(December 27, 2020) After Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia on Palm Sunday 1865, probably no man was in a better position to persuade Southerners to accept the verdict of the war. This became clear over the ensuing weeks as the other Confederate armies surrendered. As explained in my December 8th video, no man was more beloved throughout the South during the war than was Lee despite contrary claims by some modern historians. They falsely argue that his reputation was only artificially created by a conspiracy of ex-Confederate officers who weaved a web of so-called lies known as the “Lost Cause Narrative.” Nonetheless, the falsehood of their narrative is revealed by none other than Union General Ulysses Grant who requested a second meeting with Robert E. Lee the day after he accepted Lee’s surrender. Lee’s biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman, describes the scene:
Grant began by telling Lee that his interest was in peace and in the surrender of the other Confederate armies . . . He added that there was no man in the South whose influence with the soldiers and with the people was as great as Lee’s, and that if Lee would advise the surrender of all the armies Grant believed they would lay down their arms. For his part Lee believed that Grant’s proposal was a question for President Davis. He promptly said that he could not advise the remaining Confederate armies without first consulting the President. Grant understood Lee’s viewpoint and did not attempt to persuade him.
Shifting the subject, Lee talked of the paroling of the army and asked that the instructions of the officers who were arranging the details should be made so explicit that no misunderstanding could arise. Lee was seeking assurances concerning two factors. First, that his men would not be imprisoned because Grant’s surrender terms provided that they “will be allowed to return to their homes not to be disturbed by United States authority so long as they observe their paroles and the law in force where they may reside.” Second, that each Confederate claiming to own a horse or mule will be allowed to take the animals home with them. Grant again provided such reassurances.
Thus, by deferring to civil authority, Lee refused to take authority away from President Davis and the remaining Confederate armies to decide for themselves their future courses of action. Nonetheless, it was obvious that Lee had already become the only symbol of resistance that mattered among fellow Southerners. Consequently, all Confederate armies surrendered within two months of Appomattox notwithstanding that tens-of-thousands of Confederates remained under arms after Lee surrendered. Again, Freeman summarizes:
Southern civilians saw in Lee the embodiment of the faith and piety they believed a just Heaven would favor . . . Among such people of faith during the last year of the struggle Lee became a kind of spiritual mediator for his nation. The army, seeing him in battle, put his ability first and his character second. The civilian population, observing him from afar, rated his character even above his ability.
About forty-five days after Lincoln was assassinated, President Andrew Johnson announced that he would grant amnesty to ex-Confederate if they would take a new loyalty oath to the Union and agree to various other stipulations. Many were resentful of the oath because they considered that their parole oaths at the Appomattox surrender—and others elsewhere—covered the matter. Johnson’s new oath, some inferred, suggested that the words given in their parole oaths could not be taken at face value, which they considered as an insult to their honor.
Lee, however, took the oath. He wanted to be an example of reconciliation. One story underscores the point.
When a son of former Virginia governor Henry Wise told his dad that he had taken the oath, the father barked: “You have disgraced the family!”
His son replied, “But General Lee told me to do it.”
“Oh,” said the father, “that alters the case. Whatever General Lee says is all right, I don’t care what it is.”
To understand how crony capitalism got its start and how the postbellum South was put into nearly a century of poverty, read Ulysses Grant’s Failed Presidency. Autographed copies are available from me [email@example.com] for $25 with free deliveries in the USA. Unsigned copies are available at Amazon and other books stores for $20.