“We Are All Americans.” cover

“We Are All Americans.”

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Perhaps my favorite story of the Civil War comes from Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox, which took place April 8, 1865, over 150 years ago. Here’s an excerpt, from a piece I wrote in 2014 about that episode.





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“We Are All Americans.”

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Perhaps my favorite story of the Civil War comes from Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox, which took place April 8, 1865, over 150 years ago. Here’s an excerpt, from a piece I wrote in 2014 about that episode.

The End Of The War

The End Of The War

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Clearing Out

A patient historian could have traced the long arc of the Civil War by waiting out the conflict at Wilmer McLean’s kitchen table.

Bull Run, the first major battle in the war’s Eastern Theater, took place on McLean’s property on July 2, 1861; a Union shell tumbled down his chimney that day.

Realizing that combat would continue to dog his neighborhood for the duration of the conflict, McLean chased peace and relocated more than a hundred miles to the south.

Melting Away

Then in spring 1865, William Sherman, having laid waste to swaths of Georgia and the Carolinas, continued marching north.

Along with Ulysses Grant, Sherman hoped to trap Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in a vise. Lee’s men, long noted for their high morale, sensed that the end was nigh. They melted away in the spring heat, heading home to begin rebuilding a region ravaged by war.

At the start of April, Lee, with his troops deserting in droves and Sherman’s army drawing ever closer, abandoned his trenches. Less than a week later, Grant’s forces caught Lee’s remaining men on the run.

Surrender

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Surrender

On April 9, 1865, Generals Grant and Lee met in Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. They negotiated a formal surrender to end the war—in Wilmer McLean’s parlor.

Generous Terms

The details of that meeting are both familiar and obscured by conflicting accounts and the politics of memory.

Lee, we know, arrived in a dress uniform and bearing a ceremonial sword. Grant, by contrast, wore mud-stained trousers and a coat battered by campaigning.

The soldiers swapped war stories before agreeing to generous terms: Grant would parole Lee’s officers and enlisted men and allow the rebels to return with their horses and side-arms to their homes, where, he hoped, they would put in a crop to feed their families during the lean times that lay ahead.

All Americans

The Union general then introduced his staff to his Confederate counterpart.

Lee lingered near Ely Parker, Grant’s military secretary. A member of the Seneca tribe, Parker had dark skin, leaving one observer sure that Lee “mistook [him] for a negro, and was struck with astonishment to find that the commander of the Union armies had one of that race on his staff.”

Parker himself recalled that, after Lee stared at him for a beat, the vanquished general “extended his hand and said, ‘I am glad to see one real American here.’”

Parker replied, “We are all Americans.”

Ely S. Parker

Ely S. Parker

Image by Matthew Brady

Interpretations

Like most iconic stories drawn from the American past,

Lee’s surrender to Grant remains open to multiple interpretations. Grant’s chief of staff, having helped win the war but wary of ongoing struggles over the peace, hinted that even in defeat Lee could not overcome the racism that marred the Confederate cause.

Lee’s chief of staff, on the other hand, provided fuel that would in time explode into the Lost Cause myths. He juxtaposed the martial grace of his commander, a Virginia cavalier and Southern gentleman in every sense of the word, with the slovenly Grant, who, he reported, seemed ashamed of his attire and also perhaps of having bested the better man.

Kindness

More recently, Civil War historians have focused on Grant’s kindness toward Lee’s men.

As Jim McPherson recounts, Lee remarked at the time that Grant’s decency would “do much toward conciliating our people.” Grant and Lee, in this view, began sowing the seeds of reconciliation at McLean’s house.

What, though, of the conversation between Ely Parker and Robert E. Lee? What of Lee’s comment and Parker’s retort—assuming that such an exchange even took place? (In his recollection, Parker notes that he and Lee had their backs turned to the room when they spoke, meaning that onlookers could only speculate about their interaction.)

Attuned

Elizabeth Varon, in her excellent new study of the Civil War’s final chapter, suggests that Parker’s Iroquois heritage left him “especially attuned to Lee’s plight.”

Parker, from Varon’s perspective, acted “magnanimously to a defeated foe.”

Viewed from a different angle, though, one might argue that Parker pushed Lee to move past treason, past making war against the United States, to acknowledge that all the people gathered in McLean’s home shared a common heritage: they were all Americans.

Memory

Parker, then, might have been strumming the mystic chords of memory that President Lincoln had invoked four years earlier in his first inaugural address.

Still another reading might suggest that Parker anticipated struggles over citizenship that would mark the era of Reconstruction, suggesting to Lee that the category “American” had become expansive enough during the war to encompass formerly excluded groups, including freed slaves and Native peoples.

McLean House

The Major & Knapp Eng. Mfg. & Lith. Co. 71 Broadway - Library of Congress

McLean House

The Room in the McLean House After the surrender, Wilmer McLean, the owner of the house, lost much of his furniture to soldiers desiring mementos of the historic event. Later, in what proved to be a futile effort to recoup his losses and raise funds for his needy family, he commissioned this print. Pictured Left to Right: John Gibbon, George Armstrong Custer, Cyrus B. Comstock, Orville E. Babcock, Charles Marshall, Walter H. Taylor, Robert E. Lee, Philip Sheridan, Ulysses S. Grant, John Aaron Rawlins, Charles Griffin, unidentified, George Meade, Ely S. Parker, James W. Forsyth, Wesley Merritt, Theodore Shelton Bowers, Edward Ord. The man not identified in the picture’s legend is thought to be General Joshua Chamberlain, a hero of Gettysburg who presided over the formal surrender of arms by Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia on April 12, 1865.

The Edge Of The West,

(CC BY-SA 3.0)