Friday, April 9, 2010

Lee at Appomattox

On this day in 1865, Robert E. Lee surrendered his sword and his army to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. He was 58, but looks considerably older in the photos we see of him. His beard was white and his physique showed the effects of ill health. Abraham Lincoln had offered him the command of the Union forces in 1861 but he turned him down. He chose to lead the Army of Northern Virginia instead, a romantic and doomed cause, but not a hard choice for him. He performed brilliantly, of course. Prior to the Civil War personal loyalties were to one's home state. It wasn't until afterwards that most people spoke about being Americans. They were Virginians or New Yorkers or Iowans.

Lee was treated generously in defeat, not hung as a traitor as Washington would have had he lost the Revolution. That our better angels prevailed is more surprising considering Lincoln's assassination a week later. Lee went on to be a university president and have riverboats named after him. He died five years later. His last words were "Strike the tent." Or so the newspapers reported. He said that his greatest regret in life was receiving a military education. Robert E. Lee appears four times in A Book of Ages. Grant appears twice, and Lincoln nine times.

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