Remembering the heroism of Gen. Robert E. Lee at Appomattox

Without Robert E. Lee's decision to surrender we would not be celebrating the 150th anniversary of Appomattox at the present time.

from the painting by Louis Guillaume,“Surrender of General Lee toGeneral Grant, April 9, 1865,” owned by the Appomattox Court House National Historical Park
from the painting by Louis Guillaume,“Surrender of General Lee toGeneral Grant, April 9, 1865,” owned by the Appomattox Court House National Historical Park

WASHINGTON, April 12, 2015 – The surrender of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee to Union Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant 150 years ago effectively ended the Civil War. What few remember today is the real heroism of Robert E. Lee.

By surrendering, he was violating the orders given by Jefferson Davis, the elected leader of the Confederacy.

The story of April 1865 is not just one of decisions made, but also of decisions rejected. Lee’s rejection of continuing the war as a guerrilla battle, the preference of Jefferson Davis, and Grant’s choice to be magnanimous at Appomattox, cannot be overestimated in importance.

With the fall of Richmond, Jefferson Davis and the Confederate government were on the run. Davis, writes Professor Jay Winik of the University of Maryland in his important book “April 1865: The Month That Saved America”:

“…was thinking about such things as a war of extermination…a national war that ruins the enemy. In short, guerrilla resistance…The day after Richmond fell, Davis had called on the Confederacy to shift from a conventional war to a dynamic guerrilla war of attrition, designed to wear down the North and force it to conclude that keeping the South in the Union would not be worth the interminable pain and ongoing sacrifice.”

Davis declared,

“We have now entered upon a new phase of a struggle the memory of which is to endure for the ages. Relieved from the necessity of guarding cities and particular points, important but not vital to our defense, with an army free to move from point to point and strike in detail detachments and garrisons of the enemy, operating on the interior of our own country, where supplies are more accessible, and where the foe will be far removed from his own base and cut off from all succor in case of reverse, nothing is now needed to render our triumph certain but the exhibition of our own unquenchable resolve. Let us but will it, and we are free.”

But Robert E. Lee knew the war was over. Grant was magnanimous in victory and, Winik points out,

“…was acutely aware that on this day, what had occurred was the surrender of one army to another—not of one government to another. The war was very much on. There were a number of potentially troubling rebel commanders in the field. And there were still some 175,000 other Confederates under arms elsewhere; one-half in scattered garrisons and the rest in three remaining rebel armies. What mattered now was laying the groundwork for persuading Lee’s fellow armies to join in his surrender—and also for reunion, the urgent matter of making the nation whole again. Thus, it should be no great surprise that there was a curious restraint in Grant’s tepid victory message passed on to Washington.”

Appomattox was not preordained.

“If anything,” notes Winik, “retribution had been the larger and longer precedent. So, if these moments teemed with hope—and they did—-it was largely due to two men who rose to the occasion, to Grant’s and Lee’s respective actions: one general, magnanimous in victory, the other gracious and equally dignified in defeat, the two of them, for their own reasons and in their own ways, fervently interested in beginning the process to bind up the wounds of the last four years….Above all, this surrender defied millenniums of tradition in which rebellions typically ended in yet greater shedding of blood…One need only recall the harsh suppression of the peasants’ revolt in Germany in the 16th century, or the ravages of Alva during the Dutch rebellion, or the terrible punishments inflicted on the Irish by Cromwell and then on the Scots after Culloden, or the bloodstained vengeance executed during the Napoleonic restoration, or the horrible retaliation imposed during the futile Chinese rebellion in the mid-19th century.”

Lee was not alone in rejecting the idea of guerrilla war. Gen. Joe Johnston, offered generous terms of surrender by Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, cabled the Confederate government for instructions. He was ordered to fight on. Johnston was told to take as many of his men as possible and fall back to Georgia. Johnston refused and decided to surrender.

Later, he acknowledged that he directly “disobeyed” his instructions. But Johnston, who wired back to Davis that such a plan of retreat was “impracticable,” saw no other way. In his view, it would be “the greatest of crimes for us to attempt to continue the war.” To fight further, he declared, would only “spread ruin all over the south.” By brazenly violating the chain of command, he helped to save many lives and to heal the country.

In early May, when the Mississippi governor and the former governor of Tennessee rode out and urged Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest to retreat with his cavalry to continue a guerrilla war, Forrrest responded, “Any man who is in favor of further prosecution of this war is a fit subject for a lunatic asylum.”

The attempt to establish a “separate and independent confederacy had failed,” Forrest noted, and they should meet their responsibilities “like men.” He added, “Reason dictates and humanity demands that no more blood be shed.”

In words that echo the sentiments of Robert E. Lee before him, in places almost word for word, Forrest added:

“I have never on the field of battle sent you where I was unwilling to go myself, nor would I advise you to a course which I felt myself unwilling to pursue. you have been good soldiers, you can be good citizens. Obey the laws, preserve your honor, and the government to which you have surrendered can afford to be and will be magnanimous.”

“April 1865,” writes Professor Winik, “was incontestably one of America’s finest hours: for it was not the deranged spirit of an assassin that defined the country at war’s end, but the conciliatory spirit of leaders who led as much in peace as in war, warriors and politicians who, by their example, their exhortation, their deeds, overcame their personal rancor, their heartache, and spoke as citizens of not two lands, but one, thereby bringing the country together. True, much hard work remained. But much, too, had already been accomplished.”

If it were not for Robert E. Lee’s decision not to blindly follow irrational instructions to keep fighting a guerrilla war indefinitely, the surrender at Appomattox never would have taken place and our nation’s history might have been far different.

Fortunately, our American tradition has never embraced the notion of blindly following orders, particularly if they involved illegal or immoral acts. No American could ever escape responsibility for such acts by saying, “I was simply following orders.”

The Civil War era poet James Russell Lowell makes this point:

Taint your eppyletts an’ feathers,
Make the thing a grain more right;
‘Taint afollerin’ your bell-wethers
Will excuse ye in His sight;
Ef you take a sword an’ dror it,
An’ go stick a feller thru,
Guv’ment ain’t to answer for it,
God’ll send the bill to you.

Without Robert E. Lee’s decision to surrender — against his instructions — we would not be celebrating the 150th anniversary of Appomattox at the present time. This heroic act has not been widely recognized. If deserves to be.

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Allan C. Brownfeld
Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.