Civil War Memory: “I Saw Lee Surrender”

Cover for the Saturday Evening Post's Civil War collector's issue, featuring Gen. U.S. Grant on the cover.

This article and other stories of the Civil War can be found in the Post’s Special Collector’s Edition, The Saturday Evening Post: Untold Stories of the Civil War.

—This account appeared in the April 6, 1940 issue of The Saturday Evening Post.

When Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House 75 years ago on the 9th of April, I was there. As far as I know, I am the last survivor. Running away from home, I had enlisted in Company H, 5th U.S. Cavalry, in June 1862. I gave my name as Charles M. Seaver, and my age as 18, knowing that the Army shared my family’s opinion that a 15-year-old was too young for war. Sixteen months of stiff campaigning incapacitated me as a fighting private, so I transferred to Company F as a bugler, a change that ultimately brought me to Appomattox.

In the spring of ‘64, my company, was assigned as escort to Lt. Gen. Grant. We found that the es- cort was for work, not show; we carried dispatches, guarded headquarters, had charge of the staff officers’ supply wagons and commissary, erected and struck tents, and performed any miscellaneous tasks assigned. Fanfare was not Gen. Grant’s idea of soldiering; he was a matter-of-fact soldier who never worried how he looked or what others thought of it.

Under his direction, the forward movement of the Army of the Potomac, begun on May 4, 1864, ended a little more than 11 months later. The battles of The Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor were behind us; the siege of Petersburg was over, ended by the battle of Five Forks, when Lee’s thin, stubborn lines were finally broken. Evacuating Richmond and Petersburg, Lee tried desperately to lead his hungry, decimated columns west, but we pressed him too hard. We caught up with them at Appomattox and the end was in sight. On that day there was an exchange of messages between the Federal and Confederate commanders.

On the morning of the 9th, the major part of the escort was left behind to guard the headquarters’ wagon train, and the rest of us started out with the general and his staff along the rear of the main army. We had gone several miles when a horseman at top speed was seen coming from our frontlines; as he drew near, I recognized him as a young lieutenant of Gen. Meade’s staff. We knew that a decision from Lee was expected on a proposed conference with Grant, and we jumped to the natural conclusion that it had finally come.

We crowded about the general in an effort to learn the answer; all of us, without doubt, believing that Grant held in his hand the decision whether it was to be peace or continued warfare. He read the message, then handed the paper to a staff officer, who hurriedly scanned the words, and, in a voice surcharged with excitement, read aloud to his associates the fateful response of Gen. Lee.

I got just the drift of the reading, which indicated that the Confederate leader had agreed to meet Gen. Grant, but evidently the staff officers construed this to be assurance of surrender, for every last man of them burst into cheers, which we joined heartily. The only one who took no part in the impromptu celebration was Gen. Grant, who merely looked on with bland amusement.

Grant wrote a reply and handed it to Lt. Col. Orville E. Babcock, with orders to take a few members of the escort, headed by Capt. Mason, and ride on in advance of the rest of the party to locate the Confederate commander. It happened that I was the only bugler present, and so I went along, much to my satisfaction, for I was eager to see the great leader of the Southern cause.

Babcock, carrying a white flag, took his place beside Mason and me, and off we went toward the enemy’s lines. Whether Lee was sparring for time was a matter of conjecture. We were, therefore, prepared for any eventuality; and, at a word from Captain Mason, I carried my bugle in one hand to sound the call to arms if we found that the Johnnies were trying to escape. That call would have been echoed all along our lines, and it would have been suicidal for them if they had attempted a getaway, for the Federal troops had them bottled up and outnumbered five to one.

Eventually, we saw a little party of gray-clad figures, and several horses by the roadside. One of the men was sitting under a small tree. A companion stood nearby, while a third man — evidently an orderly — was holding the bridle reins of two of the three horses. At a gesture from Col. Babcock, Mason ordered a halt, and the staff officer, his white flag conspicuously displayed, rode on toward the gray-clad horsemen, accompanied by a trooper of the escort.

“I’ll wager that’s Gen. Lee,” said the captain, with a glance at me. “Let us hope things turn out all right.”

I took a firmer grip on my bugle, to be ready for any possible emergency, my eyes glued to the scene before me. As the two Federals neared the spot, the man beneath the tree arose and Babcock and he exchanged salutes. The latter was tall, erect, and of fine physique. For a few moments they carried on what appeared to be a friendly conversation; and then the entire group started down the road toward us.

