One wonders what was on Ulysses S. Grant’s mind on the evening of April 9, 1865, as he reflected on that day’s events. What was he feeling? What was he thinking? After all, the general was not much given to public displays of emotion: he was a master of wry understatement. And yet he had achieved the mission he had undertaken precisely thirteen months ago–March 9, 1864–that of bringing Robert E. Lee to the surrender table.
The day had not started off well. Grant had been battling a migraine headache all night. Attired in field dress, his boots were caked in the red clay mud of the Virginia countryside, a reminder of days of riding and writing. After grabbing a cup of coffee at George G. Meade’s headquarters, he wrote Lee one more time:
Your note of yesterday is received. I have not authority to treat on the subject of peace. The meeting proposed for 10 A.M. to-day could lead to no good. I will state, however, that I am equally desirous for peace with yourself, and the whole North entertains the same feeling. The terms upon which peace can be had are well understood. By the South laying down their arms, they would hasten that most desirable event, save thousands of human lives, and hundreds of millions of property not yet destroyed. Seriously hoping that all our difficulties may be settled without the loss of another life …
That done, Grant set off on another of the crosscountry rides, this time heading toward Sheridan’s headquarters somewhere in the vicinity of Appomattox Court House. At about 11 AM the caravan halted to rest the horses. Suddenly one of Meade’s staff officers rode up and delivered another dispatch. Grant opened it, read it to himself, then handed it to John A. Rawlins. His face was calm and still: everyone wondered what was in the note. Taking a deep breath, Rawlins shared the contents of the note with everyone. It was from Robert E. Lee.
I received your note of this morning on the picket-line, whither I had come to meet you and ascertain definitely what terms were embraced in your proposal of yesterday with reference to the surrender of this army. I now ask an interview, in accordance with the offer contained in your letter of yesterday, for that purpose.
Grant quickly scribbled a reply, then handed it to Rawlins.
Your note of this date is but this moment (11:50 A.M.) received, in consequence of my having passed from the Richmond and Lynchburg road to the Farmville and Lynchburg road. I am at this writing about four miles west of Walker’s Church, and will push forward to the front for the purpose of meeting you. Notice sent to me on this road where you wish the interview to take place will meet me.
“How will that do, Rawlins?” he asked.
“I think that will do,” came the response. Grant smiled. The headache was gone.
Grant arrived at Appomattox Court House that afternoon and learned from Sheridan that Lee was waiting for him in the parlor of Wilmer McLean’s house just off the court house. As he rode up, he could see Lee’s mount, Traveller, waiting outside, cared for by an orderly. If he was thinking about what would happen next, he left no record of it. Rather, he dismounted, walked up the steps to the porch, entered the house, and turned left, where Lee was waiting for him in the parlor, accompanied by a lone staff officer. The two men shook hands; moments later several Union generals and staff officers joined the two commanders in what were quickly becoming cramped quarters.
Grant took in Lee’s appearance: a fine dress uniform, a rather elegant sword, and a proud military bearing. Aware of his own appearance–someone present later remarked that the commander of the armies of the United States “looked like a fly on a shoulder of beef”–Grant explained that his headquarters baggage train was too far away. Besides, it was best to meet as soon as possible.
The meeting began awkwardly. Grant tried to put everyone at ease by recalling that he had met Lee once when he had visited Winfield Scott’s headquarters during the Mexican American War. Lee’s memory of the encounter was foggy at best: perhaps he was being kind, because there was no reason for him to have remembered Grant. More chatter followed: it was as if Grant did not quite want to get to the very moment he had struggled to reach for nearly a year. It was typical of the man that rather than being happy, he was sad, even depressed, and tried to imagine how Lee was feeling. But Lee was as good as Grant was when it came to masking his emotions: in the end it was the Confederate chief who decided that it was time to get down to business.
That must have been quite a moment. Recall that these two men had battled each other for just over ten months. Remember that when Grant had come east, he’d heard that he had not met Bobby Lee. Now he had. Lee had once reflected that he worried what would happen if those people ever found a general he couldn’t figure out. They had. In several exchanges of correspondence during those ten months, the two men had jousted with pen and paper, neither wanting to give an inch. It is fair to say that they didn’t like each other.
