General Grant Saves General Lee

On April 9, 1865, Ulysses S. Grant became the most popular man in America. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House

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An artists’ rendition of General Grant and General Lee at Appomattox Court House in April, 1865.

Civil War Victory: The Euphoria

The news was instantaneously carried by telegraph wire across the country – North and South. In the North, within minutes bells rang out, hosannas were sung and cannons boomed in celebration. Flags were raised, bunting decorated the lampposts. The horrific war was over. The Union had been saved.

In the South, the mood was subdued. Their ”cause” was lost. Their lands lay in ruins. Their way of life was destroyed. But their menfolk were coming home. The killing had stopped. The terms of surrender had been generous. Some said magnanimous. The Confederate Army laid down its arms, kept their horses and mules, and were paroled on law-abiding behavior.

General Lee admitted the terms would have a healing effect.

Civil War Victory: The Despair

Only one week was allowed for celebration. Abraham Lincoln, the President who “saved the Union,” was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. Once again the news flashed by wire throughout the country – North and South. The mood was stunned and shocked. Then it turned to profound grief.

Black crepe now replaced the flags and bunting. Lincoln’s funeral train slowly chugged its way back to Springfield, Illinois, stopping at a dozen or more cities all draped in mourning, and all providing their own final farewells. Millions of Americans came to pay their last respects.

Then the mood turned ugly.

the hero

When the Civil War ended, General Ulysses S. Grant was arguably the most famous man in the country.

Within hours of the assassination, a conspiracy plot had been uncovered. Secretary of State William Seward had been viciously attacked. Plots to assassinate both Vice President Andrew Johnson and General Grant had been somehow aborted. In all the turmoil and confusion, the likelihood that the Confederate hierarchy had been involved (either actively or in tacit agreement) was understandably believed by a large majority of Northerners. (The conspiracy, as it turned out, was limited to Booth and his cohorts.)

The Civil War: Six Weeks Later:

The six weeks following Lincoln’s Assassination were fraught with events.

Andrew Johnson had become President.

General Joseph E. Johnston had surrendered his large army to General William T. Sherman. The war was completely over now.

Jefferson Davis, erstwhile President of the Confederate States of America, had been captured, shackled and incarcerated in Fortress Monroe.

Robert E. Lee had returned to his small rented row-house in Richmond, Virginia, where he took the oath of allegiance to the re-United States, and pondered his future and how he would support his invalid wife and family.

John Wilkes Booth had been found and killed. Four of his co-conspirators were captured, imprisoned and awaiting trial.

The Grand Army of the Republic (as it would henceforth be called) paraded for two days down Pennsylvania Avenue in grand review. Then it was formally disbanded.

The Civil War: The Hanging Mood

The Booth conspirators were sentenced to be hung, and the mood of Congress and a good part of the North believed that the leaders of the Confederacy (civilian and military) should join them in the dock and on the gallows – for starting four years of such misery. Someone must take the blame.

“Hang Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree,” was the song of the day – and few seemed to object. General Lee himself expected to be arrested for treason, and had prepared his family for the inevitable.

The South had lost its best friend when Lincoln died. Now it would have a new best friend – and an unlikely one: Ulysses S. Grant, the Butcher of the Battlefield.

The Future of Robert E. Lee

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Robert E. Lee was in his late fifties and had a heart condition when the Civil War ended.

Congress demanded Lee’s arrest, trial and execution. President Andrew Johnson, on his political honeymoon, was in favor of it.   There was widespread support.

But General Grant was enraged. He had given his word. It was his name on the parole: put down your arms, go home and fight no more. We will not harm you. Robert E. Lee had done just that. His parole had not been violated.

Grant insisted that he was not a politician, and admitted that President Johnson and Congress could do as they liked. But he added that the “parole” came under military law, and that he, as General of the Army, had pledged his word, and he aimed to keep it. He stressed that General Lee had scrupulously kept his word as well.

