Grant and Lee
On April 9, 1865, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant of the United States Army and General Robert E. Lee of the Confederate States of America’s Army of Northern Virginia gathered along with their officers in the parlor of the home of Wilmer McLean in Appomattox Court House, Virginia. After four bloody, tragic years and several punishing months that saw General Lee’s movements shadowed at every turn by General Grant’s Army, the venerable Confederate commander realized that further resistance was futile and began the long process of healing the broken nation by surrendering his beloved Army of Northern Virginia to General Grant.
When dramatic, world-changing events in history take place, we rarely get firsthand accounts from the principals involved. Fortunately for us, Ulysses S. Grant spent the last weeks of his life putting the finishing touches on his autobiography, Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (BOOK•KINDLE), which spotlight many of the most important moments of the Civil War through the eyes of one of that war’s biggest heroes. Grant finished writing his book just a few days before he died in 1885, but what’s most amazing about Grant’s Memoirs is that, nearly 130 years later, they remain one of the most readable books ever written by an American President. Grant’s insight into the proceedings at Appomattox are valuable because it isn’t secondary material from a journalist, or the memories of a junior officer with opinion and prejudices that might cloud reality. Instead, the Memoirs are Grant’s remembrances of a monumental event in American History, and Grant’s honesty – for better and worse – has rarely been challenged.
In the Memoirs, Grant remembers suffering from a blinding migraine headache in the hours before his meeting with General Lee as representatives attempted to set conditions for the meeting between the two generals. As Grant later wrote, when an officer brought a note to from Lee that confirmed the Confederate general’s interest in meeting and setting terms for surrender, “the instant I saw the contents of the note I was cured.”
As Grant prepared to meet Lee at Wilmer McLean’s home, the Union commander almost certainly thought about the vast differences between him and his Confederate counterpart. Lee was 15 years older than Grant, and while they both attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, their records couldn’t have been more different. Lee wanted nothing more than to be a great career soldier, graduated 2nd in his class, and made it through four years at West Point without a single demerit. Grant had dozens of demerits, many of which came from refusing to attend church services, and graduated 21st out of 39 cadets in his class. That he graduated at all was an accomplishment in Grant’s eyes. As he later wrote, “A military life had no charms for me, and I had not the faintest idea of staying in the Army even if I should be graduated.”
After the men graduated from West Point (Lee in 1829, Grant in 1843), they embarked on military careers that took them to very different places, but on April 9, 1865, General Grant was thinking about the first time he had actually met General Lee. Their paths had crossed in the Mexican War (1846-1848) when they served together for some time under General Winfield Scott. Later in life, Grant was particularly outspoken about the injustice of the Mexican War, but he fought bravely during his time in Mexico under General Scott and, especially, under General Zachary Taylor. Grant and Lee were both decorated for their service in Mexico, along with many fellow junior soldiers whose names would become famous in the North and South during the Civil War. In his Memoirs, Grant wrote about his memories of his earlier meeting with Robert E. Lee, but doubted Lee would remember him:
“I had known General Lee in the old army, and had served with him in the Mexican War; but did not suppose, owing to the difference in our age and rank, that he would remember me; while I would more naturally remember him distinctly, because he was the chief of staff of General Scott in the Mexican War.”
Ulysses S. Grant wouldn’t make it easy for General Lee to recognize him, either. One of the only positives to come out of the Mexican War for Ulysses S. Grant was his admiration of Zachary Taylor, who was Grant’s commanding general for most of the war. Taylor – later the 12th President – was nicknamed “Old Rough and Ready” and remembered fondly by his soldiers for his casual, comfortable manner. General Taylor was a sloppy dresser who often wore an odd mix of military dress and civilian clothing, loved to shade his face a large sun hat, and was unorthodox in almost every manner. While Grant may not have been a good student at West Point, he had no problem picking up on the lessons he learned from General Taylor. Robert E. Lee was always impeccably dressed, much like his Mexican War commander, General Winfield Scott. In fact, Grant’s comparison of Scott and Taylor would just as easily work with Lee and Grant:
“I had now been in battle with two leading commanders conducting armies in a foreign land. The contrast between the two was very marked. General Taylor never wore uniform, but dressed himself entirely for comfort. He moved about the field in which he was operating to see through his own eyes the situation. Often he would be without staff officers, and when he was accompanied by them there was no prescribed order in which they followed. He was very much given to sit his horse side-ways – with both feet on one side – particularly on the battlefield. General Scott was the reverse in all these particulars. He always wore all the uniform prescribed or allowed by law when he inspected his lines; word would be sent to all division and brigade commanders in advance, notifying them of the hour when the commanding general might be expected. This was done so that all the army might be under arms to salute their chief as he passed. On these occasions he wore his dress uniform, cocked hat, aiguillettes, sabre and spurs. His staff proper, besides all officers constructively on his staff – engineers, inspectors, quartermasters, etc., that could be spared – followed, also in uniform and in prescribed order. Orders were prepared with great care and evidently with the view that they should be a history of what followed…But with their opposite characteristics both were great and successful soldiers; both were true, patriotic and upright in all their dealings. Both were pleasant to serve under – Taylor was pleasant to serve with. Scott saw more through the eyes of his staff officers than through his own. His plans were deliberately prepared, and fully expressed in orders. Taylor saw for himself, and gave orders to meet the emergency without reference to how they would read in history.”
