Civil War surrender letter donated to AU

Robert E. Lee (Courtesy: Library of Congress)
Robert E. Lee (Courtesy: Library of Congress)
Ulysses S. Grant (Courtesy: Library of Congress)
Ulysses S. Grant (Courtesy: Library of Congress)

AUBURN, AL (WSFA) - Auburn University has acquired an extremely rare artifact from the Civil War era; General Robert E. Lee's letter of surrender.

The University says it accepted the document as a donation from a very generous donor on April 10, 2009. That donor was identified as James L. Starr, a 1971 Auburn graduate.

"Something as historically important as this should be preserved for future generations," Starr said.  "I knew Auburn's collection was the best place for it. Now it can be enjoyed by students, scholars and the general public."

The hand-written letter, dated April 9, 1865 was delivered on the same day as Lee's meeting with Ulysses S. Grant. The location: Appomattox Court House in northern Virginia.

Grant wrote a letter to Lee that same day outlining his terms of surrender: The surrender of all artillery and other weapons and an order of parole for all officers and enlisted men in Lee's army (a promise the prisoners of war wouldn't try to take up arms again.) Grant also sent Lee's officers and men home "not to be disturbed" as long as they didn't violate their parole.

The following day Grant apparently made a handwritten copy of the April 9 letter for posterity's sake, dating it April 10. That letter is also held in AU's possession. It's in the Special Collections room on the ground floor of the Ralph Draughon Library.

"Before the days of copy machines, it was common practice to produce more than one handwritten copy of important documents," said Dwayne Cox, head of Auburn Libraries Special Collections. "In 30 years as an archivist, I have never received an item of greater significance."

Many historians believe Grant's last provision was an attempt to prevent treason trials.

Kenneth W. Noe, professor of history at Auburn and an authority on the Civil War, called Starr's donation "a welcome addition to the university's holdings of letters, diaries and rare books" related to the conflict.

Bonnie MacEwan, dean of libraries, commented that "gifts like Mr. Starr's give the Auburn University Libraries its distinct personality, making our collection unique."

Auburn University plans to put the Grant letter in the University's digital library along with many other Civil War manuscripts. That will probably take place near 2011 - The Civil War's sesquicentennial.