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Lee’s Surrender


Dawn had just broken the morning of April 9, 1865. Union forces had finally maneuvered the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia into the place chosen for a final showdown. Leading the Third Cavalry, General George Armstrong Custer stood at the advance, awaiting word to proceed against the Confederate cavalry. General Lee’s army was trapped.

Suddenly, galloping across the field in front of Custer’s lines appeared a Confederate officer waving a towel tied to a stick. An aide immediately took him to General Custer. After accepting the surrender flag, Custer sent one aide to escort the messenger back to his own lines and a second to report to his superiors. On receiving word that General Lee requested a suspension of hostilities, General Phil Sheridan stopped firing and sent for General Grant.

That afternoon, on this day, April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant, in the village of Appomattox Court House, Virginia.

Following the meeting, General Sheridan purchased the small writing table on which Grant had written the conditions for the surrender of the Confederate Army. Sheridan presented the table to Libby Custer, explaining, “…there is scarcely an individual in our service who contributed more to bring this about than your very gallant husband.”

On the evening of the surrender, General Custer wrote, “Let us hope our work is done, and that, blessed with the comforts of peace, we may be permitted to enjoy the pleasures of home and friends.” Once reunited with his wife Libby, he presented to her the towel of surrender.

The war ended shortly after the events at Appomattox Court House. With an end to hostilities, Libby Custer recalled her husband’s happiness at being reunited with his West Point friends who had fought on the Confederate side. In her memoirs, she wrote, “[W]hen he met them,…like two schoolgirls they went by themselves, arms around each other to talk over engagements where they were pitted against each other…”

After the war, General Custer considered several civilian endeavors, but he had come to relish the attention he received as a successful Union officer. Accepting a reduction in rank, Custer was appointed Lieutenant Colonel of the newly authorized 7th Cavalry; a position that would take him and his wife to the plains of Dakota Territory in 1873.

Written by Christina Sunwall


Hatch, Thom. The Custer Companion: A Comprehensive Guide to the Life of George Armstrong Custer and the Plains Indian Wars (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books; 2002)

Reynolds, Arlene, ed. The Civil War Memories of Elizabeth Bacon Custer: Reconstructed from her diaries and notes by Arlene Reynolds (Austin: University of Texas Press; 1994)

“The White Towel of Appomattox; Gen. E. W. Whitaker Describes the Incidents of Lee’s Surrender.” The New York Times ( July 9, 1896) p. 3