Grant and the Enduring Lessons of Appomattox
On April 12th, Americans will mark the 150th anniversary of the Southern attack on Fort Sumter and the start of the Civil War. The reenactors will be out in force, though their numbers will be dwarfed by the revisionists pretending the conflict was about anything else but slavery. Even as the sons of the South unfurl their Confederate flags, today's Party of Lincoln now advocates states rights, nullification, secession, an end to birthright citizenship and other constitutional perfidies long ago settled by the war and its aftermath.
But while the anniversary of the start of the Civil War will sadly showcase the seemingly inextinguishable Southern heritage and perpetual sense of grievance, its end instead reflects a noble spirit of generosity, national unity and brotherhood. When Ulysses Grant accepted the surrender of Robert E. Lee's army 146 years ago today at Appomattox, he set an enduring example for all Americans then and now to emulate.
In his Second Inaugural on March 4, 1865, President Lincoln spoke of "malice toward none, with charity for all." But it was Grant who at Appomattox five weeks later began to "bind up the nation's wounds" and "to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."
There, Grant and his officers began welcoming back into the Union as brothers the Confederate soldiers they fought against at such great cost. And to be sure, the respect and dignity Grant accorded Robert E. Lee and his surrendering Army of Northern Virginia was offered despite his disdain for their cause of slavery and secessionism. As he prepared to accept their capitulation, Grant later wrote of the moment in April 1865:
"I felt sad and depressed at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though their cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought."
Nevertheless, Grant offered Lee such generous and compassionate terms for his beaten and hungry troops that "Lee never forgot Grant's magnanimity during the surrender, and for the rest of his life would not tolerate an unkind word about Grant in his presence." Not only were Lee's men not imprisoned, they were allowed to retain their personal horses and side arms. As Richard Sommers described it:
The surrender terms paroled Southern soldiers on the spot rather than incarcerate them in prisoner-of-war camps. Their officers, moreover, were permitted to retain their side arms, horses, and personal baggage. Allowing such retention "will have a very happy effect upon my army," General Lee gratefully acknowledged at the time. On learning that Confederate soldiers owned their military horses and mules, General Grant went on to make clear that any soldiers claiming such steeds would be permitted to "take the animals home with them to work their little farms." "This will have the best possible effect upon the men," General Lee thankfully responded; "it will be very gratifying and will do much toward conciliating our people."
Just as important, on the day of the Confederates formal surrender three days later, Grant forbade Union troops from displays of celebration or gloating as Lee's men filed past. Years later, the Confederate General John Gordon recalled with appreciation and thanks the honor shown his men by his Northern counterpart, General Joshua Chamberlain:
One of the knightliest soldiers of the Federal army, General Joshua L. Chamberlain of Maine, who afterward served with distinction as governor of his state, called his troops into line, and as my men marched in front of them, the veterans in blue gave a soldierly salute to those vanquished heroes - a token of respect from Americans to Americans, a final and fitting tribute from Northern to Southern chivalry.
For his part, Chamberlain, the hero of Gettysburg and future governor of Maine, explained:
The momentous meaning of this occasion impressed me deeply. I resolved to mark it by some token of recognition, which could be no other than a salute of arms. Well aware of the responsibility assumed, and of the criticisms that would follow, as the sequel proved, nothing of that kind could move me in the least. The act could be defended, if needful, by the suggestion that such a salute was not to the cause for which the flag of the Confederacy stood, but to its going down before the flag of the Union. My main reason, however, was one for which I sought no authority nor asked forgiveness. Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood: men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond;--was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured?
As President, Ulysses Grant continued to offer not recriminations or retribution but respect to Southern sensibilities. In 1869, several Congressmen sought to add to Capitol rotunda a huge mural depicting Lee surrendering to Grant at Appomattox. As authors Harold Holzer and Gabor Boritt wrote, Grant would have none of it. "He said he would never take part in producing a picture that commemorated a victory in which his own countrymen were losers." Grant is said to have remarked:
"No, gentlemen, it won't do. No power on earth will make me agree to your proposal. I will not humiliate General Lee or our Southern friends in depicting their humiliation and then celebrating the event in the nation's capitol."
If only that largeness of spirit were reciprocated south of the Mason-Dixon line.
Just last year, the governors of Virginia and Mississippi celebrated Confederate History Month with proclamations that omitted slavery altogether. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, whose associations with the racist Council of Conservative Citizens were once again propelled into the news, dismissed slavery as "a nit." (A sure sign of his presidential ambitions came when Barbour refused to endorse the creation of commemorative license plate for the notoriously bloodthirsty Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, a man who also went onto become the first Imperial Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.)
Then there's the issue of the Confederate flag, to which Republican presidential candidates issue their quadrennial paeans. States and private citizens certainly have the right to display the Stars and Bars and other flags of the CSA, but that doesn't mean they should. Sending a message of Southern pride and "heritage" sends another message as well. As Aaron Sorkin aptly put it:
"In the history of the South, there's much to celebrate. And that flag is a desecration of all of it. It's a banner of hatred and separation. It's a banner of ignorance and violence and a war that pitted brother against brother, and to ask young black men and women, young Jewish men and women, Asians, Native Americans, to ask Americans to walk beneath its shadow is a humiliation of irreducible proportions. And we all know it."
620,000 Americans died because of that banner which flew for a cause, as Grant lamented at Appomattox 146 years ago, that was "one of the worst for which a people ever fought." But Grant's message of reconciliation at and after Appomattox was the embodiment of Lincoln's inaugural plea four years earlier in the weeks before Fort Sumter:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.