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A Graceful Exit

June 2024
3min read

In one momentous decision, Robert E. Lee spared the United States years of divisive violence

As April 1865 neared, an exhausted Abraham Lincoln met with his two top generals, Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, to discuss the end of the Civil War, which finally seemed to be within reach. Nevertheless, the president—“having seen enough of the horrors of war”—remained deeply conflicted. To be sure, the endless sound of muddy boots tramping across City Point, Virginia, and the heavy ruts left by cannon wheels marked Grant’s preparations for a final all-out push to ensnare the Army of Northern Virginia. Yet Lincoln could not shake off his deep-seated fears that Robert E. Lee would somehow escape Grant’s clutches or, worse still, that his worn but still formidable forces would melt into the western mountains to continue the war indefinitely as marauding guerrilla bands. Nor was this idle speculation. Lee himself had once boasted that if he could get his army into the Blue Ridge Mountains, he could continue the war for another “20 years.”

Grant himself shared Lincoln’s foreboding, later confessing, “I was afraid every morning that I would awake from my sleep to hear that Lee had gone . . . and the war was prolonged.” At one point during their final meeting at City Point, a morose Lincoln pleaded, “My God! Can’t you spare more effusions of blood? We have had so much of it.” Indeed, what most haunted him now was the belief that the war might end only after some final mass slaughter, or that it would dwindle into a long twilight of barbarism or mindless retaliation, as had happened in so many other civil wars, thus unleashing an endless cycle of more bloodshed and national division. To reunite the country, Lincoln believed the conflict’s close must be marked by something profoundly different: a spirit of reconciliation.

But after four years of bloodletting, could it? Distressingly, on the fateful morning of April 9, 1865, the decision ironically seemed to be more in Lee’s hands than in Lincoln’s. When the first glimmer of sun broke around 5 a.m., Lee’s vaunted army was at last surrounded, and the aging general now faced a decision that would forever shape the nation’s history.

With gunfire still rattling in the distance, Lee convened a council of war. The talk turned to surrender, whereupon one of Lee’s top aides protested that “a little more blood more or less now makes no difference.” Instead he suggested that the Confederates play the trump card that Lincoln most dreaded and dissolve into the hills as guerrillas. As Lee carefully listened, he knew that this option was not lightly to be ignored. Just days earlier, the fleeing Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, had issued his own call for guerrilla struggle. And hundreds of Lee’s men had already vanished into the countryside on their own initiative, anticipating precisely that.

Could Lee have done it? Here, surely, was temptation. No less than for Davis, the momentous step of surrender was anathema to him. Moreover, the South’s long mountain ranges, endless swamps, and dark forests were well suited for a protracted partisan conflict. Its fighters, such as the cunning John Mosby and the hard-bitten cavalryman Nathan Bedford Forrest, not to mention young Confederates such as Jesse James, had already made life a festering hell for the Union forces with lightning hit-and-run raids. If Lee had resorted to guerrilla war, he arguably could have launched one of the most effective partisan movements in all history.

In fact, in Missouri a full-scale guerrilla war characterized by ruthless reprisals and random terror was already under way with such ferocity that the entire state had been dragged into a whirlpool of vengeance. As jurist and political philosopher Francis Lieber ominously told Lincoln, “Where these guerrillas flourish, [they create] a slaughter field.”

In hindsight, we can see that in a countrywide guerrilla war, the nation would quickly have become mired in a nightmarish conflict without fronts, without boundaries between combatant and civilian, and without end. It could well have brought about the Vietnamization of America or, even more distressingly, its Iraqization, disfiguring this country for decades, if not for all time.

But after careful deliberation, Lee rejected the option of protracted anarchy and mayhem, insisting that “we would bring on a state of affairs that would take the country years to recover from.” By this one momentous decision, he spared the United States generations of divisive violence, as well as the sepsis of malice and outrage that would have invariably delayed any true national reconciliation.

But if this were perhaps Lee’s finest day, so too it was Grant’s. At the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, Grant, heeding Lincoln’s injunction for a tender peace now that the war was close at hand, treated Lee’s defeated army with extraordinary generosity, not as hated foes but as brothers to be embraced. The most poignant moment of this most poignant of days came after the instruments of surrender were signed, and an emotion-choked Lee mounted his horse Traveler and let out a long, deep sigh. In a brilliant masterstroke, Grant walked out onto the porch of the Wilmer McLean house and, in front of all his officers and men, silently raised his hat to the man who just that morning had been his ardent adversary, saluting him as an honored comrade—a gesture quickly echoed by innumerable other Union officers.

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