Grant, Lee, and Modern Political Discourse

Peace in Union (Thomas Nast)
Peace in Union (Thomas Nast)

At dawn on April 9, 1865, there was a small battle near the village of Appomattox Court House, Virginia. The Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, representing the Confederate States of America, attacked and forced back the United States of America’s Union lines. About 500 Confederate and 164 Union soldiers were killed or wounded in the skirmish.

But after reaching the crest of a ridge, Confederate soldiers saw thousands and thousands of Union troops lined up for battle. It was immediately clear to everybody present that the Confederates were doomed. The tattered and tired Army of Northern Virginia, with about 28,000 troops, faced about 100,000 well-rested and well-fed soldiers from the Union Armies of the Potomac, the James, and the Shenandoah.

General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, resigned himself to defeat. “Then there is nothing left for me to do but to go and see General Grant and I would rather die a thousand deaths.”

Lee sent word to General Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Army of the Potomac, that he wished to meet to discuss surrender. They corresponded for some time, establishing a cease fire and choosing the Appomattox Court House home of Wilmer McLean as the location for their meeting.

Grant offered generous terms for the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia. The officers and leaders would be required to agree not to take up arms against the United States. Arms and artillery would be turned over to the Union armies, although the Confederates were permitted to keep their sidearms and their horses. And that was it; the Confederate army would be permitted to disperse and its men could go home.

The war between the states had raged for four years. It is impossible to know how many died, but estimates range from about 700,000 to 900,000—including about 50,000 civilians. At least 400,000 more were injured. As is typically the case in all-out war, many of the men fighting for either side had come to hate the enemy. To the Confederates, the Union was a power-hungry invasion force. To the Union, the Confederates were turncoats and traitors. Both sides sincerely believed that they were right, and the enemy was wrong.

So it is no surprise what happened when Lee and his entourage left the McLean house and word of the surrender reached the Union lines. The soldiers began to cheer and celebrate, firing their guns into the air in exaltation. After all the fighting, the death, the pain, and the terror of war—and the heartache of having watched their beloved United States rend itself in two—it was finally coming to an end, and they had won. And within a month, the remaining Confederate armies would surrender and the war would be over.

But as soon as the celebration had begun, General Grant ordered that it be stopped. Writing in his memoirs, he said, “I at once sent word, however, to have it stopped. The Confederates were now our prisoners, and we did not want to exult over their downfall.”

Brigadier General Joshua Chamberlain was chosen by the Union’s military leaders to lead a surrender ceremony the next day. Writing in his own memoirs, he said, “The momentous meaning of this occasion impressed me deeply. I resolved to mark it by some token of recognition, which could be no other than a salute of arms. . . . Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood: men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond;—was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured?”

This, Chamberlain said, was “Honor answering honor.”

How different might the history of the American south have been if men like Grant and Chamberlain had been responsible for the process of reconstruction, rather than the so-called ‘Radical Republicans’ who seemed intent on retribution and punishment. Both of these men intended for a rapid and complete reunification of the Union and Confederate states, but the hard-edged, punitive version of reconstruction imposed by the Congress resulted in resentment and opposition in the south and perpetuated the old animosities, only pushing them (for a time) underground. As a sign of this animosity, racial hatred retrenched; whites lashed out in a sort of neo-Confederacy that formed hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan and, as soon as free elections resumed, enacted ‘Jim Crow’ racial segregation laws to disenfranchise the blacks who had so recently been enslaved.

The poison of racism would not have gone away overnight in any case . . . but perhaps, had the victors been a bit more forgiving and understanding, and shown some more respect for their vanquished countrymen, it might not have festered the way it did for another hundred years, and perhaps we would be a more united version of the United States today.

There is a lesson here. At the end of a brutal and destructive war that had torn a great nation in two, Generals Grant and Chamberlain still treated their enemies like honorable, dignified human beings. Rather than gloating and celebrating their downfall, they instead offered respect and even friendship. Keep in mind that these were people who had spent four years trying to kill each other.

