Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

On March 4, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his Second Inaugural Address that was a model of reconciliation and moderation for restoring the national Union. He ended with the appeal:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Later that month, Lincoln visited with Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman during the siege of Petersburg in Virginia near the Confederate capital of Richmond. As they talked, the president reflected on his plan to treat the South with respect. “Treat them liberally all around,” he said. “We want those people to return to their allegiance to the Union and submit to the laws.”

The Civil War was coming to an end as a heavily outnumbered Confederate General Robert E. Lee withdrew his army from Petersburg and abandoned Richmond to its fate. On April 5, 1865, Lee marched his starving, exhausted men across the swollen Appomattox River to Amelia Court House in central Virginia. Lee was disappointed to discover the boxcars on the railroad did not contain the expected rations of food. The Union cavalry under General Philip Sheridan were closing in and burning supply wagons. Lee ordered his men to continue their march to the west without food. Increasing numbers were deserting the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee realized that he would have to surrender soon.

On April 6, Union forces led by General George Custer cut off Lee’s army at Sayler’s Creek. The two sides skirmished for hours and then engaged each other fiercely. Lee lost a quarter of his army that became casualties and prisoners. He reportedly cried out, “My God! Has the army been dissolved?”

The next day, the Rebels retreated to Farmville where rations awaited but Union forces were close behind. The hungry Confederates barely had time to eat before fleeing again to expected supplies at Appomattox railroad station.

That day, Grant wrote to Lee asking for his surrender to prevent “any further effusion of blood.” Grant signed the letter, “Very respectfully, your obedient servant.”  Lee responded that while he did not think his position was as hopeless as Grant indicated, he asked what terms the Union Army would offer. When one of the generals suggested accepting the surrender, Lee informed him, “I trust it has not come to that! We certainly have too many brave men to think of laying down our arms.”  Nevertheless, Grant’s answer was unconditional surrender.

On April 8, Lee’s army straggled into the town of Appomattox Court House, but Sheridan had already seized his supply. He knew the end had come. He was hopelessly outnumbered six-to-one and had very little chance of resupply or reinforcements. Lee conferred with his generals to discuss surrender. When one of his officers suggested melting away and initiating a guerrilla war, Lee summarily rejected it out of hand. “You and I as Christian men have no right to consider only how this would affect us. We must consider its effect on the country as a whole.”

Lee composed a message to Grant asking for “an interview at such time and place as you may designate, to discuss the terms of the surrender of this army.”  Grant was suffering a migraine while awaiting word from Lee. He was greatly relieved to receive this letter. His headache and all the tension within him immediately dissipated. While puffing on his cigar, he wrote back to Lee and magnanimously offered to meet his defeated foe “where you wish the interview to take place.” The ceremony would take place at the home of Wilmer McLean, who had moved to Appomattox Court House to escape the war after a cannonball blasted into his kitchen during the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861. Now, the war’s final act would occur in his living room.

Lee cut a fine picture impeccably dressed in his new gray uniform, adorned with a red sash, shiny boots, and his sword in a golden scabbard as he awaited Grant. The Union general was shabbily dressed in a rough uniform with muddy boots and felt self-conscious. He thought that Lee was “a man of much dignity, with an impassible face.” Grant respectfully treated his worthy adversary as an equal, and felt admiration for him if not his cause. They shook hands and exchanged pleasantries.

Grant sat down at a small table to compose the terms of surrender and personally stood and handed them to Lee rather than have a subordinate do it. Grant graciously allowed the Confederate officers to keep their side arms, horses, and baggage. Lee asked that all the soldiers be allowed to keep their horses since many were farmers, and Grant readily agreed. Grant also generously agreed to feed Lee’s hungry men. Their business completed, the two generals shook hands, and Lee departed with a bow to the assembled men.

As Lee slowly rode away, Grant stood on the porch and graciously lifted his hat in salute, which Lee solemnly returned. The other Union officers and soldiers followed their general’s example. Grant was so conscious of being respectful that when the Union camp broke out into a triumphal celebration, Grant rebuked his men and ordered them to stop. “We did not want to exult over their downfall,” he later explained. For his part, Lee tearfully rode back into his camp, telling his troops, “I have done the best I could for you.” He continued, “Go home now, and if you make as good citizens as you have soldiers, you will do well, and I shall always be proud of you.”

On April 12, the Union formally accepted the Confederate surrender in a solemn ceremony. Brigadier General Joshua Chamberlain, the hero of Gettysburg, oversaw a parade of Confederate troops stacking their weapons. As the Army of Northern Virginia began the procession, Chamberlain ordered his men to raise their muskets to their shoulders as a salute of honor to their fellow Americans. Confederate Major General John Gordon returned the gesture by saluting with his sword. Chamberlain described his feelings at witnessing the dramatic, respectful ceremony: “How could we help falling on our knees, all of us together, and praying God to pity and forgive us all.”

At the end of the dreadful Civil War, in which 750,000 men died, the Americans on both sides of the war demonstrated remarkable respect for each other. Grant demonstrated great magnanimity toward his vanquished foe, following Lincoln’s vision in the Second Inaugural. That vision tragically did not survive the death of the martyred Lincoln a few days after the events at Appomattox.

Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America with Stephen Knott. Williams is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence.

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