Once prompted by Lee, Grant got right to the point: the Confederates would lay down their arms and return home as prisoners, not to take up arms again until exchanged … which was unlikely to happen. There was nothing about “unconditional surrender” here, no doubt to Lee’s relief as he nodded agreement. That done, the conversation veered off course again, until Lee remarked that perhaps it would be a good idea for Grant to reduce the terms to paper.
With a manifold book in front of him that would produce three copies of whatever he wrote, Grant grasped a pencil and leaned forward. But he did not know what to write. He was not operating under explicit instructions: at best Abraham Lincoln had shared sentiments but had not dictated terms. But Grant knew what he wanted to say, and before long he figured out how to say it. Confederate soldiers would stack arms and be issued paroles. That was easy enough. Then Grant looked up, and his eyes rested upon Lee’s sword. No need to humiliate the foe: Lee and his officers could retain their sidearms, horses, and personal baggage. Fair enough.
But Grant had one final thought, one final directive.
This done, each officer and man will be allowed to return to his home, not to be disturbed by the United States authorities so long as they observe their paroles, and the laws in force where they may reside.
This sentence remains one of the most important and remarkable declarations in American history. In writing it Grant the warrior became Grant the peacemaker. There would be no treason trials, no retribution, no recriminations, so long as the Confederates observed their paroles and obeyed the law. Lincoln might speak about malice toward none with charity for all, but it was left to Grant to realize that vision.
If Grant knew what he had done, he gave no sign of it. But Lee knew what Grant had done. Reading the terms, he remarked: “This will have a very happy effect upon my army.” Still, there was something else: would enlisted men also be able to take their horses home? After all, in many cases they had provided their own forms. Grant pondered the request, then decided to accede to it without changing the terms. After all, the men could probably use those animals to plow the fields that spring.
“This will have the best possible effect upon the men,” Lee responded. “It will be very gratifying and will do much toward conciliating our people.”
As Colonel Charles Marshall composed Lee’s response, Grant introduced Lee to the other United States officers in the room. In years to come it was not altogether clear who was in the room or how Lee responded as he met these men. Lee also secured rations for his men–the very rations Union forces had captured the previous day at Appomattox Station. Then Grant and Lee parted, with Lee returning to his men, Grant saluting him as he left.
After issuing instructions on how to implement the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, Grant also left McLean’s house and headed toward Sheridan’s headquarters. Before long he heard rifles firing, cannons booming, and men cheering. The men had learned that Lee had surrendered. Grant directed that they stop the ruckus. “The war is over,” he said. “The Rebels are our countrymen again.”
Grant was so unassuming, perhaps so lost in the moment, that it was left to someone else to suggest that perhaps he should notify the authorities in Washington of the day’s events. In a concise dispatch, he did just that. Then he reached camp, sat down, and started asking an old friend, Rufus Ingalls, about days gone by. What he had to say about the day’s proceedings was simple and short, limited to expressing the belief that he hoped that the war was drawing to a close, and that other Confederate commanders would follow Lee’s example. But the fighting was not quite over: rather than staying around for the formal surrender ceremonies over the next several days, Grant announced that he would be returning to City Point the next day, and from there head to Washington.
What remains remarkable about Grant that day is the degree to which he empathized with his foe. Coming in the immediate aftermath of a correspondence where Lee’s pride and stubbornness may have gotten the better of him, one might have excused Grant had he exhibited smug satisfaction at meeting Bobby Lee at last. After all, Ahab had finally captured Moby Dick. And yet Grant did not give in to those human emotions, precisely because of his humanity. He might be a man of few words, but in the few words he scribbled down in Wilmer McLean’s parlor, he had done a great deed. For all his confidence, he was also a man of compassion, and he was a man who knew that as much as Lee’s surrender brought an end to bloodshed, how Grant secured it set the stage for the peace that would make that war worth fighting.
Grant would never return to Appomattox. What he had done there in his single visit, however, remains. It was Ulysses S. Grant’s greatest day.