Contrast this with today, when even the most trivial of political disagreements—say, an argument about who uses what bathroom—results in people throwing every insult in the book at each other. We boycott businesses and even entire states, and declare those who disagree with us to be bigots or perverts who stand against all that is good and right. We fling threats and lawsuits and try to force others to conform with our views, and when that fails, we resort to public shaming, bullying, insults, and slander.

There is nothing wrong with having an opinion, even if that opinion is unpopular. But there is something wrong with denying the honor and dignity of those who disagree with you . . . especially if you haven’t even bothered to listen to and consider their views. This doesn’t change because your opinion happens to be the one that has public approval or popularity on its side. Indeed, hard-headed insistence that the majority view is right and all others are wrong only assures the intransigence of the very minority opinions you hope to change. And we also mustn’t forget that sometimes the minority opinion turns out to be right in the end. After all, it was not very long ago that the heliocentric model (the earth revolving around the sun) was a minority view held only by a few eccentrics.

I’ve been complaining about the degradation of political discourse in this country for a long time . . . all the way back in 2005 I said, “If we expect our government to start functioning properly again we need to stop screaming catchy one-liners at one another and calling it a discussion.” But it is only getting worse. Too many people begin with an assumption that those who think like they do are good people, and those who think differently are bad people. We can’t even offer our opposition the presumption of good intentions.

The battle over what bathroom transgender people ought to use is a proxy fight between two defensible, reasonable positions . . . one in which sex and gender are intrinsically connected with one another (where a disconnect between them must be viewed as mental illness), and one in which sex and gender are separable traits (where a disconnect between them is innocuous and must be accepted). Those who support the first view aren’t a bunch of hateful bigots trying to hurt a helpless minority group. Those who support the second aren’t a bunch of perverts trying to let men into the little girls’ room. Both sides believe that what they are doing is right, and both sides, if they would stop yelling, can make a persuasive argument.

That is not to say that both sides actually are right. I have my own opinion about that (and, most likely, so do you). I am not arguing for moral relativism or an absurd ‘I’m okay, you’re okay’ detente. No, I am arguing that we should have the debate . . . and we should have it civilly, without name calling, without threats, without compulsion, and without assuming the worst about each other.

When General Grant treated General Lee like an honorable human being, he wasn’t selling-out. He was not endorsing the Confederacy, or slavery, or state’s rights, or anything else. Grant still had his own loyalties and his own beliefs. Indeed, he worried that the war would continue on indefinitely, and tried to induce Lee to “advise the surrender of all armies.” Lee declined. As Grant wrote in his memoirs, “Lee said, that he could not do that without consulting [Confederate States President Jefferson Davis (DS)] first. I knew there was no use to urge him to do anything against his ideas of what was right.”

Grant believed that Lee was wrong . . . in fact, Grant believed (probably correctly) that Lee’s refusal to call on the other armies to surrender would cost lives and be harmful to both the Union and the erstwhile Confederacy. And even in the face of that, he accepted that Lee was a human being with his own values and his own loyalties, and they were not inherently more or less worthy than Grant’s own. Lee needed to make his own moral choices, and needed to be free to do so without coercion, without force, without anger, and without hate.

And if Grant and Lee could show that kind of respect to one another, maybe we—left and right, Republican and Democrat, sexual revolutionary and moral traditionalist, theist and atheist—could do the same.

Scott Bradford has been putting his opinions on his website since 1995—before most people knew what a website was. He has been a professional web developer in the public- and private-sector for over twenty years. He is an independent constitutional conservative who believes in human rights and limited government, and a Catholic Christian whose beliefs are summarized in the Nicene Creed. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Public Administration from George Mason University. He loves Pink Floyd and can play the bass guitar . . . sort-of. He’s a husband, pet lover, amateur radio operator, and classic AMC/Jeep enthusiast.