Lee Accepts the Surrender of Grant in His Vicksburg Boots

let_us_have_peace_vhsThis is my favorite painting of the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox in April 1865.  It was painted in the 1920s by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris and clearly reflects the ascendency of Lee in our national memory and imagination.  Ferris titled his painting, “Let Us Have Peace” even though these words were not spoken by Grant for another three years as a campaign slogan at the start of his presidential bid in 1868.  We spent quite a bit of time with this painting in class last week and a number of my students were struck by the placement of both Grant and Lee as well as their hand gestures.  In fact, a few students thought that if a viewer didn’t know any better they would have to conclude that Grant was surrendering to Lee.  Notice Grant’s hand as it embraces a much more forceful and self-confident Lee who appears to be in charge of the situation.  The relaxed pose of Grant’s officers in the background reinforces this contrast.

Much has been made of the attire of the respective commanders, which is also quite telling as a reflection of what we find worth remembering.  Supposedly Lee’s immaculate dress and Grant’s muddy boots point to fundamental differences in character rather than the exigencies of the day.  At times it seems as if the contrast is meant to imply that Grant didn’t really deserve to accept Lee’s surrender.  The emphasis on dress in the McLean Parlor continues to find voice.  Consider this short piece in the Vicksburg Post by Gordon Cotton who speculates on whether those boots were gifts from two Vicksburg sisters, Sallie and Lucy Marshall.  It’s a legitimate question, but would it matter at all if a particular narrative of this moment in time had not been burned into our Civil War memory?

One of the reasons I find the study of historical memory to be so fascinating is that often it is not about history at all, but about what the remember believes he/she needs to make sense of the present.  In some cases the form of remembrance eclipses entirely the historical subject in question and its borders become porous.  Robert Moore’s most recent post is a thoughtful reflection on our remembrance of Lee-Jackson Day:

It is fine to both privately and, to a degree, publicly reflect upon the lives of historical persons. It fulfills various needs of the living. Look at a historical person (or persons) and consider the part of the historical person’s character, actions, etc., and consider how one may take meaning from these reflections. For some, these reflections might even translate into incorporating qualities that some find desirable in the historical person into the way they conduct themselves in their own lives. As long as reflection does not become something greater than a source of inspiration, and I suppose, guidance (as long as it is positive), then it seems innocent enough.

Mr. Cotton includes the following tribute by Ben Hill, which appeared in the Confederate Veteran in 1901 at the end of his article: “He was a foe without hate, a friend without treachery, a soldier without cruelty, and a victim without murmuring. He was a public official without vices, a private citizen without wrong, a neighbor without reproach, a Christian without hypocrisy, and a man without guile.  He was Caesar without ambition, Frederick without tyranny, Napoleon without selfishness, and Washington without his reward.”

Perhaps he was all these things and more.  I couldn’t possibly know one way or the other without having spent significant time with the man.  It may even be the case that Lee’s boots were a gift from two residents of Vicksburg.  Mr. Cotton notes that it is impossible to know for sure.  What I do know is that Robert E. Lee surrendered to Grant in the McLean house on April 9, 1865.

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21 comments… add one

  • matt mckeon Jan 18, 2009

    I always looked at the “icons” of this scene as Grant the democratic man of the future and Lee, the aristocratic figure of the past. Which goes to show you see what you bring to the picture.

    It’s an intensely human drama of a man failing, as Elizabeth Pryor has written, wihtout becoming a failure. It’s also Grant winning without being a dickhead. Imagine George W. Bush not gloating.

    Or winning.

  • Brooks Simpson Jan 18, 2009

    The painting shows why in the end Grant was a greater man than Lee, even as Lee reached the greatest moment of his life in deciding to come to the McLean House on April 9, 1865.

  • Kevin Levin Jan 18, 2009

    Brooks,

    Just out of curiosity, is this your interpretation or Ferris’s?

  • Mr. Simpson:

    What is your measurement of greatness in a man? And what does this painting reveal regarding that measurement?

