One hundred and fifty years ago today we saw the greatest victory in American history. Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia on this date in the crossroads village of Appomattox Courthouse. Gen. Lee was dressed in his finest gray uniform. He wore a gold sash and a jeweled ceremonial sword.
Ulysses S. Grant was the commanding general of all Union armies. He arrived late at the home of Wilmer McLean to receive the surrender of Lee’s army. Although there were yet Confederate forces in the field (notably Gen. Joseph Johnston’s army in North Carolina and Gen. Kirby Smith’s in Texas), everyone knew that Lee’s surrender marked the effective end of four bloody years of America’s terrible Civil War. We had lost 630,000 young men in battle.
In Washington, the commissioner of public buildings, Benjamin Brown French, strung a huge banner across the face of the Capitol. The Capitol’s dome had just recently been completed. President Lincoln had pressed to finish the work. It would symbolize the enduring nature of our sacred Union, he thought.
Lighted at night, the banner read:
This is the Lord’s Doing; It is Marvelous in our Eyes
Most Americans at the time would have recognized the Bible reference. It is from 118th Psalm, verse 23. It is hard to imagine that a similar Scripture passage could be used on a public building today. The atheizers would cry out that it was a violation of the First Amendment. They would demand equal time for their own messages of doubt and disbelief. As my colleague, FRC’s distinguished Senior Fellow Ken Blackwell, has written, “The fanatical authoritarianism of the political left is plunging this country headlong into a very dark place from which many nations never return.”
That dark place was far away from the “stillness at Appomattox.” The fierce struggles that had gone on for days came to a sudden halt. Young soldiers had been killed as recently as that Sunday morning. But as the two West Pointers—Lee and Grant--met in the front parlor of the McLean House, all was silent and subdued.
Gen. Grant had been suffering a blinding headache for more than a day prior to meeting Lee, but he would later recall that as soon as Lee’s written message came to him on the road, his headache departed. An expert horseman, Grant rode swiftly to meet the Southern commanding general. Grant could have been shot at almost any point along the way by a Southern sharpshooter, or even killed by “friendly fire” in the confusion of the opposing lines in these last hours of combat.
For their historic encounter, Grant wore a private’s uniform jacket with his general’s stars pinned on the shoulder. His uniform was still spattered with spring mud. Lee, taller, and immaculately attired, had told his lieutenants he might become Grant’s prisoner by the end of the day and should appear at his best.
He was not to be Grant’s prisoner. Nor were any of the remaining thousands of the starving rebel host made prisoners. When he was informed that many of these Confederate scarecrows had not eaten in days, Grant ordered generous provisions for them all. Many of those rations were even supplied by Grant’s black soldiers.
With Lee, Grant agreed to let the rebel officers keep their horses and to allow any enlisted man who claimed a horse or mule to take his animal home for spring planting. “This will have a most beneficial effect upon my men,” said Lee.
It would help also to reconcile the bleeding nation. Grant was following President Lincoln’s orders to the letter. Lincoln had never used the word “enemy” or “foe” in any public address. At his Second Inaugural, just a month prior, he had spoken of the need to “bind up the nation’s wounds.” In an important shipboard conference with Generals Grant and Sherman and Admiral Porter, the President had urged his commanders to “let `em up easy.” It was a wrestler’s term for being gracious to a defeated opponent.
When Gen. Grant returned from his meeting with Gen. Lee, his troops began shouts of acclamation and his powerful artillery commenced a One-Hundred Gun salute to the Union victory. Grant immediately ordered a cease fire. “The rebels are our countrymen once again,” he said, and he would permit no word or gesture to humiliate them.
Instead, Grant designated his heroic subordinate, Major General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of Maine, to oversee the formal surrender of Confederate flags and weapons. Chamberlain was a good choice. He had been the one to stand with his Twentieth Maine volunteers at Little Round Top at Gettysburg nearly two years earlier. His regiment of fishermen and lumberjacks had held at a critical moment in that crucial thee-day battle.
As these ragged Southern soldiers laid down their weapons and their rebel flags, Chamberlain saluted his opposite number, Gen. John Bell Gordon. Gordon, in the spirit of the day, tapped his horse’s flanks with his spurs and executed a most graceful bow in return. Both men would carry the wounds of war to their graves.
Americans are now in a great controversy over life, marriage, religious freedom, and civil rights. We even see a clash over the teaching of America’s past. Spurred by the advocate of a so-called Common Core, some of our brightest history students will be taught of our history with hardly a mention of Appomattox.
So much of our nation’s exceptional character can be seen in that “Stillness at Appomattox.” It represented the best of America. Gen. Grant would later write that he had to honor the valor and devotion of his opponents—even though he thought their “Lost Cause” was “one of the worst that men ever fought for.”
In this, Grant reflected the deep convictions of his Commander-in-Chief. Abraham Lincoln’s long battle against slavery was finally culminating in that dreadful institution’s alleviation from American soil.
Yet despite, their mutual antipathy for the central cause of the horrors of four years of war, both Lincoln and Grant wanted to welcome, not indemnify, their erring brothers back into the union. o other country in the Nineteenth Century dealt with a massive rebellion with such leniency, such compassion, “with malice toward none.” In neighboring Canada, the British hanged rebels who demanded no more than a government by consent of the governed. In Mexico, the French-backed “Emperor” Maximilian would be put up against a wall and shot by nationalist forces. In France, just a few years after Appomattox, thousands of Paris “Communards” were shot by the forces of the born-in-blood Third Republic.
Americans need the Appomattox story today. President Reagan said it in his Farewell Message: “If we forget what we have done, we will forget who we are.” Remembering Appomattox—the Lord’s doing—is an important way of remembering who we are.