Then Grant quietly said that if charges were pressed, he would feel compelled to resign as General of the Army. His own sense of honor would be violated. This was a blow to the new President. Ulysses S. Grant was the most famous man in the country, and perhaps the most highly regarded. Johnson, who would face many problems and crises during his tumultuous administration, could not afford to lose the support and good will of the popular General. It was also not a battle he chose to fight.

The matter of a trial for Robert E. Lee was left to lie and eventually die. No further discussion of arresting and possibly executing General Lee was pressed. If Lee ever knew that Grant had put his personal prestige and honor on the line for him, it is unknown.

Instead, the South’s aging General with a bad heart became the president of tiny Washington College in the western part of Virginia. He died in 1870.

At the time of his death, the College was renamed Washington and Lee, and Ulysses S. Grant was President of the United States.

Sources:

Flood, Charles B. – Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Saved the Union – Farrar, Straus, 2005

Lee, Captain Robert E. – Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee – Konecky & Konecky

Swanson, James L. –Manhunt: The 12-DSay Chase for Lincoln’s Killer – William Morrow, 2006

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About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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12 Responses to General Grant Saves General Lee

  1. Matt Donaghue says:

    Why did you refer to Grant as “the butcher of the battlefield?” His casualty rates over the entire war were lower than Lee’s.

    • During the Civil War, USG was widely referred to (in the North) as the Butcher of the Battlefield.” The phrase is not mine. His losses were horrendous. He realized early on that the war would be one of attrition, and he had more men to lose – and replace.

  2. Matt Donaghue says:

    Widely regarded as a butcher by whom? I am very interested in seeing the quote from a northern newspaper that wasn’t either Democrat, Copperhead or in a border state. Even if there was a pro Union source that referred to him as such, the historical assessment of him has greatly changed in the last 50 years.

    • Gazillions of people called USG Butcher of the Battlefield, including Mary Lincoln. iT doesn’t always have to be In the newspapers. And revisionism Isn,t always perfect either. hIstory is a living thing. It ebbs and flows.

      • Matt Donaghue says:

        I don’t call it revisionism. I call it the fading of the influence of “The Lost Cause.” Look up Grant’s record – captured three armies whole (Donelson, Vicksburg, Appomatox), won at Shiloh, scattered Bragg’s Army at Chattanooga, captured Vicksburg and Richmond, AND had a lower casualty/1,000 rate than Lee’s. He also, per your article was HUGELY influential in maintaining the peace following the confusion after Lincoln’s death. Even as President, he was the only President until Eisenhower who even tried to enforce civil rights for African Americans.

        And somehow people only want to call this man a drunk and a butcher.

  3. Matt Donaghue says:

    A better nickname, which he was WIDELY called, was “Unconditional Surrender” Grant.

  4. Yes. After Fts. Henry and Donelson he was Unconditional Surrender Grant.

  5. What a great story. I’m sure that now I’ll always think of this whenever I see the mural of Gen. Grant and Gen. Lee at Grant’s Tomb (http://www.grantstomb.org/ov5.HTML)

  6. What a great story. I’m sure that now I’ll always think of this whenever I see the mural of Gen. Grant and Gen. Lee at Grant’s Tomb ( http://www.grantstomb.org/ov5.html )

  7. Steven Pettyjohn says:

    Grant has been maligned by the “Lost Cause” nonsense fomented by Jubal Early. He destroyed three Confederate armies and had a lower casualty rate than Lee. He also was of a magnanimous nature in victory. Perfect no, great yes. And I agree with his attempts to enforce civil rights legislation. find a fair deal for native Americans, and in general do the right thing. He was one of the three greatest generals in American History [Washington and Eisenhower] who had to solve the greatest strategic problems [ Washington is number one with his Yorktown Campaign; Eisenhower at D-Day – never belittle what he had to do; and Grant at Vicksburg, Chattanooga and then the Overland Campaign.]

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