09 April 2006 by Published in: General musings 6 comments

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the 141st anniversary of an event as important as the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House. 141 years ago today, Lee surrendered his army to Ulysses S. Grant in Wilmer McLean’s parlor. The surrender was the culmination of a relentless pursuit of Lee’s retreating army by the Federals in what was clearly Phil Sheridan’s finest hour.

Lee’s surrender began the process of healing the national wounds rent before and during the Civil War. In large part, this was due to Grant’s realization that he had to offer his adversary generous terms of surrender so that the Confederates could give up their cause with dignity. Grant permitted officers to keep their side arms and the men were permitted to keep their own horses and personal baggage. These simple gestures–intended to permit the enemy to keep their dignity–began the process of healing the nation’s deep wounds.

Likewise, Robert E. Lee deserves a vast amount of credit for realizing that continuing the war effort would bring about a useless effusion of blood. Lee easily could have taken the low road. Instead of surrendering, he could have ordered his command to take to the hills and conduct a guerrilla war that might still be raging today. The men of his army might would have done pretty much anything he ordered, so it is no inconceivable that they might have headed for the hills and a lifetime of bushwhacking.

Jay Winik has written a much-acclaimed but, in my humble opinion, vastly overrated book called April 1865: The Month that Saved America. Winik’s thesis–overstated, in my opinion–is that the generous surrender terms granted to first Lee by Grant, and later to Johnston by Sherman, were critical to bringing about an actual end of the war, and not drag it on as an endless guerrilla conflict. While I think Winik wrote a good book, I don’t believe it is the masterpiece that many–including the present President of the United States–have declared it to be.

Abraham Lincoln had intended to let the South up easy, and had Lincoln not been assassinated, the face of Reconstruction would have been very different indeed. The fact that Lincoln was assassinated by a Confederate sympathizer gave the Radical Republicans an excuse to impose harsh terms upon the South instead of following Lincoln’s plan.

It is, therefore, not beyond the realm of reason to argue that with his assassin’s bullets, John Wilkes Booth nearly undid all of the good done by Robert E. Lee when Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox on the generous terms offered by the Union commander. Fortunately, calmer heads prevailed when Gen. Joseph E. Johnston realized that there was no reason to continue the war in North Carolina once Lee surrendered. Johnston had a nearly insurmountable lead on Sherman’s pursuing army, and Johnston might have continued running indefinitely. Instead, Johnston, a wise man, recognized that, in light of Lee’s surrender, the time had come to end the conflict. When Johnston learned that Lincoln had been assassinated, he was–and for very good reason, I might add–very concerned that Sherman might turn on him and take out the country’s anger and frustration on him and his men, but Sherman was a greater man than that. Sherman, in fact, wanted peace, and not just the surrender of Johnston’s army. Sherman gave Johnston peace terms, not just surrender terms, but an angry and bitter Washington ordered Sherman to revoke those terms and to offer the same terms that Grant had given Lee. Wisely, Johnston accepted those terms, and with that, the war east of the Mississippi River ended.

Again, while I firmly believe that Winik’s book greatly overstates its case, Winik’s point is nevertheless well-taken. The surrender of Lee’s army on the generous terms offered by Grant began a healing process that ultimately led to this country being the great power that it is today.

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  1. Dave Kelly
    Mon 10th Apr 2006 at 9:19 am

    You’ve been off for 5 days. Figured Savas had you electricity cut off and your house surrounded so he could go to press without another stop ๐Ÿ˜‰ .

    What do we call this? Happy surrender day?

    It’s well that old west pointers made the peace in 1865. The conservative, Club Hudson gentlemen could call on old cameraderie and a sense of national purpose to try to dig themselves out of the political quagmire – to the extent that soldiers might be permitted to do so.

    Sherman went off the deep end. I don’t think a live Lincoln could have accepted the terms WTS signed up to. (Think of David Hunter meeting Johnston and Breckenridge. No one would have gotten out of that meeting alive. )

    Not much enamored of Winik’s book. I just don’t see the average southern gentleman millionaire signing up to spend his life in a shed in the forest teaching the young to hate yankees and bushwacking postmen for pension checks. That’s just not what Club Ruling Class went to war for.

    The process of healing… I’m surprised Levin isn’t here already doing a social history number on ya. That healing bit is KY jelly for the grim next 100 years of reconstruction, reactionism, and racism that we don’t talk about in public because it upsets the children and spoils the diner ๐Ÿ™‚ .

  2. Mon 10th Apr 2006 at 10:01 am

    Thanks Dave. I took care of that on my own site. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a “social history number” as much as it is a concern with getting the interpretation correct. Thanks for the vote of confidence.

  3. Mon 10th Apr 2006 at 1:33 pm


    I think your point is well-taken. You may well be right about Lincoln not accepting Sherman’s terms.


  4. Brooks Simpson
    Mon 10th Apr 2006 at 2:12 pm

    I’d raise reservations about the notion that Lincoln had a plan for postwar reconstruction in place, and Reconstruction scholarship now strongly suggests that Radicals did not get their way during Reconstruction. If you want to see why Reconstruction turned “harsh,” you might want to look first at Andrew Johnson and many white southerners, especially white supremacist terrorists.

  5. Mon 10th Apr 2006 at 7:15 pm


    Thanks for the input, which I appreciate. One thing I am not is an expert on Reconstruction, so I welcome the input.


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