While Robert E. Lee was not insufferable like Winfield Scott, he was still, even after several brutal weeks of fighting, dressed in a way that would have led any outside observer to believe he was receiving the surrender on that day. The messages that Grant and Lee had exchanged that day had resulted in a meeting quicker than Grant had expected, so the Union general was wearing his usual battlefield dress as he prepared to meet the dashing General Lee. In his Memoirs, Grant acknowledges feeling a bit self-conscious about his “rough garb”. “I was without a sword,” Grant remembered, “as I usually was when on horseback on the field, and wore a soldier’s blouse for a coat, with (only) the shoulder straps of my rank to indicate to the army who I was.” If the war had been decided with a fashion contest between Grant and Lee, we’d all be singing “Dixie”. According to Grant:
“General Lee was dressed in a full uniform which was entirely new, and was wearing a sword of considerable value, very likely the sword which had been presented by the State of Virginia; at all events, it was an entirely different sword from the one that would ordinarily be worn in the field. In my rough traveling suit, the uniform of a private with the straps of lieutenant-general, I must have contrasted very strangely with a man so handsomely dressed, six feet high and of faultless form.”
Upon entering McLean’s home, Grant and Lee shook hands and the officers who accompanied the two generals were silent. Grant, who had been elated earlier to meet with Lee and bring the war to a close, found himself feeling “sad and depressed”. “I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.” Grant had so much respect for Lee that simply meeting him face-to-face in such a moment left the Union general nervous. As they sat in the silent and still parlor of Wilmer McLean’s home, Grant tried to break the ice by mentioning their previous service – on the same side – in Mexico. To Grant’s surprise, Lee remembered him well:
“We soon fell into a conversation about old army times. He remarked that he remembered me very well in the old army; and I told him that as a matter of course I remembered him perfectly, but from the difference in our rank and years (there being about sixteen years’ difference in our ages), I had thought it very likely that I had not attracted his attention sufficiently to be remembered by him after such a long interval. Our conversation grew so pleasant that I almost forgot the object of our meeting.”
General Lee didn’t forget, however. Lee steered the conversation back towards the terms of his army’s surrender. Grant’s initials “U.S.” had gained him the nickname of “Unconditional Surrender” Grant throughout the war, but the truth was that he didn’t have a template for the conditions required of his vanquished opponents. Grant was aware of President Abraham Lincoln’s hope for a smooth reconciliation as the country began healing in the wake of the Civil War. With this in mind and his deep respect for General Lee’s leadership, Grant set terms so generous that Lee was surprised. Lee’s soldiers would have their names recorded, surrender any weapons that were supplied by the Confederate government, and take an oath to not take up arms against the United States. After doing that, they would be free to return to their homes peacefully and without threat of prosecution for insurrection or treason. When Lee mentioned that most of the horses in his army were the personal property of the soldiers who rode them, Grant allowed soldiers to take any horses or personal belongings back home with them. Grant even allowed the defeated Confederate soldiers keep their sidearms. When General Lee saw the generous terms set forth by General Grant, he was astonished. With emotion, he thanked Grant for his generosity, telling the Union commander, “This will have a very happy effect on my army.”
With the surrender signed, General Lee mentioned to Grant that many of his soldiers had gone without food except for dried corn for several days and were in bad shape. Grant immediately authorized enough food to feed 25,000 men and gave orders to a nearby quartermaster to provide Lee’s army with as much food as they needed for their return to their homes. After exiting the McLean home, Lee climbed on to his beloved horse, Traveller, and observers noted that Lee, for the first time anyone could remember, looked as if he was having a hard time controlling his emotions. Grant was preparing to mount his horse, Cincinnati, when the two generals locked eyes once more. In a show of deep respect, Grant removed his hat and saluted Lee – and every Union soldier in proximity followed their commander’s example. Lee raised his hat and saluted Grant and rode off.
