In The Federalist, John Daniel Davidson posted an article earlier this month marking the 150th anniversary of Appomattox:
If ever the vanquished had reason to be bitter, or a victor had cause to be punitive, it was Lee and Grant. Yet their comportment at Appomattox stands today as a testament to the ideals of national reconciliation, goodwill, and honor and respect for one’s enemy. In his epic narrative history of the Civil War, Shelby Foote recounts two instances from Appomattox that suggest Lee and Grant were both thinking of the greater good, keenly aware that an enduring peace depended in part on their humility and generosity.
Early on the morning of April 9, Lee called a conference with his generals so they could give their opinions on surrender. All of them concurred that under the circumstances surrender was the only option, except the young Brigadier General Edward Alexander, who, writes Foote, “proposed that the troops take to the woods, individually and in small groups, under orders to report to the governors of their respective states. That way, he believed, two thirds of the army would avoid capture by the Yankees.”
Lee gently rebuked Alexander, reminding him, “We must consider its effect on the country as a whole.” The men, he said, “would be without rations and under no control of officers. They would be compelled to rob and steal in order to live. They would become mere bands of marauders, and the enemy’s cavalry would pursue them and overrun many sections that may never have occasion to visit. We would bring on a state of affairs it would take the country years to recover from.” Alexander would later write: “I had not a single word to say in reply. He had answered my suggestion from a plane so far above it that I was ashamed of having made it.”
Grant’s terms of surrender were remarkable for their leniency on the Confederate Army. Although the rebels would be required to turn over their arms, artillery, and private property, Grant added an impromptu final sentence: “This will not embrace the side arms of the officers, nor their private horses or baggage.” At Lee’s request, he also allowed Confederate cavalrymen and artillerists who owned their own horses and mules to keep them, reasoning that most were small farmers and would not be able to put in a crop “to carry themselves and their families through the next winter without the aid of the horses they are now riding.”
At this crucial moment, it was most important to Grant and Lee that the soldiers return home safely and get on with civilian life as soon as possible. Returning to his men, Lee told them, “I have done the best I could for you. Go home now, and if you make as good citizens as you have soldiers, you will do well, and I shall always be proud of you.” En route back to his headquarters, Grant heard salutes and cheering begin to rise up from nearby Union batteries. He sent orders to have them stopped. “The war is over,” he said. “The rebels are our countrymen again.”