In his recent essay, Did Robert E. Lee Commit Treason?, Civil War historian Allen C. Guelzo discusses the Confederate surrender and its immediate aftermath. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, we know that Lincoln’s post-war strategy would have focused on reconciliation, not retribution. Confederate leadership, however, would have no way of knowing that at the time of their surrender. They had just lead a failed insurrection against the United States, after all, and they good reason to fear the hangman’s rope. What’s more, that fear would have been justified by the public statements of several Northern politicians who favored just such a policy.
All this is true and interesting enough, but Guelzo inexplicably takes a shot at U.S. Grant in the third paragraph.
Given Ulysses Grant’s reputation for demanding surrender without the offer of any mitigating conditions, Lee had every reason to worry that a surrender demand from Grant would be the prelude to a bloody purge which would make the Jacobins look spineless.Allen C. Guelzo
It’s undeniable that Grant had established a reputation for demanding the unconditional surrender of defeated enemies. It’s equally undeniable that this represented a break with established military etiquette.
What Guelzo neglects to explain, however, is Grant’s impeccable track record as a magnanimous victor. After accepting the capitulation of his enemies, Grant, in every case, treated his vanquished foe with humaneness.
After accepting his first “unconditional surrender” at Fort Donelson, for example, Grant immediately gave permission for Confederate search parties to go between the lines to bury their dead. He arranged for medical care of Confederate wounded in Union army hospitals and ensured all prisoners were well-fed and treated with respect. Opposing officers were permitted to keep their sidearms and send personal correspondence. Grant’s disdain for established military etiquette meant that he did not order traditional ceremonies that he felt would have humiliated his enemies further. He even offered his opposing commander–an old friend–money out of his own pocket.
Grant did make some errors during that first surrender, but they were all on the side of leniency, not harshness. Several of his decisions actually put his own army in danger. Allowing Confederate search parties on the field and permitting correspondence, for example, risked allowing enemy combatants to report on his army’s condition and numbers.
Characteristically, Grant learned from these mistakes and made more prudent decisions in future surrenders. At no point, however, did he ever treat his vanquished foes with anything that would justify a fear of a “bloody purge which would make the Jacobins look spineless.”
Robert E. Lee was many things, but dumb isn’t one of them. He would have been aware of Grant’s track record of generosity to defeated foes.
Great was the relief on all Confederate hands when Grant’s terms turned out to be surprisingly mild…Allen C. Guelzo
I’m certain the Army of Northern Virginia was relieved when Grant fed them, cared for their wounded, and treated them with dignity. I doubt very much that anyone with even a passing familiarity with his record would be surprised by this outcome, however.
Guelzo correctly quotes Lee as being mortified at the prospect of being defeated under the terms of unconditional surrender. Rather than accepting such a fate, Lee said, “I am resolved to die. Indeed we must all determine to die at our posts.”
Rather than an irrational and unjustified fear that Grant would summarily execute his army, however, it’s far more likely that Lee feared the humiliation that such a defeat would bring to himself and his cause. If Lee feared a bloody “Jacobin” purge at Grant’s hands, he would have a more foolish man than history proves him to have been.