The beginning of the end of the Civil War dated from March 1864, when President Abraham Lincoln promoted Ulysses S. Grant to the rank of lieutenant general and placed him in charge of the entire Union army. Grant’s single-minded goal from that point on was to vanquish the Confederate forces serving under Gen. Robert E. Lee.
In the spring of 1864, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was still recovering from the cataclysmic engagement that took place at Gettysburg the previous summer. The Rebels had been recruiting their strength over the winter in Virginia, anticipating another difficult campaign once the warm weather arrived.
Grant’s new title of general-in-chief entitled him to remain in Washington, directing military campaigns throughout the country from that central vantage point. Being a dynamic leader, however, he chose to accompany the Army of the Potomac, the principal Union force operating against Lee’s troops in the field.
Grant’s five-week-long “Overland Campaign” in Northern Virginia in May and June 1864 drove Lee’s army into the fortifications of Petersburg and Richmond, resulting in a 10-month long siege. In April 1865, those fortifications finally collapsed, after Union breakthroughs at a number of points.
Outnumbered and lacking supplies, Lee made a valiant effort to escape in order to join friendly forces in North Carolina. Grant’s persistent pursuit paid off one week later, at the small town of Appomattox Court House, west of Richmond.
Reluctant, though realistic, Lee recognized that his army was weak, hungry and caught in a trap. Rather than sacrifice his men further, he requested a meeting with Grant to discuss peace terms that led to surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865.
In a message to his remaining troops, Lee wrote, “After four years of arduous service marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude … [and] an unceasing admiration of your constancy and devotion to your Country … I bid you an affectionate farewell.”
The four-year-long war that took some 700,000 lives had ended, and the men on both sides, for the most part, went home to rekindle relationships and attempt to get on with their lives. Lee eventually accepted a position as president of Washington College in Lexington, Va.
As the war concluded, Grant retained his position in command of U.S. forces until elected to the presidency in 1869. Shortly thereafter, Lee wanted to invite Grant to visit Washington College in his capacity as president of the United States.
Lee hesitated issuing an invitation to Grant, not wanting to impose on his former foe, but Grant learned about Lee’s desire to invite him to Lexington. The newly-inaugurated president invited Lee to the White House instead.
Although no official record of the conversation between Grant and Lee on May 1, 1869, exists, two newspapers published their versions. Lee biographer Douglas Southall Freeman stated that both were New York papers — the Herald and Tribune.
The Herald wrote that Lee thanked Grant for the “honor you have done me.” Grant, in turn, mentioned to Lee he wanted “to have a somewhat lengthy conversation with you in regard to matters relating to your section of the country”; however, Lee begged off, telling Grant, “You should not take my opinions and views as representing those of the people of Virginia and the South…”
The Tribune, in contrast, said the conversation was “polite and cordial [with] a certain reserve.” Although nothing was said about the war, Lee supposedly made suggestions on policies dealing with Virginia and the South.
Both newspaper versions appear to have been speculative, given that Lee’s son, Robert E. Lee Jr., wrote that the interview had lasted about 15 minutes, and neither man spoke about political matters.
John L. Motley, who served as ambassador to the United Kingdom and was with Grant during the Lee interview, claimed they talked about rebuilding railroads, which led Grant to joke, “You and I, General, have had more to do with destroying railroads than building them.” The more formal Lee evidently overlooked Grant’s humor, and the interview soon ended.
The Lee visit with President Grant was a historic moment. Yet, reminiscent of the Appomattox surrender scene with Lee in formal dress uniform, while Grant arrived in muddy field garb, Lee was more reserved than his laid-back host at the White House.
Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign.” Signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books and Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach. His latest book, with co-author Rick Schaus, “Eleven Fateful Days in July 1863: Meade Tracks Lee’s Escape after Gettysburg,” is due out in 2018. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.