A Flag of Truce

A Flag of Truce

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By late 1864 the war was coming to an end. In December Gen. William T. Sherman completed his destructive march to the sea. Richmond, the Confederate capital, fell early in April, and on April 9, Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Over the course of the war, some 623,000 Northern and Southern soldiers died.
This towel was used as a flag of truce by Confederate troops during Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 9, 1865. It was preserved by Gen. George A. Custer, who was present at the surrender.
Bequest of Elizabeth B. Custer, 1936
Object Name
associated date
associated person
Lee, Robert E.
Grant, Ulysses S.
associated place
United States: Virginia, Appomattox
Physical Description
linen (overall material)
white (overall color)
overall: 18 in x 18 1/2 in; 45.72 cm x 46.99 cm
mounted: 18 in x 9 1/2 in; 45.72 cm x 24.13 cm
fringe: 2 1/2 in; 6.35 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Credit Line
Elizabeth B. Custer
Civil War
Surrender by General Lee
Civil War
See more items in
Political and Military History: Political History, General History Collection
Government, Politics, and Reform
Selections from the Abraham Lincoln Collection
American Presidency
Exhibition Location
National Museum of American History
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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Robert E. Lee's rank was that of colonel. The Confederacy was not a legitimate government capable of granting rank, and he never reached the rank of general in the United States Army.
It was not a flag of "truce." It was the flag of surrender.
A flag of surrender is used during the heat of battle, to alert your adversary that you are beaten. A flag of truce is used when hostilities are not active, and you seek to engage your adversary in discussions (prisoner swap, terms of surrender, retrieval of dead/wounded, etc.). The description is accurate.
The Appomattox flag of truce was a handwoven white towel originally owned by Confederate Captain R.M. Sims of Richmond, VA. It was given by him to General Lee, as no other white flag or fabric was readily available to the surrendering Confederate army. It would be appropriate to mention Captain Sims in the description of this very historic item. My cousins are direct descendants of Captain Sims through their father, and may have more information. passed down through their family.
In fact it was Lt. Col.. Whitaker who took the towel. He cut it in two and gave half to Custer’s wife, who later donated it to the Smithsonian. Full story here: http://www.whatitmeanstobeamerican.org/artifacts/the-gentlemans-agreement-that-ended-the-civil-war/
From reading that I have done & from visiting museums, I believe that Mrs. Custer is the one who cut up the flag. She saved half and cut up half to hand out mementos. I have seen pieces at the Appomattox museum and I saw another yesterday, that Libby had sent her cousin. Same material with the red thread which only appeared near the fringed edge of the towel. If she only had half the towel, she couldn't have given out edge pieces. She is on record for handing out small strips of the flag. Strips of Auties red ties, & small pieces of wood she removed from the drawer of the table she received from Sheridan which Grant had signed the terms on.
To be more accurate, General Custer received this flag of truce when it was sent to him by Robert E. Lee on the morning of April 9, 1865, leading to Lee's formal surrender later in the day. This event was witnessed by famed Civil War sketch artist Alfred Waud in his work entitled "Custer Receives the Flag of Truce " now at the Library of Congress. Custer was not in the room for Lee's signing of the formal terms of surrender.

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