In the days following the Battle of Gettysburg, Lee expressed great sadness and disgust with his performance in Pennsylvania. "It was all my fault," he told his troops. Lee even offered his resignation to President Davis, saying "no blame can be attached to the army for its failure to accomplish what was projected by me. I am alone to blame." Lee also pointed out that illness had begun to affect his ability to command (many historians believe that Lee began to suffer from heart disease around this time). Davis refused to accept the resignation, though, because Lee remained his finest general.
Lee worked hard to strengthen his Army of Northern Virginia throughout the winter of 1863-64. He wanted his army to be ready for the upcoming spring, when Northern armies would resume their efforts to restore the Union. When the spring of 1864 arrived, however, Lee found himself pitted against a tough new opponent in Union general Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885; see entry).
Over the previous two years, Lee had defeated many different Union commanders, from George McClellan to Joseph Hooker. U.S. president Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865; see entry) had begun to believe he would never be able to find a general who could neutralize Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. In March 1864, however, Lincoln placed General Ulysses S. Grant in charge of Union forces.
Grant had been the Union's most successful general in the war's western theater (the region of the country be tween the Mississippi River and the Appalachian Mountains). When he arrived in the East in 1864, he took control of the Army of the Potomac and marched into Virginia in search of Lee. Grant hoped to use his superior force to smash the Army of Northern Virginia once and for all.
Lee and Grant clashed throughout the early summer of 1864. Fighting in engagements that ranged from bloody battles to small but deadly skirmishes, the two armies marched across the Virginia countryside in a desperate battle for survival. Lee avoided all of Grant's attempts to trap the Confederate Army and crush it. But Grant continued his steady pursuit of Lee's tired army. By mid-June, Lee's army had been forced to retreat to defensive positions around Petersburg, a city on the outskirts of Richmond.
In June 1864, Grant began a siege (a military effort to prevent food and other supplies from being delivered to a city or other location) of Petersburg. The siege did not starve Lee and his army into submission, but it prevented the Army of Northern Virginia from participating in the war. Lee and his men could only stand by helplessly as other Union armies marched across the South in triumph. "It must have been tragic for Lee to find himself ultimately bottled up at Petersburg because he loved the open fight and the war of maneuver," wrote Brian Pohanka in Civil War Journal. "With his army pinned down and besieged, he realized the end was in sight."
In April 1865, the Confederate defenses at Petersburg and Richmond finally began to crumble. Lee organized a desperate evacuation of his battered army. Grant quickly gave chase, however, and within a week he had surrounded Lee and his men. Lee surrendered his army on April 9. After signing the terms of surrender at the home of Wilmer McLean in Appomattox County, Virginia, Lee returned to his camp and told his loyal soldiers that "I have done the best I could for you. Go home now, and if you make as good citizens as you have soldiers, you will do well, and I shall always be proud of you."
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