In April 1865, General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army decided to surrender to General Ulysses Grant’s Union Army, marking the end of the American civil war, and bringing an end to a conflict which had claimed the lives of over 700,000 people. It was a civil war between the North (the Union Army), led by President Abraham Lincoln who advocated for slave emancipation and the Southern States of America (the Confederate Army).
The U.S civil war is often notably remembered for the bloody fighting between Lee and Grant’s forces. At first, Lee’s troops launched a series of attacks causing heavy losses to Grant’s army. However, Grant’s forces managed to turn the tables thanks to strong support from the Union’s budget as well as the recruitment of many newly-freed black slaves joining the ranks. Eventually, Lee’s Southern army was defeated.
One of Lee’s officers suggested fighting a guerrilla war, but Lee rejected the idea claiming that it would only cause more pain and suffering to those involved. Lee eventually sent a letter to Grant requesting a meeting to discuss his army’s surrender. Grant replied, agreeing to the meeting and suggesting that the location of the meeting would be at Lee’s discretion. Thereby, the house of a merchant named Wilmer McLean, in the village of Appomattox, was chosen. It is today known as Appomattox Court House and is one of the country’s greatest national historical monuments.
Upon arriving at the meeting, the generals presented a contrasting appearance. Lee, smartly dressed in a new uniform and Grant, roughly presented in his mud-spattered field uniform. The two sat together in the living room of Mr. McLean and cordially conversed about past memories of the Mexican war.
It was Lee who eventually broke the cordiality and brought the conversation back to the topic at hand; his surrender. Grant took out a pencil and quickly wrote down the terms to which he would agree to offer Lee. The terms were threefold, Confederate officers and soldiers would be…
- Immune from prosecution for treason and imprisonment;
- Regarded as normal citizens if they properly followed rules;
- Free to return home, taking with them their horses and donkeys for farming in the spring.
When first looking over Grant’s terms, Lee remarked that “this will take a very happy effect on my army, and this will greatly contribute to our people’s reconciliation”.
Lee informed him that he would parole Union soldiers due to lack of food supplies. Grant responded that he would arrange for 25,000 rations to be sent to the hungry Confederate soldiers. He also ordered to print 28,231 requests for release for Southern soldiers.
When the news came to the Northern camps that the Southern army had surrendered, the Union troops were eager to set about in celebration. However, Grant requested that they immediately stop all kinds of celebration. He told his inferiors, “the war has ended and from now on they too belong to our people”. He insisted that for peace to truly have been achieved the two sides could no longer be adversaries. And the best way for that to be achieved was for them to never rub their win in the faces of the Confederate troops.
On April 12th, 1865, Lee’s troops approached the village of Appomattox to relinquish their military equipment and formally surrender. The Union army General Joshua L. Chamberlain was appointed to receive the surrenders. Solemn ranks of Union soldiers watched as the defeated Southern troops approached the village with crushingly low spirits. Chamberlain later wrote…
“That moment was deeply touching. At such a time and under such conditions I thought it eminently fitting to show some token of our feeling, and I therefore instructed my subordinate officers to come to the position of ‘salute’ in the manual of arms as each body of the Confederates passed before us. I might not be given permission nor forgiveness for this gesture. But in front of us were soldiers who was defeated but brave, strong with unbreakable spirit like heroes. Despite being sick and hungry, they still proudly looked at us, that raised the noble bind between us more than ever. There is no reason for not letting them incorporate into our powerful United States.”
What followed, incredibly, was that the entirety of the Northern army gave an honorable ‘salute’ in the manual of arms. The dejected Southern leader suddenly recognized their gesture and then returned the salute by waving his hand. The entire exchange fell under complete silence, with no drumming, no cheer and no shouting for victory.
From early morning to late evening, Southern soldiers returned the salute when passing Northern ones. They handed over weapons and ragged flags, and then solemnly returned home. Near 100,000 soldiers surrendered at village Appomattox. After several days, all had left the village and returned home to their normal lives.
To this day, there are about 110,000 visitors to Appomattox village annually. They all expect to hear the inspirational story of the reconciliation of two opponents in civil war and the generous terms offered by General Grant.
Ron Wilson, a historian of Appomattox Court House, commented that “Grant and Lee were men of vision. Both saw that their efforts in the civil war had resulted in terrible discrimination over the years. It was high time for re-building the nation. There was no need for revenge.”
Lee and Grant have become great legends of U.S. history. But behind the story of mercy in Appomattox is the goodwill and compassion of President Abraham Lincoln, who is, of course, one of the most beloved Presidents in US history. He had long wished to end the civil war with tolerance. Lincoln and Grant reportedly met each other two weeks before the surrender, where they had a long discussion on the correct way of ending the war and the possible disorders in the post-war period. Lincoln famously told Grant, “Let them relinquish their gun freely”.
Shortly after that, on April 14th, 1865 President Lincoln was assassinated. Lee then became rector of Washington University and Grant held two terms as U.S. President (1869-1877).