On April 9, 1865, General Ulysses S. Grant got out of bed with a migraine.
The pain had hit the day before as he rode through the Virginia countryside, where the United States Army had been harrying the Confederacy’s Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by General Robert E. Lee, for days.
Grant knew it was only a question of time before Lee had to surrender. After four years of war, the people in the South were starving, and Lee’s army was melting away as men went home to salvage whatever they could of their farm and family. Just that morning, a Confederate colonel had thrown himself on Grant’s mercy after realizing that he was the only man in his entire regiment who had not already abandoned the cause. But while Grant had twice asked Lee to surrender, Lee continued to insist his men could fight on.
So Grant had gone to bed in a Virginia farmhouse on April 8, dirty, tired, and miserable with a migraine. He spent the night “bathing my feet in hot water and mustard, and putting mustard plasters on my wrists and the back part of my neck, hoping to be cured by morning.” His remedies didn’t work. In the morning, Grant pulled on his clothes from the day before and rode out to the head of his column with his head throbbing.
As he rode, an escort arrived with a note from Lee requesting an interview for the purpose of surrendering the Army of Northern Virginia. “When the officer reached me I was still suffering with the sick headache,” Grant recalled, “but the instant I saw the contents of the note I was cured.”
The two men met in the home of Wilmer McLean in the village of Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Lee had dressed grandly for the occasion in a brand new general’s uniform carrying a dress sword; Grant wore simply the “rough garb” of a private with the shoulder straps of a lieutenant general. But the images of the noble South and the humble North hid a very different reality. As soon as the papers were signed, Lee told Grant his men were starving and asked if the Union general could provide the Confederates with rations. Grant didn’t hesitate. “Certainly,” he responded, even before he asked how many men needed food. He took Lee's answer—“about twenty-five thousand”—in stride, telling the general that “he could have... all the provisions wanted.”
Four years before, southerners defending their vision of white supremacy had ridden off to war boasting that they would beat the North’s misguided egalitarian levelers in a single battle. By 1865, Confederates were broken and starving, while the United States of America, backed by a booming industrial economy that rested on ordinary women and men of all backgrounds, could provide rations for twenty-five thousand extra men on a moment’s notice.
The Civil War was won not by the dashing sons of wealthy planters, but by people like Grant, who dragged himself out of his blankets and pulled a dirty soldier’s uniform over his pounding head on an April morning because he knew he had to get up and get to work.
Written by Heather Cox Richardson.