Shortly after Grant and Lee parted ways, the news of Lee’s surrender began to spread throughout the Union encampments. Union soldiers began cheering and firing salutes while their defeated Confederate opponents were well within earshot. Grant immediately ordered an end to the celebration. “The Confederates were now our prisoners,” wrote Grant, “and we did not want to exult over their downfall.”
The next day, General Lee sent a brief, but eloquent, order to his Army of Northern Virginia in which he acknowledged that they had “been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources” and that he was “determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen”. Lee’s order informed the men of their freedom to return to their homes, and closed by thanking his soldiers for their service and bidding them “an affectionate farewell.” Before Grant returned to Washington, D.C. on April 10th for a meeting with President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, the Union commander stopped by where Lee’s army had set up camp. Grant and Lee sat atop their horses between the lines of their respective armies and talked for nearly an hour, both generals expressing their hope that the Confederate armies still in the field in pockets of the South would follow Lee’s lead so the nation could begin the difficult work of healing. Within a few hours, they were on their way home, heading in opposite directions, Grant to the North and Lee to the South.
Robert E. Lee died in 1870, and despite the cause that most people think he fought for (Lee abhorred slavery; the State of Virginia came before the Union in Lee’s mind), the Confederacy’s commanding general has largely become an American hero throughout the entire country. Maybe it was due to Lee’s support of the abolition of slavery or maybe it is because Lee is considered an American ideal of an honest and honorable warrior with quiet strength, but somehow Lee has made it to the Pantheon of American leaders that Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson will likely never reach. In the last five years of his life, General Lee served as the president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia – a school that was renamed Washington and Lee University after Lee’s death.
Grant lived until 1885, but his later life was a bit more star-crossed than Lee’s. Grant turned down a request to accompany President Lincoln to the theater less than a week after Appomattox. Lincoln was killed that night. Grant feuded with Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, after the Civil War, and sought the Presidency himself in 1868. Grant served two terms as President (1869-1877), and his Administration was riddled with corruption, although Grant himself was not personally corrupt. Grant’s reputation as President has begun to improve over the past few years due to his work on the only meaningful Civil Rights legislation passed until the mid-20th Century. After his Presidency, Grant went on a 2-year-long world tour with his wife and was greeted around the world by adoring fans interested in seeing an American President who also happened to be the hero of the Civil War. In 1880, Grant sought an unprecedented third term as President, but narrowly lost the Republican nomination to James Garfield. Sadly, Grant’s finances were liquidated by crooked financial partners in the 1880’s and he was forced to sell historic artifacts from his Civil War service in order to survive. In 1884, Grant was diagnosed with throat cancer, and became determined to make money for his wife’s benefit in case of his death. Mark Twain signed a deal with Grant to write his Memoirs, and Grant finished the book just a few days before his death in July 1885. Grant’s book was a critical and commercial success, and left his wife with financial stability.
We have so much information on Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee that we can piece together nearly every aspect of their lives, and often in their own words. Few Americans have affected the lives of so many people while also having such an influence on one another. There are hundreds of books about Grant, Lee, the Civil War, and dozens of combinations of subjects featuring those two great military leaders and their times. What most people don’t know is that Appomattox wasn’t the last time Grant and Lee saw each other.
On May 1, 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant welcomed the president of Washington College, Robert E. Lee, to the White House. Lee had considered inviting President-elect Grant to visit Washington College before Grant was inaugurated, but Lee didn’t want to make a request that his busy former adversary felt obligated to accept. After Grant was inaugurated in March 1869, he learned of Lee’s interest in visiting with him, and the President invited Lee to the White House. Unfortunately, there are no definitive answers to what was said between President Grant and General Lee. They two men only spent about 15 minutes together, and one observer suggested that there was a bit of sadness when the two men saw each other. Perhaps it was because of what they put each other through five years earlier, but perhaps it was the fact that the two former generals were older and in much different places.
What’s remarkable about the short meeting is that Robert E. Lee may have been the only American in history to visit the White House after being stripped of his citizenship. A bill to restore General Lee’s American citizenship was passed by Congress in 1975 – 110 years after the Civil War ended – and President Gerald Ford signed off on the restoration of Lee’s citizenship in a ceremony at Arlington House, the home that Lee lived in before it was occupied by Union soldiers during the Civil War and turned into a National Cemetery.
After just fifteen minutes on May 1, 1869, President Grant and General Lee once again parted ways. We don’t know what they said or how they felt or what they thought as they parted. The two men who had been such a huge part of each other’s lives would never see each other again. Perhaps the most amazing thing is that Grant and Lee could come together at all after chasing each other throughout the country and killing thousands of Americans while trying to destroy each other. It’s a tribute to the two men that they were living in a country still needing time to heal, and they stepped forward – leading the way just like they did while waging war – to model for Americans how to wage peace.