He woke up that morning to the worst day of his life. He had no idea that day…or for the rest of his life…that that day would be looked upon as his finest hour, and one of the greatest moments in our nation’s history.
General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia was finally surrounded on the morning of April 9, 1865. He had barely 23,000 troops left– less than half of them had weapons. Lee looked at the situation and actually contemplated suicide: “I have but to ride upon the line, and it would all be over with”. If he just rode too close to the enemy he could be picked off by a sniper and save him the agony of surrender. Then he shook it off and said, “But it is our duty to live. I suppose I must go and see General Grant…and I would rather die a thousand deaths.”
So he rode out to the place of surrender, the home of Wilmer McClean, and awaited the arrival of General Grant. Lee rightly believed that he and all his men would be marched off to a prison camp. He knew that some in the US Congress wanted him publicly hanged.
None of that happened thanks to the mercy, compassion, and wisdom of Ulysses Grant. There would be no vengeance. General Grant said that all the Confederates had to do was swear that they would never take up arms again against the US government, and they could go home. He ordered 25,000 rations to be given to Lee’s starving troops. Anyone who owned a horse or mule could take it home for their farms. And all officers could keep their pistols and swords.
Lee went back to his grieving troops and told them to go home and make their sons Americans. For the rest of his life, he told everyone he knew to forgive and rid themselves of bitterness. Lee got a job to take care of himself and his arthritic, invalid wife– he became the president of a destitute little college, Washington College. Until the day he died he modelled and preached forbearance, forgiveness, and reconciliation between North and South, black and white.
Because of the courageous, gentlemanly way he bore his defeat and shouldered the responsibility of setting an example for defeated Southerners, Lee’s reputation as a great and humble man only grew over the next 150 years. He probably never realized it, but his worst day, really was his best day.