It must have been quite a moment when Civil War generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee shook hands inside the front parlor of the Wilmer McLean house (Appomattox Court House) on April 9, 1865. After four bloody years and 600,000-plus dead Americans, the Civil War was finally over.
If I had the power to travel back in time, Lee’s surrender at Appomattox would be high on my list. To witness those indelible moments inside the parlor must have been beyond moving.
The contrast between the two generals was striking. Fresh from the battlefield, Grant came in a dirty, dust-covered uniform with mud-spattered boots. Lee, just the opposite. The great Virginia general was dressed in his best uniform, pressed and clean, his boots shining and his sword polished, gleaming in the sunlight.
When they took their seats, Grant sat at a simple wooden table while Lee positioned himself behind an ornate marble top.
Grant remembered seeing Lee during the Mexican War. Lee had no recollection of ever seeing Grant. Either way, it was the first time the two men had seen one another face-to-face in nearly two decades.
The conversation immediately turned warm and cordial, a deep respect between them. Grant, out of character, went completely off the subject enjoying the moments he would have with Lee. Ironically, it was Lee who steered Grant back to the business at hand…the surrender of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
Grant asked Lee if he needed anything. Lee turned the attention toward his men in the field, who he knew were starving after the Army of the Potomac surrounded them with five times the manpower. Grant ordered up 30,000 rations and fed Lee’s men. Lee said it would have a very happy effect on his soldiers and do much toward reconciling the country.
Grant’s terms of surrender were especially generous. The southern soldiers would not be tried for treason and allowed to freely make their way back home in time for spring planting…back home as Americans rather than Confederates. They could also keep their sidearms.
With the business at hand complete, they shook hands again. And with a tip of his hat, Lee, his eyes ablaze, calmly walked out and mounted his horse, Traveler. When Union soldiers began to cheer, they were immediately ordered to silence. For Grant, it would not be acceptable at that moment in time to relish in a fallen foe, especially one who had fought so hard for so long.
“On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glorying, nor motion of man standing again at the order, but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding.” Union Commander Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.
What I wouldn’t give to have been there for those moments. A silent salute…
“The night they drove old Dixie down…and all the bells were ringing…”