The chiefs and the captains meet,
Lee erect in his best dress uniform,
His dress-sword hung at his side and his eyes unaltered.
Chunky Grant in his mudsplashed private’s gear
With the battered stars on his shoulders.
They talk a while
Of Mexico and old days.
Then the terms are stated.
Lee finds them generous, says so, makes a request.
His men will need their horses for the spring-ploughing.
Grant assents at once.
There is no parade of bright sword’s
Given or taken. Grant saw that there should not be.
It is over, then. . . .
Lee walks from the little room.
His face is unchanged. It will not change when he dies.
But as he steps on the porch and looks toward his lines
He strikes his hands together once with a sound. . . .
In the room he has left, the blue men stare at each other
For a space of heartbeats, silent. The grey ride off.
They are gone–it is over. . . .
The room explodes like a bomb, they are laughing and shouting,
Yelling strange words, dragging chairs and tables outdoors,
Bearded generals waltzing with one another
For a brief, wild moment, punching each others’ ribs,
Everyone talking at once and nobody listening,
“It’s over–it’s done–it’s finished!”
Then, order again.
The grey ghost-army falls in for the last time,
Marching to stack its arms.
As the ranks move forward
The blue guns go to “Present.” Gordon sees the gesture.
He sweeps his sabre down in the full salute.
There are no cheers or words from blue lines or grey.
Only the sound of feet. . . .
It is over, now. . . .
The arms are stacked from the war.
A few bronzed, tattered grey men, weeping or silent,
Tear some riddled bits of cloth from the color-staffs
And try to hide them under their uniforms.
Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body
I have always thought it appropriate that the national nightmare we call the Civil War ended during Holy Week 1865. Two remarkably decent men, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, began the process of healing so desperately needed for America on Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865 at Appomattox. We take their decency for granted, but it is the exception and not the rule for the aftermath of civil wars in history. The usual course would have been unremitting vengeance by the victors, and sullen rage by the defeated, perhaps eventually breaking out in guerilla war. The end of the Civil War could so very easily have been the beginning of a cycle of unending war between north and south. Instead, both Grant and Lee acted to make certain as far as they could that the fratricidal war that had just concluded would not be repeated. All Americans owe those two men a large debt for their actions at Appomattox.
Here is Grant’s account from his Personal Memoir’s of what happened immediately after the surrender:
When news of the surrender first reached our lines our men commenced firing a salute of a hundred guns in honor of the victory. I at once sent word, however, to have it stopped. The Confederates were now our prisoners, and we did not want to exult over their downfall.
I determined to return to Washington at once, with a view to putting a stop to the purchase of supplies, and what I now deemed other useless outlay of money. Before leaving, however, I thought I would like to see General Lee again; so next morning I rode out beyond our lines towards his headquarters, preceded by a bugler and a staff-officer carrying a white flag.
Lee soon mounted his horse, seeing who it was, and met me. We had there between the lines, sitting on horseback, a very pleasant conversation of over half an hour, in the course of which Lee said to me that the South was a big country and that we might have to march over it three or four times before the war entirely ended, but that we would now be able to do it as they could no longer resist us. He expressed it as his earnest hope, however, that we would not be called upon to cause more loss and sacrifice of life; but he could not foretell the result. I then suggested to General Lee that there was not a man in the Confederacy whose influence with the soldiery and the whole people was as great as his, and that if he would now advise the surrender of all armies I had no doubt his advice would be followed with alacrity. But Lee said, that he could not do that without consulting the President first. I knew there was no use to urge him to do anything against his ideas of what was right.
I was accompanied by my staff and other officers, some of whom seemed to have a great desire to go inside the Confederate lines. They finally asked permission of Lee to do so for the purpose of seeing some of their old army friends, and the permission was granted. They went over, had a very pleasant time with their old friends, and brought some of them back with them when they returned.
When Lee and I separated he went back to his lines and I returned to the house of Mr. McLean. Here the officers of both armies came in great numbers, and seemed to enjoy the meeting as much as though they had been friends separated for a long time while fighting battles under the same flag. For the time being it looked very much as if all thought of the war had escaped their minds. After an hour pleasantly passed in this way I set out on horseback, accompanied by my staff and a small escort, for Burkesville Junction, up to which point the railroad had by this time been repaired.
After the War both men thought highly of each other:
After the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, President Johnson suggested to Grant that Lee be tried for treason. Grant was outraged saying that Lee had surrendered to him and given his parole and that under no circumstances could he be tried for anything he had done during the War unless he violated that parole. He ended by saying that if there was any attempt to try Lee, Grant would immediately resign from the Army. Johnson dropped the idea.
“Within a few weeks of Grant’s death, a member of General Lee’s staff said to a friend, who had mentioned Hancock’s high opinion of his old chief: “That reminds me of Lee’s opinion of your great Union general, uttered in my presence in reply to a disparaging remark on the part of a person who referred to Grant as a ‘military accident, who had no distinguishing merit, but had achieved success through a combination of fortunate circumstances.’ General Lee looked into the critic’s eye steadily, and said: ‘Sir, your opinion is a very poor compliment to me. We all thought Richmond, protected as it was by our splendid fortifications and defended by our army of veterans, could not be taken. Yet Grant turned his face to our capital, and never turned it away until we had surrendered. Now, I have carefully searched the military records of both ancient and modern history, and have never found Grant’s superior as a general. I doubt if his superior can be found in all history.'”
Near death as he finished his memoirs, Grant wrote this passage which sums up what he and Lee helped to accomplish:
I feel that we are on the eve of a new era, when there is to be great harmony between the Federal and Confederate. I cannot stay to be a living witness to the correctness of this prophecy; but I feel it within me that it is to be so. The universally kind feeling expressed for me at a time when it was supposed that each day would prove my last, seemed to me the beginning of the answer to “Let us have peace.” A striking indication that Grant’s words were coming true occurred shortly after he wrote them. At his funeral his pallbearers were Union generals William Tecumseh Sherman and Phil Sheridan and Confederate generals Joseph Johnston and Simon Bolivar Buckner. Union and Confederate officers rode together in carriages in Grant’s funeral procession. The day was August 8, 1885. What Grant and Lee planted 20 years ago was beginning to bear fruit.