It was not difficult to recognize the famous commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. I had seen his picture, and I could make no mistake as to his identity. He measured up fully to my expectations — and those expectations were rather elaborate, I assure you. Though I was a lad of only 18, I had been in 15 or 16 battles during three years, and had come to have a wholesome esteem for the Johnny Rebs and their leader. In my active imagination, he had become a sort of legendary figure. It had been his remarkable generalship that had prolonged the war far beyond its expected limits, and he loomed big and menacing as an opponent.

There he was in person, he and Traveler; he was riding to meet his conqueror to negotiate terms of surrender. His companion, needless to add, was Col. Marshall, of his staff.

The author blowing a bugle.
On April 9, 1865, the author sounded “Taps” at Appomattox when the Civil War ended, and again, shown here, at the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1938.

And what a brave pair of thoroughbreds Lee and Traveler were! That horse would have attracted attention anywhere. He was a sturdy gelding, deep of chest, with small head and feet, and his color was appropriately Confederate gray, with the exception of mane and tail, which were black; a combination that made him a very striking and hand- some animal. And when his master was in the saddle, take it from an old Federal trooper, it was a picture that was worth seeing.

Gen. Lee’s uniform was immaculate and he presented a superb martial figure. But it was the face beneath the gray felt hat and hair that made the deepest impression on me. I have been trying to find a single word that describes it, and I have concluded that “benign” is the adjective I am after; because that means kindly, gracious; and despite its sternness on that day of long ago, I would still call his expression benign. And yet, I remember well that there was something else about him that aroused my deep pity that so great a warrior should be acknowledging defeat.

We joined the little party and rode back to the settlement. Appomattox Court House was a pretentious name for what then was a row of six or seven houses, and now is less. As we passed the first house, we overtook a man, a Mr. McLean, who was walking along the street, and Col. Marshall reined up beside him and told him that Gen. Lee desired a room where he could hold a conference with Grant. Mr. McLean stared at the Confederate commander for a moment, and looked over the Union contingent, as if in search of his famous adversary. Then he pointed to the nearest house, went to the door and knocked.

A woman answered the summons, and, after a brief talk with her neighbor, she invited the two Southerners to enter; but evidently the interior was unsatisfactory, for Lee and his companion quickly came out, and Marshall requested McLean to direct them elsewhere. We rode slowly on until our guide stopped before a substantial brick house and informed us that he lived there and would be happy to offer its use.

It was an old-fashioned structure with chimneys at the gable ends; and, running along the front, a piazza painted white, with six wooden pillars supporting it. Broad steps, about 8 yards wide and seven or eight in number, led up to the platform; and there was a generous yard, partly enclosed by a picket fence, with several large trees standing sentinel-like about it.

Gen. Lee and the colonel dismounted and, preceded by McLean, went into the house, leaving their horses in charge of the orderly; and we Yanks returned to the roadway to await the coming of Grant and his party.

It was perhaps 10 minutes later — it may have been only 5 — when the Federal commander rode up with a few staff officers, the other members of the escort and several Union generals, among whom were Phil Sheridan, George Custer, Wesley Merritt, and Edward Ord.

There were three members of that little group who would probably attract attention anywhere; two of them for their noteworthy personal appearance and the third both for his appearance and reputation. The first of these was Custer, the “dandy cavalier” of the Federal cavalry. A low-cut, generous collar, a red necktie that begged for notice, buckskin breeches and a velvet jacket were usually his dress-up uniform; and topping this elaborate array was a patrician face with mustache and small goatee, and a head of luxuriant yellow hair that fell halfway to his shoulders. Effeminate, you might say, but there was nothing feminine about Custer. He was a daredevil on horseback, who feared nothing, dared anything, and defied death with reckless abandon. It was this utter disdain of caution that lured him and his command to tragic massacre in 1876.

And there was Ely S. Parker, of the staff, an aide and military secretary to Grant, a man of superb physique and titan strength, a full-blooded Seneca Indian, a descendant of Red Jacket, famous Indian chieftain. He had the copper hue of his race, their long black hair and dark brown eyes. Grant had no one in his official household more devoted to him than the stoical Parker. He was a man of education and culture, a willing worker, and always courteous to the lads of the escort. It was he who, in his excellent handwriting, copied the terms of surrender from the rough draft prepared by the Federal commander.

