Civil War Profiles: Lee’s surrender: The beginning of the end


Church bells suddenly began tolling as darkness ended the Sabbath on April 9, 1865. Anna M. Ferris of Wilmington, Del., noted people preparing for bed were startled to learn the bells “were announcing … the surrender of [Gen. Robert E.] Lee & the army to Gen. [Ulysses S.] Grant.

As recorded in the April 1961 issue of Delaware History, Ferris anticipated prematurely that the tolling bells signaled “tidings of our great & it must be our final victory.” Although Lee’s surrender was a major coup for the Union army, mayhem and death continued for another two months.

Coincidentally, just one week prior, on April 2, Union Brig. Gen. James Harrison Wilson defeated Confederate Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest in a pitched battle at the important munitions manufacturing town of Selma, Ala. This major achievement by “Delaware’s greatest soldier,” as John P. Nields dubbed him, was totally eclipsed by the news of Lee’s surrender.

Georgetown native Brig. Gen. Alfred T.A. Torbert was at home on leave when the news of Lee’s surrender arrived.

A.D. Slade wrote in his biography of Torbert that he had earned the enmity of his commander, Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, for not performing up to expectations “in the Luray Valley during the battle of Fisher’s Hill, and on the recent Gordonsville expedition.” As a result, Sheridan declined to recall Torbert from his leave in Delaware for the final push of Grant’s army against Lee.

Nonetheless, Sheridan sugar-coated his explanation in a letter to Torbert, stating it was with “deep regret” that he was unable to take him with him during the “operations … terminating with the surrender of Lee’s army at Appomattox.”

Adm. Samuel Francis DuPont’s long and sterling naval career was essentially over when news arrived at Louviers, his home on Brandywine Creek, that Lee had surrendered. DuPont was seriously ill at the time and had less than three months to live. Kevin J. Weddle relates in his biography that the admiral wrote to a friend, “My sickroom … has been cheered like the whole country by the good news.”

African-Americans in Delaware had to endure slavery for eight more months following the surrender at Appomattox. The reason was that President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863 did not pertain to slave states that remained loyal to the Union.

In “Slavery and Freedom in Delaware, 1639-1865,” William H. Williams explained, “The actual number of African-Americans still held in bondage in Delaware declined to only a few hundred by late 1865, but whites in the state stubbornly held on to the ‘peculiar institution.’” They were eventually freed when the states ratified the 13th Amendment to the Constitution on Dec. 6, 1865.

Brothers Rodman and Linton Smith, Quaker Union soldiers from Wilmington and members of the 4th Delaware Regiment, witnessed the surrender of the Rebel forces at Appomattox. Robert F. Crawford wrote in Delaware History, Vol. XXI, that Rodman described his experience on April 9, 1865, in a letter home. His unit was advancing against the enemy when suddenly firing ceased, “and a white flag came over the hill in front and through our Brigade skirmishers. A halt was ordered and after a while the arms were stacked and the surrender of Lee and his whole army and munitions of war — announced.”

Linton Smith also provided an account of his observations: “I sat on my horse on one of the high hills overlooking the village of Appomattox Court House, and watched with considerable degree of anxiety the queer looking old building in which Grant and [Maj. Gen. George G.] Meade and Sheridan on one side, and Lee and [Lt. Gen. James] Longstreet and [Maj. Gen. John Brown] Gordon on the other, sat debating the question of surrender.”

Although Linton was incorrect about the personnel involved in the peace parley, he nonetheless witnessed history in the making. He continued his description: “At five minutes of four [o’clock on April 9], General [Edward O.C.] Ord came out the Court House and rode up toward Lynchburg coming right past where I was sitting. From his smiling face all who saw him guessed that all was settled and that Lee had actually surrendered his army.”

Anna Ferris’ entry in her diary for April 10 noted that it was now past midnight and the bells were still ringing. She, hopefully, added that the bells: “Ring out the thousand wars of old; Ring in the thousand years of peace.” Peace was not far off and would soon come.

Bethany Beach resident Thomas J. Ryan’s latest book is “Spies, Scouts, and Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” (May 2015). Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.