  • Brooks Simpson Jan 18, 2009

    Kevin: It’s my interpretation. You might want to reference Thomas Nast’s painting of the same scene.

    http://www.lincolnstudies.com/images/thomasnastsurrender.jpg

    Mr. Williams: I have no simple measures of greatness in human beings. But I notice that even in victory, Grant is generous and welcoming, ready to extend his hand in friendship, without a single sign of gloating: it is Lee, a bit haughty and swell-chested, who seems to feel he’s entitled to something, just as he continued to bargain with Grant after he read the original terms, which were generous enough. Emory Thomas’s biography alerted me to this in a way I had not thought about; Lee may have dressed like a true gentleman, but it was Grant who was magnificent in that parlor.

    Lee’s greatness was in knowing that is was time to surrender, and not to continue the war. His behavior during Reconstruction suggests that it was a somewhat begrudging acceptance of the result.

  • Of course, the painting is just an artist’s rendering. I do, however, agree that Grant’s terms were quite generous indeed. I also agree Lee knew it was over and unwise to continue the struggle. Given the details of Reconstruction, Lee’s attitude at that point is not surprising. I’m one who, while admiring Lee, knows he was only human.

    Some relevant quotes:

    “As for myself, you young fellows might go to bushwhacking, but the only dignified course for me would be to go to General Grant and surrender myself and take the consequences of my acts.” ~ General Lee to General Alexander, 9 April 1865.

    “My own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on receipt of Lee’s letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the down¬fall of a foe who had fought so long and so valiantly and had suffered so much for a cause.” ~ General Grant on Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia.

    “I turned about, and there behind me, riding between my two lines, appeared a commanding form, superbly mounted, richly accoutered, of imposing bearing, noble countenance, with expres¬sion of deep sadness overmastered by deeper strength. It is none other than Robert E. Lee! … I sat immovable, with a certain awe and admiration.” ~ Union General Joshua Chamberlain at Appomattox.

    “I have made certain terms with Lee – the best and only terms. If I had told him and his army that their liberty would be invaded, that they would be open to arrest, trial and execution for treason, Lee would never have surrendered. I will resign the command of the army rather than execute any order directing me to arrest Lee or any of his commanders, so long as they obey the laws.” ~ General Grant upon learning of Lee’s indictment for treason.

    In my opinion, history has judged Lee to be the greater of the two. However, as a Virginian with very deep roots, some might say I’m a little biased.

    RGW

  • Paul Taylor Jan 19, 2009

    Kevin, great post as usual. I noted your observation that historical memory is often “not about history at all, but about what the remember believes he/she needs to make sense of the present,” which then segued into Robert Moore’s comment, “It is fine to both privately and, to a degree, publicly reflect upon the lives of historical persons. It fulfills various needs of the living.”

    I believe we are seeing this concept in the public arena today with the repeated comparisons of Lincoln and President-elect Obama. It seems to me that, regardless of one’s politics, there is a tremendous effort on the part of some to elevate Obama’s “greatness” and “importance” even before the man takes office.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 19, 2009

      Paul,

      Thanks for the compliment and nice to hear from you. I agree that some of these comparisons are over the top, but than again what do you expect given that it is our first black president and Lincoln’s bicentennial. Comparisons made about what kind of president Obama will be before taking office are utterly useless and uninteresting. At the same time I see nothing wrong with a president-elect identifying with a previous president. It may be comforting and encouraging to know that other presidents have faced difficult challenges and, of course, there are lessons to be learned. As a Civil War and Lincoln enthusiast I am pleased to see that Lincoln is getting a great deal of attention even if some of it is fluff. Finally, I can actually picture Obama sitting in his office reading about Lincoln and that is a comforting thought on so many different levels.

  • Paul Taylor Jan 19, 2009

    Kevin –

    Well said.

  • Michael Lynch Jan 19, 2009

    Yes, but he should read something besides Doris Kearns Goodwin.

    I’m interested in your statement that you’re not in a position to know anything about Lee’s character. It seems to me that you can know quite a bit about a person’s character when that person is a well-documented historical figure.

    I’ve got to say that I’m not getting any pro-Lee vibe from the painting. It looks to me like a pretty straightforward depiction of what happened. In fact, some commentators have taken the descriptions of Grant’s disheveled appearance as an endorsement of his lack of pretension, rather than an attempt to demean him. That seems to be the implication in Jean Edward Smith’s Grant biography. It’s not the Lost Cause crowd’s fault that Grant didn’t freshen up.