Phil Sheridan — “Little Phil” — the dynamic leader of the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac, was the third of the trio; and he was a general who always had my respect and enthusiastic admiration. He was a pint-sized little fellow out of the saddle, a youngster of 34 years, about 5-feet-4 in height and 130 pounds in weight, but he had a strong Irish face. Put him on his horse, the splendid black charger, Rienzi, and he at once became a warrior of heroic proportions. And how that horse could travel, and how that lad could ride!

Grant looked an old and battered campaigner as he rode into the yard. His single-breasted blouse of blue flannel was unbuttoned at the throat and underneath it could be seen his shirt or undershirt; his top boots were spattered with mud, and splotches of mud were on his trousers. Unlike Lee, he wore neither sword nor sash, and the only marks of his rank were his shoulder straps.

Col. Babcock informed his superior that Gen. Lee was awaiting him in the house, and without more ado Grant climbed the steps, Babcock alone accompanying him.

A few minutes later, however, the staff officer came to the doorway and beckoned to the other officers, inviting them inside.

It was now about two o’clock, and we fellows who were on the outside were in for a long and anxious session of waiting. They say that the watched pot never boils, and it is certainly true that anxious waiting for the verdict seemed to prolong the outcome indefinitely. The day was very warm for early April, and the sun, which of late had been blotted out by heavy rain clouds, was brightly shining in a very clear sky. Spring was with us at last, and the trees were putting on a tinge of green, the buds showing plentifully on the branches. It was good to be alive on April 9, 1865, and it would be better still if this was the end of four years’ war. It was Sunday and the Sabbath stillness brooded over the land, a welcome relief from the din and hustle and carnage of recent fighting.

There we were, a group of eager troopers in blue, and a lone orderly in gray. When three o’clock came and went, I began to wonder if our enthusiasm had exploded too quickly. It did not seem necessary to take all that time in deciding whether Lee should surrender or not. With the thoughtless- ness of youth, I assumed that such a decision would be the matter of but a half hour at the most.

Four o’clock — and the door opened. Out came Gen. Lee and Col. Marshall, with somber faces. The conference was ended, but with what results?

Gen. Lee’s uniform was immaculate, and he presented a superb martial figure. But it was the face beneath the gray felt hat and hair that made the deepest impression on me.

Before the war began, and for some time before, Lee had been lieutenant colonel of the Second Cavalry, stationed in Texas. Several members of our escort, Lt. Churchill, Sgt. Brown, and Cpl. Sam Howe, had served in the Second under Lt. Col. Lee, and none had lost any of his high regard for his former commander.

Now, as Gen. Lee came from the house, his soldierly fig- ure erect, even in defeat, these three chaps stiffened up and gave him a salute, and the man in gray courteously returned it. I thought at the time that it was a fine thing for them and him to do. At the moment his soul must have been heavy with sorrow — the years of desperate struggle fruitless — and yet he could return the salute of Yankee troopers.

I heard Sgt. Brown say, after the departure of Lee and Marshall, that the former had called him by name as he recognized him; and several of the old boys remarked that it was a noteworthy circumstance that members of his former Texas command should be the first to meet him after the surrender of his army.

We quickly learned the happy news, and it spread like wildfire. Cheers could be heard all along our lines.

That night was one of the happiest I have ever known, and I will wager that the same statement goes for every man on the Union side. A gun salute in celebration had been started by enthusiasts in the late afternoon, but Grant had put a stop to it, presumably out of consideration for the feelings of the other fellows. But, before darkness fell and afterward, there was music — patriotic selections played by the regimental bands — and a general jubilation. When I sounded taps, that sweetest of all bugle calls, the notes had scarcely died away when from the distance — it must have been from Gen. Lee’s headquarters — came, silvery clear, the same call; and, despite the sadness of the hour to the boys on the other side, I have a notion that they, like the Yanks, welcomed the end of hostilities and the coming of peace.

Robert E. Lee poses for a photograph in his military uniform. He leans on his sword,
Confederate commander Gen. Robert E. Lee cut an impressive and intimidating figure on and off the battlefield. (Library of Congress)

Perhaps I should end my story right here, but I want to add my bit to what has been published concerning the powwow of Union and Confederate generals at the McLean house on the day following the surrender. The reader may recall that Gen. Grant, several of the Federal generals, and members of his staff and escort rode out to the Confederate lines for a further conference; after which Grant went back to headquarters, while some of our officers and men remained behind to chat with acquaintances in Lee’s army. Lt. Churchill, Brown, and Howe were among these fortunates, they having received permission to enter the camp of the Confederates. Later on, Sam told me that he had enjoyed a brief talk with Gen. Lee, and was he proud of it!

