When Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee met at the home of Wilmer McLean near Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, to discuss terms for the surrender of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, Lee did not know exactly what to expect. A few hours before, he had told one of his officers that he was going to “take the consequences for my actions.” For all he knew, he might be arrested and packed off to prison.
Lee was no doubt relieved, therefore, when Grant wrote out terms that included these provisions:
“The officers to give their individual paroles not to take up arms against the government of the United States until properly exchanged; and each company or regimental commander to sign a like parole for the men of their commands. . . . This done, each officer and man will be allowed to return to his home, not to be disturbed by United States authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.”
In other words, it’s over, go home and behave yourselves, and we won’t bother you.
Similar terms were given to Joseph E. Johnston when he surrendered Confederate forces in North Carolina, and to Edmund Kirby Smith when he surrendered tiny, scattered forces in Texas.
And so the Confederates went home and began rebuilding their lives. There were some glitches; the terms were military and did not apply to civilians, so Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, was arrested and held in prison on charges of treason. The government eventually dropped the case. Lee himself was indicted for treason by a runaway federal judge in Norfolk, but the Johnson administration eventually had the indictment quashed.
Officers and men had to take loyalty oaths to get their civil rights restored. They could also apply for pardons; Lee applied for one, but his application was pigeonholed.
Only a few people were punished for activities while in the service of the Confederacy, and only according to law. The most famous was Henry Wirz, the commandant of the notorious prisoner-of-war encampment at Andersonville. He was tried by court-martial, convicted, and hanged in November 1865.