April 8, 2011
Tomorrow is the anniversary of the surrender at Appomattox that effectively ended the Civil War. Once, all Americans knew about Appomattox and what happened there. It was part of the reason we knew America was exceptional.
Gen. Robert E. Lee was retreating from Richmond with his army of starving scarecrows. He had fewer than 10,000 effective fighting men left in his Army of Northern Virginia. After four long years of incredibly bloody conflict, Lee knew that the overwhelming numbers and resources of the Union forces under Gen. U.S. Grant would in time wear him down. Lee had ordered a shipment of rations be sent from shattered Richmond to Amelia Courthouse. Some nameless official in the Confederate War Department got the order confused; the capital was, after all, being hurriedly evacuated. Instead of food, the War Department sent Lees army boxcars of ammunition. You cant eat bullets.
Finding himself surrounded, Gen. Lee rejected desperate pleas of his young officers. They wanted to slip away in the night, head for the mountains, and there keep up a guerilla war that would continue the bloodshed, perhaps for generations. Lee knew what hatreds, what horrors would attend that idea. No, he said definitively, I must go to see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths.
Riding his famed horse, Traveler, the six-foot tall, silver haired warrior was dressed in his best gray uniform, replete with buckskin gloves, a multi-colored sash, a jeweled sword hanging at his side. It was this vision that led a loyal young Union girl on the road to Gettysburg to exclaim two years earlier: Oh, how I wish he were ours!
Lee arrived early at the home of Wilmer McLean in the tiny hamlet called Appomattox Courthouse. McLean had offered his front parlor for the surrender ceremonies. In 1861, farmer McLean had been living near the Manassas battlefield when a stray cannonball landed in the stewpot simmering in his fireplace. A Southern patriot, McLean had taken his family as far from the scene of battle as he could imagine. Now, the civil war that began in his kitchen would end in his front parlor.
General Ulysses S. Grant arrived late, his uniform still spattered with mud from his hurried ride. The only part of him that seemed military was his well-tended horse, Cincinnati. He wore a privates uniform coat with only the three stars of a Lieutenant General to give a hint that this was no ordinary soldier.
Grant then commanded all the forces of the Union, the largest army that had ever been assembled in the Western Hemisphere. At wars end, Gen. Grant had more black troops in his ranks than Lee had white soldiers in his. Some 200,000 black soldiers and sailors—mostly freed slavesserved the Union.
Grant tried to put Gen. Lee at ease with small talk of their days together in the Mexican War. Both men had distinguished themselves as heroes in that war. Grant told Lee he had met him once there and would never forget how he looked. Lee answered he knew that was so, and that he had tried to recall the meeting many times, but had never been able to recall a single feature of Grants.
If this was meant as a subtle insult to the unprepossessing Grant, the shorter, rumpled man who was the first since George Washington to hold his high rank did not take it so. Not then. And not in his wonderful dying memoirs written twenty years after this event.
Guided by Lincolns orders to let `em up easy, Grants terms for Lees army were more than generous. If the rebels would but lay down their arms, they could go home under parole, and wait to be properly exchanged. Everyone knew there would be no such exchange of prisoners.
Grant said Lees officers might keep their horses and their side arms. When Gen. Lee informed Grant that many of his enlisted men owned their own horses, Grant declined to change his neatly written surrender terms, but said he would give verbal instructions to his officers that any of Lees men claiming a horse might take it with him unmolested. He acknowledged that those horses would be needed for spring planting.
This will have the best possible effect upon the men. It will be very gratifying and will do much toward conciliating our people. Lee then brought up the matter of his hungry men. They had had but one meal in the last week, and that of parched corn. Grant did not tell Lee that the aggressive bluecoat cavalrymen under Gen. Little Phil Sheridan had captured the Confederate supply train that had gone astray.
Quickly, Grant offered 25,000 rations, and more to feed the famished foe. At the close of the two-and-a-half hour ceremony, Grant and all his officers stood down from Mr. McLeans front porch and took off their hats as Gen. Lee departed.
As Lee rode back through his lines, his brave men wept, prayed, and some cursed the Yankees. They patted Traveler tenderly. They must have heard the Union artillerists beginning a One Hundred Gun salutebut this was quickly quashed on orders of Gen. Grant. We must not exult on this day, Grant sternly ordered, the rebels are our countrymen once again.
Soon, Yankees and rebels were joining each other in their lines. Gen. James Longstreet, whom Lee called his Old Warhorse, hastened to see Grant. He had been in Grants wedding party. The next morning, Gen. Lee met Gen. George Meade riding on the road.
Gen. Lee, dont you recognize me? Im George Meade. Lee smiled, extending his hand. Meade, whered you get all that gray in your beard? Meade, who had successfully fended off Lees deadly assaults at Gettysburg, told his former enemy and old friend: Youre the one who put it there.
Three days later, the Army of Northern Virginia passed in review, laying down their arms and surrendering their flags. The ceremony was commanded by Union Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who would soon be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his great defense at Little Round Top at Gettysburg. Chamberlain brought his men to a full salute. Gen. John Bell Gordon, the much-wounded Confederate leader, responded to the salute by tapping his boot with his sword and horse and rider made a stately bow. Honor answering honor, Chamberlain later wrote.
If the reconciliation of North and South had been left to Grant and Lee, the nation would have been blessed indeed. Instead, following President Lincolns assassination, his vindictive successor Andrew Johnson determined to pursue a vengeful course. When he tried to prosecute Lee for treason, Grant rushed to the White House and demanded the order be rescinded. Backed up fully by Gen. Sherman, the Unions other great hero, Grant threatened to resign if the malicious Johnson went ahead. He dropped it.
Three years later, when Robert E. Lee was serving as president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, one of his professors expressed disgust that Grant had been nominated for President of the United States. The professor, formerly one of Lees officers, called Grant that drunk, that butcher.
Lee fixed the man with withering stare of his blue eyes and said quietly: If I ever hear you speak of General Grant in those terms again, one of us will terminate his association with this college. That college is now known as Washington & Lee University.
In no other nation on earth might such a fiery trial, one that claimed 630,000 lives, have ended so magnanimously as ours did at Appomattox. Britain hanged rebelsin Canada in 1837and shot them in Ireland in 1916. The Mexicans killed every Texas rebel at the Alamo in 1836.
Only in America could we have seen the stillness at Appomattox. It was a miracle then.
We need to remember that now.