Stop Saying the Civil War Ended 150 Years Ago Today, It DIDN’T

For some odd reason, everyone has been talking about how our civil war ended 150 years ago today, this day April 9, 2015. But this simply is not true, so stop saying it.

While it is true that General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to U.S. General Hiram Ulysses Grant (who most call Ulysses Simpson Grant) on April 9, 1865, that action didn’t fully end the war. It only ended the fighting right there in northern Virginia. It just plain didn’t signal the actual end of the war.

The day Lee surrendered there were several other major Confederate armies in other sections of the country still in the filed and that isn’t to even mention the dozens of small raiders, guerilla groups, and irregular outfits fighting nearly from coast to coast. Nor does it mention the many naval forces plying the world’s oceans.

Of course, it’s also true that Robert E Lee was nominally the general of all the south’s fighting forces the day he surrendered to Grant. C.S. President Jefferson Davis promoted Lee to commander of all CS forces on January 31, 1865, but this was more or less a paper promotion as Lee had no way to directly coordinate with the whole nation’s armed forces. That sort of national coordination was the long term plan, of course, but it was a plan never fully realized as the end came too quickly. So Lee’s surrender was an extremely key moment in ending the war, but he did not control the other armies in the field despite his exalted title.

In reality, despite the promotion and the plans, Lee had no effective way to communicate to the other armies in the field with enough alacrity to control their movements. After all, you have to remember that this was a day when the telegraph was the only way to communicate over long distances past delivering your message on a railroad, a horse, or a boat. The lag time of communications made direct command of forces over thousands of miles of territory practically impossible.

Even Lincoln, who ran his war very much on his own hook in many ways, could only send his orders then cross his fingers and hope they were carried out. He had no way to make sure his orders were fulfilled with on-the-spot command and control.

So, Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House was not the end of the war. There were thousands of other CS soldiers still fighting in other parts of the country and it would be weeks before news spread that Lee had surrendered.

Further, those other CS generals had no compelling reasons to follow Lee’s example and surrender their forces, too. And another thing to remember is that the CS government itself had not surrendered with Lee. As far as all the other CS armies were concerned, Lee was not the final word on anything.

Yes, the bloodshed continued for some time after Lee’s surrender. As a study by Darroch Greer notes, battles continued to rage between north and south for months after Lee gave up his army. At least another 14,000 casualties were racked up before the last battle ended by July of 1865.

Finally, the US government itself didn’t declare the end of the civil war until August 20, 1865. This was four months after Abe Lincoln was assassinated and four and a half months after Lee surrendered!

So, just stop saying that the civil war ended 150 years ago to this day, April 9, 2015. It just didn’t.

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