Appomattox and Grant’s Grace

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On April 9th 146 years ago, one of the moments that would define America took place in the little town of Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia, when in an instant, with the exchange of a few words,a handshake and a piece of paper, two enemies would become countrymen.

Ulysses S. Grant, as the son of a tanner, had an unremarkable upbringing.  However, he attended West Point and was appointed by the Governor of Illinois to be a commander in the Union Army.  He was promoted to be the General-in Chief of the Union Forces by Abraham Lincoln in 1864.  Although Grant was the favored military hero at the end of the Civil War, his presidency, which followed that of Andrew Johnson, was one of marginal historical portent, troubled by inferences of scandal. But Grant himself defined what it means to be an American in a single act of magnanimity that would begin the conciliation of a deeply rent nation.

In early April of 1865 the Confederate troops had been overpowered and outflanked by the Union.  They were in retreat, moving westward from Richmond.  The Union pursued them in a running battle.  General Grant understood that their attempts to outmaneuver one another were draining the men of resources, energy and sensibility.  He sent a number of dispatches to General Lee.  The first read:

General R.E. Lee, Commanding C.S.A.:
5 P.M., April 7th, 1865.
The results of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia in this struggle. I feel that it is so, and regard it as my duty to shift from myself the responsibility of any further effusion of blood by asking of you the surrender of that portion of the Confederate States army known as the Army of Northern Virginia.

U.S. Grant, Lieutenant-General”

Lee did not hesitate in his response:

“April 7th, 1865.
General: I have received your note of this date. Though not entertaining the opinion you express of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia, I reciprocate your desire to avoid useless effusion of blood, and therefore, before considering your proposition, ask the terms you will offer on condition of its surrender.
R.E. Lee, General.”

Although surrender appeared inevitable and it would most likely end formal hostilities between the North and the South, the men and officers on both sides whispered of retribution.  Robert E. Lee could be subject to imprisonment and trial, or charges of treason, or hanging.  The vulnerability of Lee and his army was great and the possibilities were grim.

Grant replied to Lee’s wish to know his terms of surrender.  It was simple:  “In reply I would say that, peace being my great desire, there is but one condition I would insist upon,–namely, that the men and officers surrendered shall be disqualified for taking up arms against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged.”

Surely Lee must have worried that this was a trick, a trap that would disarm his men with the promise of peace, only to be exposed to certain extermination.  But, coolheaded and proud Lee responded: “General: I received at a late hour your note of to-day. In mine of yesterday I did not intend to propose the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, but to ask the terms of your proposition. To be frank, I do not think the emergency has arisen to call for the surrender of this army, but, as the restoration of peace should be the sole object of all, I desired to know whether your proposals would lead to that end. I cannot, therefore, meet you with a view to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia; but as far as your proposal may affect the Confederate States forces under my command, and tend to the restoration of peace, I should be pleased to meet you at 10 A.M. to-morrow on the old state road to Richmond, between the picket-lines of the two armies.
R.E. Lee, General.”

For the next few days the two Generals exchanged notes indicating their shared desire for an end to bloodshed and the establishment of peace.  If Lee could have found a way to do that without the ignominy of surrender, he would have.  But Grant finally convinced Lee to meet with him at the McLean home in Appomattox Courthouse.

Lee was a striking, though older, figure, tall, erect and dressed in a clean Confederate gray uniform.  His sword was ornate, the hilt polished as were the handsome spurs on his boots.  Grant was shorter, his clothes a little shabby and spattered with mud, without adornment or spurs.  They sat in a spacious room on the ground floor of the McLean home.  They exchanged niceties for a time, and then got down to the business of surrender.  Grant wrote out the terms of surrender in a note that filled less than one side of the paper.

Commanding C. S. A.

GENERAL: In accordance with the substance of my letter to you of the 8th inst., I propose to receive the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia on the following terms, to wit: Rolls of all the officers and men to be made in duplicate, one copy to be given to an officer to be designated by me, the other to be retained by such officer or officers as you may designate. 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. The arms, artillery, and public property to be parked, and stacked, and turned over to the officers appointed by me to receive them. 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 his home, not to be disturbed by the United States authorities so long as they observe their paroles, and the laws in force where they may reside. Very respectfully,


Grant would have been justified in stripping the Confederate Army officers and men of their arms, swords, horses and other properties.  He could have found grounds to punish or imprison those same men.  But if the United States were to become one nation again, the wounding would have to cease and the healing begin.  Abraham Lincoln waged war on secession to preserve the union, not in theory, but in action.  General Grant, in his compassionate terms of surrender, carried out Lincoln’s will.  Grant knew that the men of the South would need to return to their homes and farms and rebuild their lives and livelihoods. The terms of surrender included safe passage for the Confederate troops, so that those who had horses or mules could return to their homes unmolested to work their little farms.

Robert E. Lee responded that the proposal to allow the men to take home their horses and possessions would have a “most happy effect.” The vanquished men of the Confederate Army, who earlier reeled with the implications of their loss and possible castigations, were free; free to return home with their possessions and animals, free to return to their lives as Americans.

The author Shelby Foote, in his droll and soothing narratives which pepper Ken Burns’  Emmy award winning series “The Civil War,” once said, “Before the war it was the United States ‘are’, in the grammatical usage, because it was thought of as a collection of independent states.  But after the Civil War it became the United States ‘is’, in the singular.  The war made us an ‘is’.” Could the Union have truly become the singular nation that it now ‘is’ had General Grant acted differently that April day in Appomattox?

The principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States value the power and freedom of the individual.  Grant viewed Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia as men, not unlike himself and his own troops, with needs, wants, dreams, and intrinsic, God-given worth.  The Union forces had been in a celebratory spirit and had filled the streets of Appomattox with torches and shouts and songs of victory. When Lee departed the McLean home some of the Union officers began to yell victoriously. General Grant would not stand for it. “I at once sent word, however, to have it stopped,” he said. “The Confederates were now our countrymen, and we did not want to exult over their downfall.” The humiliation of defeat was enough for their countrymen to endure.  The ends of the war had been satisfied.

The gentle terms of surrender penned by General Grant at Appomattox Courthouse helped knit America into a singular fabric of brotherhood, forgiveness, and unity because a military hero acted, not with the scythe of reprisal, but with the balm of grace.

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