    –ML

  • Ken Noe Jan 19, 2009

    Of course Bush and the Neo-Cons increasingly self-identified with Lincoln too, especially during the second term. Bush increasingly said he read books about Lincoln. A quick Google search will turn up David Brooks, Newt Gingrich, Rudy Guiliani, Karl Rove, and the late Tony Snow all likening W to Abe, an unpopular Republican fighting a just war and holding fast despite vocal Democratic opposition, bending the Constitution to save the Constitution. John Yoo at Justice cited Lincoln in defending torture. Sooner or later, as David Donald wrote, every American president tries to “get right with Lincoln.” What’s interesting about Obama’s “getting right” is that he made the connection from the get-go on the statehouse steps, whereas Bush started off instead emulating Reagan.

  • Sherree Jan 19, 2009

    This is definitely off topic, but here goes:

    You know what bothers me about this painting? There is not one single woman in it–not even the wives of the two generals.

    Women and children are always the victims of war, but seldom are women the ones who decide whether or not a nation will go to war, or whether or not a nation will end a war. Perhaps now that women have entered the public arena in a significant way, and the definition of what it means to be a man has changed as well, we might actually one day truly achieve peace on Earth.

    War is hell, no matter which war, what era the war was fought in, or who is perceived to be the hero of the war after the war is ostensibly over. Ask any soldier who has been in combat–and for whom war does not end just because the shooting stopped.

    Dr. King understood this, and I know that everyone who commented here does as well. Happy New Year everyone, and Happy Birthday, Dr. King.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 19, 2009

      Sherree,

      As far as I know there were no women in the room during the surrender ceremony. If that is the case than why would you expect to see them.

      Of course, I agree with the overall sentiment of your comment.

  • Kevin Levin Jan 19, 2009

    Michael,

    What I mean to say is that I find it impossible to consider such extreme claims about Lee’s character. I tend not to make it a point to invest historic figures with claims of greatness and moral perfection. My personal heroes tend to be those that are close to me such as my father.

    As for what he should read about Lincoln…well, I will leave that to Obama. Personally, I think Goodwin’s books is first rate, though I agree that there are interpretive problems. Obama was recently photographed with a new Lincoln biography. My guess is that Obama knows his Lincoln.

    In reference to the painting I can only tell you what my students noticed upon viewing it. Thanks for the comment.

    Ken,

    Thanks for the comment. From a certain angle, Lincoln can be whatever we choose to see in him.

  • Sherree Jan 19, 2009

    Actually, Kevin, that is my point.

    Of course there are no women in the painting because women were not invited to the ceremony. Military affairs were the affairs of men, and men only. Had this not been so, would things have gone differently in our nation’s history is the unanswerable question. In certain Indigenous nations the men could not go to war unless the women voted and said they could. These nations still went to war, but they had to consult the women first.

    As I said, I am off topic, but maybe not. We are talking about war. How does our concept of manhood and the role that women play or do not play in how a nation decides to go to war affect those decisions? I think we are getting ready to find out with a strong willed woman like Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State. Also, President Obama is a strong willed leader who is confident in his abilities and who is certain of himself to nominate her. That is what I mean. Just some “what if” thoughts on this day that precedes the day when history is made in our time right before our very eyes. Thanks, Kevin.

  • Bob Pollock Jan 19, 2009

    Kevin,

    You have generated quite an interesting conversation here, touching on several topics.

    Richard Williams: I ‘d like to know what “details of Reconstruction” you are referring to, as much of “history’s judgement” of both Grant and Lee is wrapped up in how that time period is interpreted. Also, what is your measurement of greatness in a man? Let me quote from Frank Scatturo’ s President Grant Reconsidered: “It is unfortunate that accounts of his carreer tend to end at Appomattox, for Grant after 1865 would continue to make a significant mark on American history which largely remains a missing key to understanding both the full meaning of Union victory in the Civil War and the evolution of modern America. He also continued to grow as a man.” ” Grant’s messages condemning racial violence and defending political equality regardless of color remain a singular presidential demonstration of civil rights in the nineteenth century.”

