“It would be useless and therefore cruel to provoke the further effusion of blood,” said the great Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and so he surrendered to the great Union General Ulysses S. Grant, this week (April 9) in 1865, at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. It signaled the end of the Civil War, the bloodiest and costliest in our history.
Although Lee’s bravery in conducting the war had become legendary, his bravest act was probably his decision to surrender and end it. Having bested every other Union general the North had thrown against him, and having given even Grant a run for his money, Lee could easily have decided to lead the Confederate Army into the hills to engage in guerilla warfare against Union army occupiers. In fact, that is what the Confederacy’s president, Jefferson Davis, had urged him to do.
But Lee, who had also said he would “rather die a thousand deaths,” than surrender to Grant, finally decided that he would rather surrender than cause a thousand deaths. Lee realized that an open-ended guerilla war, and the inevitable northern response, would mean a scorched earth battle in which both sides inflicted terrible damage on his home state of Virginia and caused many more senseless deaths.
And so, in dress uniform, Lee rode to Appomattox, where he met General Grant and offered a formal surrender. Grant, thinking that Lee was only there to negotiate, was in his dusty fatigues with only his general’s stripes on his shoulder to distinguish his rank, and he would observe later what a visual contrast the two men must have made.
But each respected the other immensely, and sensing Lee’s agony, Grant ordered the Union army to refrain from any form of celebration. He also informed Lee that his men could keep their horses and side arms, and he ordered that provisions be delivered to feed Lee’s army, which was close to starvation.
Just as Lee had decided to spare the country the agony of a prolonged war, Grant decided to be generous in his terms of surrender, hoping to spare the country the agony of a divisive and bitter peace. Like President Lincoln, Grant wanted to lay the foundation for the nation’s future reconciliation. Unwittingly, Grant in his generosity also may have confirmed to Lee the correctness of his decision not to engage in guerilla fighting.
After the surrender the two men reminisced. Both had served in the Mexican-American War and remembered the other well. Although unspoken, the thought may have crossed both men’s minds that Lee had been Lincoln’s first choice to command the Union army (Lee declined, choosing to take a command in the Confederate army), while Grant had been Lincoln’s last choice.