Joshua Chamberlain Tells the Real Story of Appomattox Court House, 40 Years Later

It never happened.

It never happened.

It was Joshua Chamberlain, a hero of Gettysburg, and not Ulysses S. Grant who formally accepted the Confederate Army’s surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 12, 1865.

And it was Gen. John B. Gordon, not Robert E. Lee, who took part in the official ceremony at the Wilmer McLean House.

Lee did surrender to Grant, but they were on horseback on the battlefield on April 9. The flag of truce — a clean, milk-white towel — had been presented to Chamberlain as his division readied for one final push against the enemy. Three days later the official ceremony took place, ensuring the end of the Civil War two weeks later. Chamberlain and Gordon, not Grant and Lee, handled the official business, despite all the imagery that suggests otherwise.

Perhaps artists can be forgiven for the pictures they created of Grant and Lee inside the Wilmer McLean house. By the turn of the century, the National Archives still had no record of what actually happened after Lee’s surrender on April 9.

Joshua Chamberlain late in life.

Joshua Chamberlain late in life.

It wasn’t untili May 1901 that the Boston Journal published Joshua Chamberlain‘s account of how the Confederate Army surrendered at Appomattox. Chamberlain by then had served as governor of Maine, as president of Bowdoin College and as a New York lawyer and businessman.

Here’s what he remembered about the surrender:

“On the terrible march to Appomattox Courthouse the Federal troops were ever shrouded in smoke and dust, and the rattle of firearms and the heavy roar of artillery told plainly of the intense scene which threatened to bring on yet one more general engagement.

“Then came a moment which to me, at least, was more thrilling than any that had gone before. As we were hurrying on in response to Sheridan’s hastily scribbled note for aid, an orderly with still another command from ‘Little Phil’ came upon our bedraggled column, that of the 1st Division of the Fifth Army Corps, just as we were passing a road leading into the woods. In the name of Sheridan I was ordered to turn aside from the column of march, without waiting for orders through the regular channels, and to get to his relief.

“The orderly said in a voice of greatest excitement that the Confederate infantry was pressing upon Sheridan with a weight so terrible that his cavalry alone could not long oppose it.

“I turned instantly into the side road by which the messenger had come, and took up the ‘double-quick,’ having spared just time enough to send to General Gregory an order to follow me with his brigade.

“In good season we reached the field where the fight was going on. Our cavalry had even then been driven to the very verge of the field by the old ‘Stonewall’ Corps. Swinging rapidly into action the first line was sent forward in partial skirmish order, followed by the main lines, the 1st and 2d brigades. Once, for some unknown reason, I was ordered back, but in the impetuosity of youth and the heat of conflict, I pushed on, for it seemed to me to be a momentous hour. We fought like demons across that field and up that bristling hill. They told us we would expose ourselves to the full fire of the Confederate artillery once we gained the crest, but push on we did, past the stone wall behind which the ‘Stonewall Corps’ had hidden, driving them back to the crest of the ridge, down over it, and away.

John B. Gordon

John B. Gordon

“We were gathering our forces for a last final dash upon the enemy. From the summit of the hill we could see on the opposite ridge a full mile across the valley the dark blotches of the Confederate infantry drawn up in line of battle; the blocks of cavalry further to our right, and lower down more cavalry, detached, running hither and thither as if uncertain just what to do.

“In the valley, where flowed the now narrow Appomattox, along whose banks we had fought for weary miles, was a perfect swarm of moving men, animals, and wagons, wandering apparently aimlessly about, without definite precision. The river sides were trodden to a muck by the nervous mass. It was a picture which words can scarce describe.

“As we looked from our position we saw of a sudden a couple of men ride out from the extreme left of the Confederate line, and even as we looked the glorious white of a flag of truce met our vision. At that time, having routed the Confederate forces on the hill, my brigade was left alone by Sheridan’s cavalry, which had gone to the right to take the enemy in the flank.

“I was on the right of the line as we stood at the crest of the hill. Near by us was the red Maltese cross of the Hospital Corps, and straight toward this the two riders, one with the white flag, came.

“When the men arrived, the one who carried the flag drew up before me, and, saluting with a rather stiff air–it was a strained occasion –informed me that he had been sent to beg a cessation of hostilities until General Lee could be heard from. Lee was even then said to be making a wide detour in the hope of attacking our forces from the rear. The officer who bore the flag was a member of the Confederate General Gordon’s staff, but the message came to me in the name of General Longstreet.

“At that time the command had devolved upon General Ord, and I informed the officer with the flag–which was, by the way, a towel of such cleanliness that I was then, as now, amazed that such a one could be found in the entire Rebel army–that he must needs proceed along to our left, where General Ord was stationed. With another abjectedly stiff salute the officer with his milk-white banner galloped away down our line.

“It was subsequently learned that General Ord was situated some distance away at my left with his troops of the Army of the James, comprising Gibbon’s Second Army Corps and a division of the Twenty-fifth Army Corps. His line quite stretched across the Lynchburg road, or ‘pike,’ as we called it then.

“Well, as I have said, the flag of truce was sent to Ord, and not long afterward came the command to cease firing. The truce lasted until 4 o’clock that afternoon. At that time our troops had just barely resumed the positions they had originally occupied when the flag came in. They were expecting momentarily to be attacked again, and were well prepared, yes, eager, for a continuance of the battle.

Union troops outside the McLean house.

Union troops outside the McLean house.

“And just then the glad news came that General Lee had surrendered. Shortly after that we saw pass before us that sturdy Rebel leader, accompanied by an orderly. He was dressed in the brilliant trappings of a Confederate army officer, and looked every inch the soldier that he was. A few moments after that our own beloved leader, General Grant, also accompanied by an orderly, came riding by. How different he was in appearance from the conquered hero. The one gay with the trappings of his army, the other wearing an open blouse, a slouch hat, trousers tucked into heavy, mud-stained boots, and with only the four tarnished golden stars to indicate his office! They passed us by and went to the house where were arranged the final terms of surrender. That work done neither leader staid long with his command, the one hurrying one way, the other another.

“That night we slept as we had not slept in four years. There was, of course, a great deal of unrestrained jubilation, but it did not call for much of that to be a sufficiency, and before long the camp over which peace after strife had settled was sleeping with no fear of a night alarm. We awoke next morning to find the Confederates peering down into our faces, and involuntarily reached for our arms, but once the recollections of the previous day’s stirring events came crowding back to mind, all fear fled, and the boys in blue were soon commingling freely with the boys in gray, exchanging compliments, pipes, tobacco, knives and souvenirs.”

The National Park Service is holding commemorative events on the 150th anniversary of Lee’s surrender at Appomatox Courthouse. For more information, click here




  1. Patrick

    April 9, 2015 at 7:49 pm

    This is a bit misleading. Lee and Grant had been corresponding about the possibility of surrender for days. When the cease-fire came, as ordered by Lee, flags of truce were sent forward along different parts of the lines, not only to Chamberlain. As for the formal surrender ceremony on April 12, which is alluded to but not elaborated on here, Chamberlain was appointed by Grant and did not accept the formal surrender personally, but symbolically on behalf of the Union Army, as Grant wished. In short, Grant accepted the surrender of General Lee.

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