April, 1865: Surrender at Appomattox Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln occurred only five days after Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union general Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865. The other Confederate armies soon surrendered, and the Civil War came to an end. Lincoln’s body was taken back to Springfield, Illinois, on a circuitous seventeen-hundred-mile route that retraced his 1861 journey to Washington, D.C.

The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln occurred only five days after Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union general Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865. The other Confederate armies soon surrendered, and the Civil War came to an end. Lincoln’s body was taken back to Springfield, Illinois, on a circuitous seventeen-hundred-mile route that retraced his 1861 journey to Washington, D.C.

The Union Victory

President Lincoln had been the chief architect of the Union victory that ended the long war. In March, 1864, he called General Grant to the White House and placed him in overall command of the Union Armies. Grant then embarked upon a vigorous campaign aimed at Richmond, engaging Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in two important battles west of Fredricksburg, Virginia—Wilderness, May 5–7, and Spotsylvania, May 8–9, 1864. Grant suffered heavy casualties but pushed on to Cold Harbor (June 1–3). There, the Confederates repulsed his attack which, had it been successful, would have led to the fall of Richmond. Grant then attempted to outflank Lee by crossing the James River and driving toward Petersburg, where he intended to cut vital rail connections. Lee was able to check Grant’s advance short of Petersburg, however, and a nine-month stalemate ensued.

Meanwhile, General William T. Sherman had completed his destructive march from Atlanta to the sea at Savannah, Georgia. He then moved northward in a march that was to take him through South Carolina and North Carolina. All signs pointed to a Confederate defeat in 1865: The Union blockade was increasingly effective; Great Britain no longer showed much sympathy for the Confederacy; the economy of the South was breaking down under the impact of the war; and Grant continued to receive troop replacements, whereas Lee’s troops were becoming exhausted. A peace conference, which Confederate president Jefferson Davis had suggested, was held on February 3, 1865. Confederate vice president Alexander H. Stephens led the delegation from the South, while Lincoln spoke for the Union. Lincoln insisted upon the disbanding of the Confederate forces, but the Confederacy was not then willing to surrender.

In April, 1865, Grant was able to extend Lee’s lines to the breaking point, and Lee was forced to evacuated the Confederate capital of Richmond as well as Petersburg. Lee’s escape route lay to the west and south; he hoped to join forces with General Joe Johnston in North Carolina, but Grant’s forces blocked his escape. Lee, now convinced of the futility of continuing the war, met Grant at the McLean house in Appomattox Courthouse, where he surrendered. Grant, following the spirit of President Lincoln’s instructions, agreed to release Lee’s officers and men on parole. Lee’s troops were allowed to keep their horses, mules, and sidearms and then return home. In short order, the other scattered Confederate armies followed General Lee’s lead and began the ordeal of surrender. The last significant group of men under arms, those under the command of General Joseph Johnston, began surrender negotiations with Sherman on April 17. The war had wrought a death toll far greater than anyone could have imagined four years earlier: 360,000 Union soldiers, 260,000 men from the South, and unknown numbers of civilians. The economic havoc would leave the South devastated for a century.

Appomattox Court House. (National Archives)

After Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, Vice President Andrew Johnson became president and assumed responsibility for implementing the Union’s Reconstruction policies in the defeated South. (National Archives)

News of Lee’s surrender reached Washington the same day it took place, and it was received with great rejoicing. Lincoln made several extemporaneous speeches and one prepared address during the course of the next several days in response to the demands of exuberant crowds. It was Lincoln’s view that the South should be welcomed back as brothers to enable healing to begin. In this regard, he was strongly opposed by the Radical Republicans within Congress. It was their view that the South had started the war and should be made to pay. Whether Lincoln might have curbed their hatred remains an unanswered question.

Lincoln’s Assassination

At approximately 8:30 p.m. on April 14, President and Mrs. Lincoln, in company with Miss Clara Harris and Major Henry R. Rathbone, entered Ford’s Theater to see a performance of Our American Cousin. About 10:15 p.m., John Wilkes Booth, a twenty-six-year-old actor who sympathized with the South, slipped into the president’s box and fired one shot into the back of Lincoln’s head. The president was mortally wounded and died the next morning at 7:22, without ever having regained consciousness. After shooting Lincoln, Booth jumped onto the stage, breaking a small bone in his leg as he landed. From the stage he shouted the motto of Virginia, Sic semper tyrannis (thus ever to tyrants). In the confusion, he managed to evade capture in Washington, escaping over the bridge into Virginia. There, his broken leg was set by Dr. Samuel Mudd. It remains unclear whether Mudd was aware of the significance of his patient. Booth was eventually trapped in a tobacco shed near Port Royal, Virginia, on April 26. There Booth died, either by his own hand or from a shot fired by one of the soldiers attempting to arrest him.

The president’s assassination was only one part of a major plot to murder the most important Union officials. Secretary of State William Seward and his sons, Frederick and Augustus, suffered knife wounds at the hands of Lewis Paine, a former Confederate soldier and devotee of Booth. George A. Atzerodt, an alcoholic, was assigned by Booth to kill Vice President Johnson, but he failed to make the attempt. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton took charge of the investigation and ordered the arrest of Paine, Atzerodt, David Herold, Edward Spangler, Samuel Arnold, Michael O’Laughlin, Dr. Samuel Mudd, and Mrs. Mary E. Surratt, owner of the boardinghouse in which the conspirators met. The likelihood is that Mrs. Surratt knew nothing of Booth’s plot. However, she was caught up in the passion for revenge that followed Lincoln’s murder.

Fate of the Conspirators

The alleged conspirators were tried before a military commission whose jurisdiction was questionable. The trial lasted from May 10 to June 30, and all the defendants were found guilty. Atzerodt, Paine, Herold, and Surratt were hanged seven days after the trial ended, while Spangler, Arnold, Mudd, and O’Laughlin were sentenced to life imprisonment. Surratt’s execution was almost certainly a miscarriage of justice that could not have been carried out if a few weeks or months had been allowed for passions to cool. By contrast, her son John escaped immediate capture and, when tried in 1867, was released after a jury failed to agree on a verdict.

Those sentenced to life imprisonment were pardoned in 1869, with the exception of O’Laughlin, who died of yellow fever at the Dry Tortugas prison off Key West. Dr. Mudd was found guilty as an accessory after the fact, and also sentenced to life imprisonment. However, his heroics during the yellow fever epidemic resulted in a commutation of his sentence, and he also was freed in 1869. Mudd’s descendants have continued to argue for his innocence. Former president of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis was taken prisoner soon after Lee’s surrender. Although he was indicted for treason and imprisoned two years at Fort Monroe, he never came to trial.

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