Much has been said about the meeting between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee on April 9, 1865, in Wilmer McLean’s parlor. Much less is said about their second meeting at Appomattox Court House, which took place on a wet April 10 in a field not far from what was to become known as Surrender Triangle. Yet that meeting was important in its own way, both in terms of what might have been as well as misunderstandings about what might have been.
First, the conversation between the two generals sheds light on what Lee anticipated would have been the outcome of a proposed conference the previous month. Lee had offered to meet Grant to confer on various matters, understanding that the prospects for such a conference had been discussed by Edward O. C. Ord and James Longstreet. Grant referred the request to Washington, where Lincoln through Stanton told Grant not to meet with Lee for any other purpose other than surrender. At Appomattox on April 10, Lee implied that the outcome of his proposed conference would have been surrender in all but name (evidence, perhaps, that he had difficulty with the word itself).
Given that remark, it’s interesting that when Grant proposed that as general-in-chief of the armies of the Confederacy Lee might take a more visible role in helping to end Confederate military activity that Lee declined to follow the suggestion (although, in fact, he later wrote Davis to that effect). What did Lee think he could have accomplished in March that he could not have accomplished in April? Moreover, although he told Grant on April 10 that he did not think it proper to communicate with Davis on this subject, he did so before month’s end. Why he changed his mind is unclear.
In years to come some people would suggest that Grant inquired about a possible meeting between Lee and another president, namely Lincoln. Given how many people in years to come would pair Lincoln and Lee (virtually no one pairs Grant and Davis), it looked like a wonderful idea to have the two icons discuss the world to come. However, as Grant pointed out, the proposal he advanced to Lee was a meeting between Lee and Davis. So much for the romance of reconciliation.
Lee’s part in this conversation strikes me as confused. Why remind Grant that if they had met in March, the end result would have been surrender, or something looking just like that? What’s the point? Was he just speculating, or was this another effort to shift from his own shoulders the responsibility for blood shed in a futile effort (“the useless effusion of blood”)? What evidence do we have that Lee thought that way in March? If he thought that way at the time, then why the statement that a month later he would not confer with Davis after Appomattox or advise the surrender of other Confederate forces?
The more you read about Lee at Appomattox, the less the traditional story holds.