weary years.  Additional Confederate armies surrendered over the ensuing days and weeks.  Everyone was tired.  The nation at large was utterly drained.  The war had exacted its final toll from about 630,000 men while over one million were formally listed as casualties of war, i.e. wounded - some with loss of limbs, some in emotional turmoil, some carrying disease that began on the battlefield or in prison.  The after-effects lasted far beyond the cessation of actual physical combat.  And then, just as the end of war was beginning to register in their weary minds, the nation’s much beloved and equally hated president, Abraham Lincoln, was assassinated.  What next?  What was this world coming to?  How would the nation continue to move forward?

Among my ancestors and extended relatives who fought in the Civil War are two McNeill half-brothers, each of whom spent time in Confederate prisons.  They were sons of Robert McNeill who served in the War of 1812, removing to Michigan with his family; Robert is an older brother of my ancestor, Jesse.

1)      Chauncey McNeill, b. about 1819, Carlisle, Schoharie Co., NY, son of Robert and 1st wife Matilda (Crego) McNeill.  “Chancy” enlisted in 8th Michigan Cavalry Sep 2, 1864, went missing in action at Henryville, Tennessee Nov 23, 1864.  Imprisoned at Camp Sumter/Andersonville, admitted to hospital Feb 21, 1865, died March 5, 1865 of “Cronick Diarheah and exposure in said Rebel Prison,” buried grave No. 12733 at Andersonville, Georgia, leaving a widow and two young children.  [Above per NARA military service records purchased by Roorda.]

“12733, McNiell, C, 8 cav, Co M, died March 5, '65, diarrhea c.”

A List of the Union Soldiers Buried at Andersonville, by Dorence Atwater.  As a prisoner he kept a daily log of all Union soldiers who died in the prison for the commander, given to the U.S. government after the Civil War.  [Gourley, pp.8, 172]

2)      DeWitt C. McNeill, b. about Dec 18, 1845, Savannah, Wayne Co., NY, son of Robert and 2nd wife Catharine (Vosburgh, Coe) McNeill.  DeWitt enlisted Sep 26, 1862 at Copake, NY, promoted from private to corporal to sergeant Co. E, 159th N. Y. Infantry.  Captured Sep 19, 1864, Winchester, Virginia, released March 2, 1865 at Goldsborough, North Carolina, returned to camp May 4th, mustered out August 4, 1865 at Savannah, Georgia.  He died March 16, 1868 at age 22 of illness from time spent in prison, leaving a young widow.

Closer to my direct lineage, John and Henry Leonardson went off to war from Montgomery County, New York.  They were brothers of Mary Eliza Leonardson (b. ca. 1832) who married William Ottman (my great-great-grandparents) of Carlisle, Schoharie County, NY.  One brother came home after several years of war, while the younger sibling was killed only six months into his enlistment.  

3)      John D. Leonardson, b. Jan 10, 1830 in Montgomery Co., NY, son of Arent/Aaron and Lana (Gross) Leendertse/Leonardson.  John enlisted Dec 14, 1861 at Lyons, NY as a musician into F Co., NY 98th Infantry, re-enlisted Jan 4, 1864, serving in siege against Petersburg and Richmond VA, mustered out Aug 31, 1865 at Richmond, VA.  He died August 10, 1899, Sharon, Schoharie Co., NY. 

4)      Henry Leonardson, b. about 1840, Montgomery Co., NY, son of Arent/Aaron and Lana (Gross) Leendertse/Leonardson.  Henry enlisted as private Jan 4, 1864 into unassigned NY 16th Heavy Artillery, transferred May 10, 1864 to D Co. NY 6th Heavy Artillery.  Killed Jun 22, 1864 at Petersburg, VA.

NEXT: Read Civil War, April 1865, Elmira Prison vs. Andersonville



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