OPINION: Lessons from Ulysses Grant and Robert Lee

April 9, 1865, marked the beginning of a new era. While fighting in other areas didn’t end that day, April 9th was when Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, effectively ending the American Civil War. This peaceful resolution to a horrible conflict would not have been possible without mutual respect and people being treated as people.  

While fighting the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant earned many names. He was known as “Sam” Grant by his friends (short for Uncle Sam) and “The Butcher” by the press when his strategies led to horrific Union losses. But he was perhaps best known as “Unconditional Surrender” Grant, a name he earned while fighting the battle of Fort Donnelson. So how did a man known as “Unconditional Surrender” end up letting Confederate officers keep their pistols and sabers? Why didn’t he take the rebel soldiers’ weapons and horses? Why didn’t he send them all to federal prison? In short, he understood where the rebels were coming from. 

Most Confederate soldiers were volunteers. Primarily poor farmers, they went to war in home-stitched uniforms with their family rifles, horses, and tack. As a result of the fighting, many southern towns, farms, and railways had been wiped off the map. Grant understood that by taking away the farmers’ most basic means of supporting themselves when they returned, he would invariably sew resentment and set the stage for future conflict. So while he did confiscate the rebel army’s property, such as cannons and stores of munitions, he allowed the farmers to keep their possessions and return to what was left of their homes. In this act of respect for his opponents, General Grant demonstrated exactly what was needed to begin repairing the nation – understanding. 

Indeed, we saw what happened after the radical Republicans in Congress had their way. Reconstruction-era policies focused on rapid change bore little fruit other than resentment, sharecropping, and segregation. We may never know if a lighter touch would have changed history, but what we do know is that punishments rarely work. The Treaty of Versailles, which ended the First World War, arguably sparked the Second. Humiliation does nothing but cause future conflict. When we realize that, our future will be far more peaceful. 

It has been said that America today is as divided as it ever has been. Regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum, it is important to take lessons from the battle-ending deal between Generals Grant and Lee. Common human decency and seeing people as people are things that we often forget in this present day but remain important. While watching the gradual failure of our republic in these last few years, a startling trend has emerged: The ‘us vs. them’ mentality. From the shift away from the center during the Obama and Trump years to the growing number of political fringe groups today, people just don’t seem to be making an effort to get along. Moving away from the center has, in a way, caused this problem, but there is more to it than that. Polarization via echo chambers and other social-media-driven phenomena, in addition to the collapse of civil discourse, have led us to an America in which no one even tries.

In order to prevent conflict, it is important that we start to see people as people again. If General Grant could see the good in rebel soldiers, we could see the good in our neighbors.

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