Why the Army of Northern Virgina Surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse

by Joshua Horn
from Lee's Lieutentants by D. S. Freeman


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On April 9th, 1865 Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virgina to U. S. Grant near Appomattox Courthouse. This was the same army that for the past four years had defeated army after army. It was the same army that had won brilliant victories such as Bull Run, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. What caused this army to be forced to surrender? Douglas S. Freeman says this in his book, Lee's Lieutenants, “Wherever the blame might be placed, it did not rest on the men in the ranks.”1 If it was not the soldiers' fault, what was the cause of this defeat? There were three main causes: lack of troops, inadequate command, and the troop's hunger and fatigue.

As the Civil War progressed, the Confederate army began to have less and less troops. They had been outnumbered throughout the whole war, but as the war neared its close, the Confederates had the recurring problem of not being able to replace the troops that they lost. For example, at the Battle of Fredericksburg, in the middle of the war, the Union Army numbered about 114,000 while the Confederates numbered 72,500. When the siege of Petersburg was finished, just a few weeks before the end, 45,000 Confederates were opposing over 100,000 Federals. When the Army of Northern Virgina surrendered, only 27,000 troops were left.

Near the end of the war, the Union's cavalry sent raids to destroy all the railroads running to Richmond. The goal of these attacks was to cut off supplies and reinforcements to the troops defending the Confederate capital. While the infantry was trying to hold an eleven mile front of trenches against the more powerful Union infantry, it had to send out more troops to defend attacks at the railways it still had in operation. This weakened the meager forces holding the trenches, until they had only 1,000 troops per mile of trenches. Because many of the railroads were captured by the enemy, and also because of the incompetence of the Confederate quartermaster department, the soldiers were very short on food and other supplies that were necessary for the army to operate.

Much of the hard, constant fighting near the end of the war was at close quarters. Several times the troops were driven back from their positions, and the commanders had to lead their troops forward personally to retake the ground they had lost to the enemy. This created many casualties among the command. Douglas S. Freeman writes, “More frequent battles at close quarters had prompted officers to take more desperate personal risks when their men fought somewhat less well and the Federals fought better.”2 As an example, there were only eighty-five colonels with Lee when he surrendered, even though 200 were required to command the regiments he had.3 Because of this killing off of the officers, fit officers of lower rank could not be found to replace those who were killed in higher positions. This resulted in men being put in positions that they were not fit for. Inexperienced or incapable generals did not lead the soldiers as well, which resulted in more defeats for the army.

On April 2, the Union army penetrated the thin Confederate line, forcing the Confederate army to abandon Richmond and retreat. They tried to reach to one of the few railroads in operation, to receive rations and travel down to North Carolina to join up with another army. They were forced to march quickly, so that they were not caught and pinned down by the powerful Union army. Because of this need for speed, the soldiers were ordered to march all day and night. Added to this hardship was the fact that they did not have any food for several days. One soldier said, “The constant marching and fighting without sleep or food are rapidly thinning the ranks of this grand old army. Men who have stood by their flags since the beginning of the war fall out of their ranks and are captured, simply because it is beyond their power of physical endurance to go any farther.”4 All but the most tough and loyal troops fell out of ranks from hunger and fatigue.

On the night of April 6th, the Confederate column which was marching to the railroad was split up by Federal troops because of a misunderstanding between the tired generals. Greatly outnumbered, half the army surrendered after a short but desperate fight. The other half of the army was finally cut off and surrounded on April 8th, and Lee realized that the tired troops were too outnumbered to be able to fight their way out. The army surrendered on April 9th, 1865.

We see that there were several reasons why Lee was forced to surrender. His army was driven back and finally surrounded because of the lack of troops and also because they had been marching and fighting for several days without food or sleep. This situation was worsened by the fact that there were not enough good commanders to lead the troops well. These are the three main reasons why Lee's army was forced to surrender.

1Douglas Southall Freeman, Lee's Lieutenants, a Study in Command (New York, NY: Charles Scribner's Sons) volume 3 Gettysburg to Appomattox, p. 189

2Ibid, p. 547

3Ibid, p. 744

4Ibid, p. 718



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1 comments:

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