Civil War chivalry at Appomattox

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2016/01/25/civil-war-chivalry-at-appomattox/

The “Annals of America” contains a stirring account of the momentous encounter between Generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant at the village of Appomattox Court House. The author of the document was Brigadier General Horace Porter, Grant’s aide-de-camp. Porter vividly describes the historic meeting of April 9, 1865, at which Grant and Lee discussed the terms of surrender. A little known detail of the event transformed the tenor of the occasion, and helped reconcile the warring officers and nation.

The locale chosen for the meeting was the home of Wilmer McLean, who had the finest residence in Appomattox Court House. Porter noted the features of the house in minute detail, from the seven steps of the porch to the conical-shaped inkstand to the number and location of the doors and windows. Clearly, the historic event had left its imprint on his memory.

“I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause.” — General Ulysses S. Grant

Porter gave a somber description of the thick atmosphere that pervaded the room as they prepared for the meeting: “We walked in softly and ranged ourselves quietly about the sides of the room, very much as people enter a sick chamber when they expect to find the patient dangerously ill.”

In his “Personal Memoirs” (1885), Grant also recalled the morose atmosphere. “What General Lee’s feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassive face, it was impossible to say . . . But my own feelings . . . were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause.”

Grant’s moving account of Lee’s demeanor reveals as much about the Confederate leader’s character as it did his own. We can adduce much about Grant’s personal integrity by the respect he shows for Lee’s courage and honor, despite their bitter conflict.

The terms of the surrender were straightforward:  the officers and men were to be paroled and agree not to take up arms against the U.S. government, and their arms, artillery, and supplies would be ceded as captured property. Lee agreed to the terms, and the two men subsequently discussed the forthcoming peace between the two sides.

But something very unusual happened when General Grant began to write out the document.

Porter stated that Grant was writing rapidly and without pause, until he happened to glance at the dignified, vanquished leader next to him: “Then he looked toward Lee, and his eyes seemed to be resting on the handsome sword that hung at that officer’s side. He said afterward that this set him to thinking that it would be an unnecessary humiliation to require the officers to surrender their swords, and a great hardship to deprive them of their personal baggage and horses.” As a result, Grant decided to alter the terms to allow the Confederate officers to keep their swords, belongings, and horses.

We can adduce much about Grant’s personal integrity by the respect he shows for Lee’s courage and honor, despite their bitter conflict.

When Lee perused the letter, his countenance changed abruptly when he read about Grant’s gallant gesture. Porter says that Lee was “touched by this act of generosity,” and then replied warmly, “This will have a very happy effect upon my army.”

The gallantry did not stop there. Next it was Lee’s turn, when he intimated that the poorer, private soldiers in his army might also be allowed to keep their horses, since they needed them to work their small farms. Lee had no need to raise the subject since he was already mortified by the loss of the war. Nevertheless, he swallowed his pride for the sake of the less fortunate men in his army.

At first Grant balked at Lee’s suggestion. Yet when he saw how anxious Lee was for the welfare of his soldiers, he promptly relented and let them have their horses and mules. Grant also offered food provisions for the starving Confederate army.

Porter underscored Lee’s great relief and evident appreciation of the turn of events. Lee turned to Grant and said, “This will have the best possible effect upon the men. It will be very gratifying and will do much toward conciliating our people.”

The two former enemies held little in common, either politically or in their respective views on the nation’s future. But they did share two pivotal qualities: dignity and valor. Over 150 years after the meeting between Grant and Lee, these attributes are felt more in the absence than in the display. When public leaders, whether cultural or political, lack integrity and respect, they quickly descend into personal attacks on people with whom they disagree. The result is fruitless contention rather than productive engagement. In today’s fractured society, reflecting on Grant and Lee’s exemplary comportment at Appomattox can still “do much toward conciliating our people.”

Contact Mary McCleary at [email protected].

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