I was one of the group that returned with Gen. Grant, and I was a most interested observer of everything that occurred on and about that friendly piazza. Grant sat down and lighted a cigar. Three or four of his staff brought out chairs and the little party relaxed into lively conversation. Grant was the picture of contentment as he puffed away, listening to the comment of his subordinates, and occasionally offering a remark of his own in his matter-of-fact way. Things had turned out as he had wished and planned.

We were soon to witness a remarkable get-together party on that old front porch and in that spacious yard. I doubt that anywhere in history can we find a similar gathering. The absentees had returned, and they had brought with them several of their late antagonists, riders in gray, but a few hours before foes of the Union; not as prisoners, not even as enemies, but as old friends and comrades. I remember how amazed I was as I saw that strange company; and when I learned that among them were Longstreet, Pickett, and Gordon — well, it certainly seemed impossible.

Perhaps you can imagine my reaction to the spectacle, after three years of desperate fighting, to see three of the most famous Southern leaders, within 24 hours of Lee’s surrender, shaking hands with Grant and chatting like long- absent neighbors with him and other Federal generals.

Naturally, I made a careful inspection of that formidable trio: Longstreet, rightly called “Lee’s war horse,” a stockily built, well-bearded fellow, who looked as if he could handle himself anywhere and make it decidedly interesting for any opponent, in either argument or fight; Pickett, the leader of that heroic charge at Gettysburg, whose handsome face made him a composite of soldier and poet; and Gordon, the hard- hitting John B., who, when he was wearing civilian clothes, would be taken for a judge or a doctor — a thinker, at any rate — and who had every earmark of a man who would go through hell and high water, if ordered to do so by his superior, and never ask the reason why.

And how Abe Lincoln would have enjoyed that con- fab! Like Grant, he would have grasped the hands of those soldiers in Confederate gray and welcomed them home. Had he been spared, there would have been no Reconstruction.

Soldiers don’t carry hatred; they leave that to the stay-at-homes. We learned that in the next 20 years.

“I Saw Lee Surrender,” April 6, 1940

Visit The Surrender Site

A farmhouse during a sunny day.
After the war, the McLean House lay in ruins for decades until it was meticulously reconstructed by the National Park Service and opened to the public in 1949. (National Park Service)

How the famous McLean house was first demolished and later restored for posterity

By Harold Bradley Say

— Originally published April 22, 1950 —

on Palm Sunday of 1865, under a single roof, little Lula McLean lost a rag doll, Gen. Lee lost a war, and the nation gained a new historic site. On this site at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, the National Park service has just completed the restoration of the house in which Lee surrendered to Grant.

Today, the McLean House looks much as it did when the Civil War officially ended. Lula’s doll and Lee’s war are lost beyond recovery. So is much of the original McLean house. Its very bricks, together with the doll and other contents, were carted away by souvenir hunters, but now the re-created structure stands as it was.

Wilmer McLean, who owned the house during its moment of historic glory, was perhaps the only man who ever had the first major pitched battle of a war fought in his front yard and
the surrender signed in his parlor. At the start, McLean, a wholesale grocer turned gentleman farmer, was living beside a small stream called Bull Run. A shell came bounding into his fireplace and he moved to Appomattox to get away from the war. Four years later, it caught up with him with its dying gasp.

The war’s end brought no personal peace to McLean. Nearly broke, he tried for a time to sell engravings of the surrender site, but McLean didn’t sell enough of them to recover his initial investment before his death in 1882.

Nine years later, a tourist-minded man from Niagara falls bought the McLean House and made elaborate plans to move it to Washington, D.C., as a museum. C.W. Hancock and sons, who undertook to do the job for $10,000, carefully dismantled the house. But the promoter abandoned the project.

The federal government acquired the 970-acre site, including the surrounding battlefield, in 1940. After interruption by another war, the contract for restoring the house at a cost of approximately $50,000 was let in 1947 to the same contracting firm that tore down the original fifty-six years earlier. Park service historians studied all available photographs and checked old records to make the restoration authentic. flooring and paneling from other old houses were used to make the interior look its age. Ultimately, it is hoped, many items taken from the house in 1865 may be returned. The table at which Grant sat is in the Smithsonian Institution. The table used by Lee is in the Chicago Historical society Museum. Where Lula’s rag doll is, nobody knows.

“The Civil War Ended here, ” April 22, 1950