Column: Joan Waugh on Grant’s and Lee’s ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ ending the Civil War

A century and a half ago, a brief encounter between two men, a Northerner and Southerner, altered the course of American history. I don’t mean what you probably have in mind; the Lincoln assassination happened five days later. It was the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. For modern Americans, President Lincoln’s assassination has eclipsed the surrender that signaled the end of a savage war. But at the time, souvenir hunters emptied the farmhouse in the village of Appomattox Court House, Va., where the surrender was signed; in later years, the victorious Grant would be twice elected president. Joan Waugh is a history professor at UCLA (where Grant’s grandson once chaired the geology department), and her award-winning book “U.S. Grant, American Hero, American Myth” puts the spotlight back on an event that helped to knit a riven nation back together.

This surrender was of such magnitude — the effective close to a war that cost as many as 750,000 lives in a nation of little more than 30 million people. How did it become so overlooked?

Every generation selects events from the past that fit its current interests. There’s no doubt the Lincoln assassination, less than a week later, is a huge event, but for decades after, Appomattox was just as big a symbol, in a positive way, as the assassination was [negatively]. It still exerts a powerful influence.

What’s its significance, beyond the end of the fighting?

Lincoln always wanted a generous peace agreement. This was a very dangerous time, the end of a war and the beginning of Reconstruction, and all we have to do is pick up a newspaper and see other civil wars that never seem to end to think about how much worse it could have been. There would be no massive retaliation, no treason trials. Soldiers could go home with their horses. At Lincoln’s meetings with Grant and [Gen. William T.] Sherman, in March 1865, he said, “Let ‘em up easy.”


How much of the surrender, the “gentlemen’s agreement” as it was called, was dependent on the personalities of Lee and Grant?

It was huge. The chemistry, the towering reputations of both men. Both of them had strong ethical and moral compasses, both were very careful men who thought through the process they were undertaking. They had a deliberate approach to decision-making and both had a genius for meeting unexpected situations.

From his time at West Point, Grant knew almost all of the major officers in the war, North and South. He had lived across the river from Kentucky; his wife was from a slave-owning family. He knew the Southern mind and heart. He understood from the huge costs of war for both sides — for the South, much of its land destroyed; how many men dead — how difficult Reconstruction could be.

How did these two commanders of the greatest armies of their day break the ice?

They knew each other in the Mexican War, although Lee was of much higher rank than Grant. The ice-breaking part of it was small talk, remembering the Mexican War, and then Lee brought Grant up short to get down to the business of the surrender.

The theater of the surrender made almost as enduring an impression as its terms: Grant in a muddy field uniform because his dress uniform had been lost; Lee wearing an immaculate general’s kit, with a jeweled sword.

Lee, the perfect Southern gentleman, bookish and courtly and aristocratic. And Grant, who, like many Northern men, wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth but worked his way up, oftentimes considered a failure but who came back, who was decisively democratic in his bearing, his clothing. He embodied Northern democracy. I think there are great similarities between the soldier-statesmen Grant and Eisenhower. Both were generals presiding over a defining war and two-term presidents presiding over a defining peace.

Grant was also concerned about what we would call the optics of the event. He ordered his soldiers not to cheer the surrender, and he and his officers doffed their hats in salute as Lee rode away.

There was an appreciation of Grant’s gesture, that he didn’t make it a big deal, he never had a victory dance, he refused to go to [the Confederate capital of] Richmond. It’s just the way he was. Nowadays, I don’t know if our culture would allow that.

Lee’s birthday is still a holiday in some Southern states, but Grant is all but forgotten except for the “who’s buried in Grant’s tomb” jokes. What happened?

My theory is it’s the towering influence of the historians of the Lost Cause, the romantic depiction of the Confederacy. That’s influenced generations of academic historians as well. The diminishment of the importance of the Union cause, [contentions] that Grant was a brutal general, a corrupt Reconstruction president. For Lost Cause historians, “corruption” was trying to make the South a place for blacks and whites to live in peace with some kind of social equality — that affected Grant’s reputation.

In addition, post-Vietnam, we have seen military figures treated as if they were criminals, especially in movies about the Civil War, where Northern officers and troops are portrayed as simply out for murder. The most influential Civil War film of all time is “Gone with the Wind.” I love it, but it’s a perfect brief for the Lost Cause.

I think Grant’s reputation is undergoing a profound change [for the better] in academia. I don’t know that it will ever reach popular culture. He has been so dismissed, yet you have a two-term president, elected by a large majority in 1868 and an even larger one in 1872, who was considered a success on many levels. As Reconstruction has had a tremendous change in academic literature since the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, it was bound to happen to Grant as well.

Do you agree with Civil War historian Bruce Catton that the final line of Grant’s surrender offer to Lee is one of the great sentences in American history? “Each officer and man will be allowed to return to his home, not to be disturbed by U.S. authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.”

I do. Both Grant and Lincoln had the ability to perfectly render an idea that had profound consequences. When he wrote that sentence, it was a guarantee of the most powerful man in the country, next to Lincoln, that there would be no retribution, that there would be a generous peace. The surrender reigns as one of the supremely perfect moments of American history — the two different commanders who met and forged the nation anew.

Joan Waugh will give a free public lecture on Appomattox at UCLA’s law school on April 9.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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