Back in 1985 I visited the Illinois State Historical Library, then located in the basement of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois. I was doing research on my dissertation. There, in a back room, combing through documents related to Ulysses S. Grant, I came upon a letter from Robert E. Lee to Grant, dated June 13, 1865. Lee was writing Grant to inquire as to whether the terms he had signed at Appomattox protected him from being prosecuted for treason: he had just learned that he had been indicted for treason by a grand jury sitting at Norfolk, Virginia. He enclosed a request for pardon in compliance with President Andrew Johnson’s proclamation of May 29, 1865. Grant endorsed the letter to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, declaring that the Appomattox terms protected Lee from prosecution, adding that Abraham Lincoln had approved the terms.
This document is a treasure. It was part of a critical moment in the restoration of peace in 1865. It showed Grant, as a man of his word, looking to protect Lee from prosecution to preserve the peace just won. Moreover, it is one of the few pieces of paper in existence signed by both Grant and Lee. The Appomattox terms were an exchange of letters, not a commonly-drafted or signed document. And I was privileged enough to be looking directly at the document itself (with the usual protections in place … archives have procedures to protect their documents … although, as we’re about to see, they don’t always work).