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American History Series: Robert E. Lee's Surrender

''Boys, I have done the best I could for you. Go home now. And if you make as good citizens as you have soldiers, you will do well,'' the southern general told his men. Transcript of radio broadcast:

Welcome to THE MAKING OF A NATION -- American history in VOA Special English.

Surrender finally came for General Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy he had served as a great soldier.

It was mostly his military skill and intelligence that kept the South in the field so long. But even his extraordinary skill could not save the South from the industrial power of the North and its mighty armies -- armies that were well-fed and well-equipped.

This week in our series, Stuart Spencer and Leo Scully continue the story of the American Civil War.


The last chapter of the bitter four-year struggle came in April eighteen sixty-five. General Grant had pushed Lee's army away from Richmond and nearby Petersburg, Virginia. His Union forces had kept after the Confederates for almost a week.

Lee fled westward across Virginia. His tired, hungry soldiers tried to turn south, to reach safety in the Carolinas. But always, the Union army blocked the way.

Finally on Saturday, April eighth, Lee's army found it could flee no farther. A Union force at Appomattox Station blocked any further movement to the west.

Early the next morning, Lee tried to break through the ring of Union soldiers that surrounded his army. But he failed. Nothing was left. Nothing but surrender.


Lee sent a note to General Grant asking to meet with him to discuss surrender terms. A few hours later, General Grant rode into the crossroads village of Appomattox Court House.

General Lee was waiting for him at the home of a man named Wilmer McLean. Lee rose as Grant walked into the house.

Grant did not look like a great military leader, the chief of all Union armies. He was dressed simply. His clothes were the same as those worn by the lowest soldiers in his army. His boots and pants were covered with mud. His blue coat was dirty and wrinkled. But on its shoulders were the three gold stars of the Union's highest general.


Lee was dressed in his finest clothing. He wore a beautiful gray coat with a red sash tied around it. At his side, he carried an ivory and silver sword.

The two generals greeted each other and shook hands. Grant said: "I met you once before, General Lee, while we were serving in Mexico. I have always remembered your appearance. I think I would have recognized you anywhere."

Lee said: "Yes, I know I met you then. And I have often tried to remember how you looked. But I have never been able to remember a single feature."


Grant continued to talk of their service in the Mexican War. He said later that he did so because he was finding it difficult to bring up the question of surrender.

Lee took part in the light talk for several minutes. Finally, he said: "I suppose, General Grant, that the purpose of our meeting is fully understood. I asked to see you to learn upon what terms you would receive the surrender of my army."

Grant answered: "The terms I propose are those I offered in my earlier note to you. That is, the officers and men surrendered will not take up arms again. And all your weapons and supplies will become captured property."


Lee said those were the conditions he had expected. He asked Grant to put the terms in writing so he could sign them. "Very well," said Grant. "I will write them out."

It took him several minutes to write the surrender agreement. Only once did he look up.

He had just written the sentence: "The arms, artillery and public property will be given over to the Union army." Grant stopped writing and looked over at the sword the old general wore.

He decided there was no need to hurt Lee's pride by taking away his sword. So he added:

'This will not include the side arms of the officers nor their horses or other private property. Each officer and man shall be allowed to return to his home. He will not be disturbed by United States authorities as long as he honors this agreement and obeys the laws where he lives.'


Grant gave the paper to Lee. Lee read it slowly. When he finished, Grant asked if the Confederate general wished to propose any changes. Lee was silent for a moment. "There is one thing," he said. "The cavalrymen and artillerymen in our army own their own horses. I would like to understand if these men will be allowed to keep their horses."

"You will find," Grant said, "that the terms as written do not allow it. Only the officers are permitted to take their private property."

"You are correct," said Lee. "I see the terms do not allow it. That is clear."


Until now, Lee's face had shown no emotion. But for a moment, his self-control weakened. Grant could see how badly Lee wanted this.

"Well," said Grant, "I did not know that any private soldiers owned their horses. But I think that this will be the last battle of the war. I sincerely hope so. I think that the surrender of this army will be followed soon by that of all the others.

"I take it that most of your soldiers are small farmers and will need the horses to put in a crop that will carry themselves and their families through the next winter. I will not change the terms as they are written. But I will tell my officers to let all the men who claim to own a horse or mule take the animals home with them to work their little farms."


Lee was pleased with this. He told Grant: "This will have the best possible effect upon the men. It will be very gratifying and will do much to help our people."

While waiting for the surrender papers to be copied, Grant presented Lee to the other Union officers in the room. Lee had known some of them before the war.

After a few minutes, Lee turned to Grant. He told him that his army held about one thousand Union soldiers as war prisoners. He said that for the past few days, he had no food but cracked corn to give them. He said he had nothing to give his own men to eat.

Grant called in his supply officer and ordered him to feed the Confederate army. He told him to send to Lee's army enough food for twenty-five thousand men.


Finally, the surrender papers were ready. Grant and Lee signed them. Lee shook hands with Grant and walked out of the house.

Lee got on his horse and rode slowly back to his army. As he entered Confederate lines, men began to cheer. But the cheering died when the soldiers saw the pain and sorrow in Lee's face. Tears filled the old man's eyes. He could not speak. Soldiers removed their hats and watched silently as Lee rode past. Many wept.


A crowd of soldiers waited at Lee's headquarters. They pushed close around him trying to touch him, trying to shake his hand.

Lee began to speak. "Boys, I have done the best I could for you. Go home now. And if you make as good citizens as you have soldiers, you will do well. I shall always be proud of you. Goodbye. And God bless you all."

From the crowd came a loud cry. "Farewell, General Lee! I wish for your sake and mine that every damned Yankee on earth was sunk ten miles in hell!"


On the other side of the lines, Union soldiers began to celebrate. Artillerymen fired their guns to salute the victory over Lee.

Grant heard the artillery booming and sent orders that it should stop. "The rebels are our countrymen again," he said. "We can best show our joy by refusing to celebrate their downfall."


General Grant left Appomattox Court House to return to his headquarters a few kilometers away. Suddenly, he stopped his horse. He had forgotten to tell President Lincoln or War Secretary Stanton that Lee had surrendered. He sat down at the side of the road and wrote a telegram to Secretary Stanton.

News of the surrender reached Washington late on Sunday. Most citizens in the capital did not learn of it until early the next morning. Then cannons began to boom out over the city. Crowds rushed to the White House to cheer the president. They asked Lincoln to make a victory speech.

Lincoln said he had not prepared a statement. He wished to wait until the next night. He asked the people to come back then and he would have something to say.



Our program was written by Frank Beardsley. The narrators were Stuart Spencer and Leo Scully. You can find transcripts, MP3s and podcasts of our programs along with historical images at You can also follow us on Twitter at VOA Learning English. Join us again next week for THE MAKING OF A NATION -- an American history series in VOA Special English.


This is program #116 of THE MAKING OF A NATION