On this day in 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered his 28,000 Confederate troops to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, effectively ending the American Civil War.
That morning, the two sides fought a battle at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia. As Lee crested the hill with his troops, he realized that they were severely outnumbered by Union soldiers. His General confirmed his fears of imminent defeat in a letter to Lee to which he responded, “Then there is nothing left for me to do but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths.”
Lee and Grant then exchanged their own letters arranging the terms for surrender. Grant generously allowed Lee to choose the location for discussion, and Confederate troops went looking for a suitable place. They happened upon the homestead of Wilmer McLean, who showed them to a run-down, unfurnished house on his property. The soldiers refused the lackluster building for such a momentous occasion, so McLean offered his own house up.
When the generals met, the contrast in appearance was stark. Lee, standing a full six feet tall and 16 years Grant’s senior, donned a new uniform, silk-stitched boots, a felt hat, and a jewel-studded sword. Grant arrived in a mud-splattered uniform and boots, with tarnished shoulder straps. The two men had fought alongside each other in the Mexican-American war two decades prior, and Grant noted, “I have always remembered your appearance, and I think I should have recognized you anywhere.” To which Lee replied, “I know I met you on that occasion, and I have often thought of it and tried to recollect how you looked, but I have never been able to recall a single feature.”
Rather than imprison the Confederate men in their defeat, Grant acted magnanimously for the good of a newly reunited Union. He allowed the men to return home, sparing their pride by allowing them to keep their arms and their horses for their upcoming spring planting. He also offered 25,000 rations to the soldiers, who had been starving without rations for several days. When Grant’s men began celebrating, Grant ordered them to stop. “The Confederates were now our countrymen,” he said, “and we did not want to exult over their downfall.” From that day forward, Lee would never allow another man to speak unkindly of Grant in his presence.