    Sheree: While it may be true that “military affairs were the affairs of men,” I ‘m not sure we can say that women were without political influence. Lincoln’s reponse to Harriet Beecher Stowe upon first meeting her comes to mind, “So you’re the lady whose book started this war.” Also, by many accounts women showed their political preferences by favoring men who enlisted over those who would not. It’s been a few years since I read Anne Rubin’s “A Shattered Nation,” but I seem to recall that she argued the war continued in the south because many southern women so strongly supported the Confederate cause. (I know you have Rubin’s book in your library, Kevin, am I remembering her thesis correctly?) Regarding Hillary Clinton, she voted for the Iraq war and, you seem to forget we have had a female Secreatary of State the last few years.

  • Brooks Simpson Jan 19, 2009

    Richard–I don’t know who this “History” is, but I’ve never read that “History” judged Lee the greater man. That’s simply your opinion, which you do nothing to support, after asking me to support my position.

    Go back to reading Howard Zinn and telling me about the great conspiracy against correct historical thinking as defined by you.

  • Brooks Simpson Jan 19, 2009

    “In fact, some commentators have taken the descriptions of Grant’s disheveled appearance as an endorsement of his lack of pretension, rather than an attempt to demean him. That seems to be the implication in Jean Edward Smith’s Grant biography. It’s not the Lost Cause crowd’s fault that Grant didn’t freshen up.”

    Both Grant and Lee owed the attire they wore that afternoon to the accident of campaigning. In neither case (for different reasons) did either man have ready access to their headquarters baggage.

    What people have read into that accident of history says more about the interpreter than the event.

  • Brooks Simpson Jan 19, 2009

    Sheree … obviously you have not read about the proposal to have Mrs. Grant and Mrs. Longstreet meet in Richmond in early 1865. See Simpson, Ulysses S. Grant, pp. 409-11.

  • Sherree Jan 20, 2009

    Bob and Brooks,

    Thank you for your comments. I am well aware of all that you have noted, except for the proposal to have Mrs. Grant and Mrs. Longstreet meet in Richmond. That is not my point, however.

    I am talking about real change in how we think. I am talking about the true influence of women on history as our worldview evolves.

    I was brought up in a matriarchal society. I know that this does not fit many theories because that matriarchal society was in the South. Still, there is the thorny reality of my actual history. That matriarchal society consisted of my grandmother, her sisters, my mother and the black women who were my grandmother’s friends, not women who worked for her. The end result of this society in which men were largely absent for a number of reasons, many of them economic in nature as the men left to work in the coalfields, was a world in which women were in charge, and yes, it was quite a different world.

    Perhaps we all see in President Barack Obama what we want to see. I am not sure. I see him as the quintessential American, in every way, and one of those ways is the way in which I think that he sees women. He seems to understand the power of women when women are acting as women, as opposed to being forced to act like some bad idea of what a man should be, and of what most men are not. That is so refreshing. Thanks President Obama.

  • Timothy Dugan Jul 2, 2014

    Robert E. Lee will go in the black hall of surrender along with the equally aristocratic and pompous asses, Emperor Hirohito, and Generals Cornwallis and Howe. The only difference between the aforementioned Confederate and the remaining obeisant POW’s is that the Emperor and the British Generals didn’t suborn and commit treason. Let’s never forget that Grant could have executed Lee by hanging him from the nearest oak tree because traitors and convicted cowards were not worthy of death by firing squad. Also, General Pickett hated Lee for the simple reason that Lee sent thousands of boys to their deaths without a hope or prayer of winning. And one last historical fact: Ulysses S. Grant created Arlington National Cemetery from the confiscated personal property of Robert E. Lee. This was a payback for the treachery and savagery he fostered in his bogus years as commander of the Dixie slave army. Lastly, Grant wore a dusty Master-Sergeant’s jacket and crusty boots in anticipation of Lee’s posh and dandy uniform. It was a very ironic and beautifully democratic gesture. Although some of you in the Confederate camp may have difficulty in determining who was surrendering to who in the paintings of Lee surrendering to Grant at Appomattox, history will always remind you of what really happened. Close the door on your Lee fetish.

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