No, the Civil War did not end 150 years ago today

In an otherwise detailed and historically accurate rendering of the meeting between Generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee in Wilbur McClean's parlor near Appomattox Courthouse to discuss the surrender of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia 150 years ago today, author/historian Shelby Foote advances the generally accepted notion that the event marked the end of the Civil War.

But why do we mark April 9 as the end of the war?  The Daily Beast article is excerpted from Foote's three-volume masterpiece, The Civil War: A Narrative, which is part of the answer.  A "narrative" usually contains a beginning, a middle, and an end.  But the Civil War's ending was a messy affair, as there were more than 14,000 casualties on both sides before the last Confederate army surrendered on July 24.

That casualty figure is from an exhaustive study performed by historian Darroch Greer for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois and includes numerous sources – including Foote's own history of the conflict.  But the casualties also tell the story of chaos and violence that continued for years after the formal end of the war, declared by President Andrew Johnson on August 20, 1865.  In short, the Civil War didn't end suddenly and dramatically on April 9.  Instead, the fighting between North and South petered out over many months and even years in some places like Missouri.

Still, as a writer of narrative history, few have matched Foote's ability to paint a picture of events, as he shows in this marvelously detailed account of the meeting between Grant and Lee.

Grant spoke then of a possible “general suspension of hostilities,” which he hoped would follow shortly throughout the land, but Lee, anxious to end the present surrender ordeal, once more cut him short, albeit courteously. “I would suggest that you commit to writing the terms you have proposed, so that they may be formally acted upon,” he said, and the other replied: “Very well, I will write them out.” He called for his order book, bound sheets of yellow flimsy with alternate carbons, and opened it flat on the small round marble-topped table before him. “When I put my pen to the paper,” he later declared, “I did not know the first word I should make use of in writing the terms. I only knew what was in my mind, and I wished to express it clearly so that there could be no mistaking it.” He succeeded in doing just that. Rapidly and in fewer than two hundred words, he stipulated that officers would “give their individual paroles not to take up arms against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged,” that unit commanders would “sign a like parole for the men of their commands,” and that “the arms, artillery and private property [were] to be parked and stacked and turned over to the officer appointed by me to receive them.” He paused, looking briefly at Lee’s dress sword, then added the last two sentences. “This will not embrace the side arms of the officers, nor their private horses or baggage. This done, each officer and man will be allowed to return to their homes, not to be disturbed by the United States authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.” 

An aside: the owner of the McClean house in which the surrender was signed once lived on a farm near Manassas, Virginia, site of the First Battle of Bull Run.  There, the two great armies first met in battle, so McClean was able to say. “The war began in my front yard and ended in my parlor.”

Perhaps the real significance of the surrender on April 9 is that the terms proposed by General Grant, including the magnanimous article that stipulated that Southern soldiers were "not to be disturbed by the United States authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside," became the template for the surrender of all other rebel armies.  The radical Republicans were livid with the terms, thinking them far too lenient.  But owing to Grant's unquestioned stature as victorious general, they couldn't alter them. 

Appomattox is historical shorthand for the end of the Civil War.  It's a convenient date for those who like their history nice and tidy, all wrapped up in a box with a bow.  But history is always far messier and less certain than even some historians would like us to believe.  April 9 is a significant date, but I really wish we'd stop referring to it as the "end" of the Civil War.