Robert E. Lee’s situation was grim in April 1865. He commanded an army of just 60,000 starving men against a well-nourished Union force of 100,000. Lee lost half of those troops in a single week at the battles of Five Forks, Petersburg, and Sailor’s Creek. And two of his sons – both officers in the Confederate Army – were missing in action.
But Lee’s biggest challenge was Ulysses Grant, whose army had cut off his escape and encircled the Confederate troops at Virginia’s Appomattox Court House. Rather than destroy his army and sacrifice the lives of his men needlessly, Lee decided to surrender on April 9, 1865.
The surrender documents were signed in the afternoon. Grant ordered his men to refrain from celebrating and allowed the Confederates to return to their homes with their swords, horses, and mules in exchange for laying down their arms. As about 28,000 Southern soldiers passed by and stacked their guns, they were saluted by the Union troops.
Although some skirmishing continued, other Confederate generals soon surrendered their armies. Grant’s leniency at Appomattox helped establish a mood of forgiveness and reconciliation, putting an end to the nation’s long nightmare.