April 9, 1865, the signal act of reconciliation in American history took place –in the dusty hamlet of Appomattox, Virginia. The last embers of the Civil War were dying, as had 625,000 soldiers, blue and gray. The courtly Southerner, Robert E. Lee, came to surrender his threadbare army, and he met the most unlikely of counterparts. Union General Ulysses S. Grant had been a clerk in a leather goods store when the war began. He wore his usual ordinary soldier’s coat, spattered with mud, and only distinguished by the three stars in each lapel.
When the papers were signed, Lee thanked Grant for his surprisingly generous terms. Union soldiers watched respectfully as the gray-clad troops filed past; the order had come down from Grant that there was to be no celebration. Most importantly, the terms of surrender ensured that there would be no retribution against Confederate officers. Since General Grant, hero to the public in the North, had signed the document, the radicals and newspaper editorialists could shout for trials and vengeance until they were hoarse, but it would avail them nothing.
The previous month, in his Second Inaugural Address, President Lincoln had anticipated the war’s end with the words, with malice toward none, with charity for all. He pledged to bind up the nation’s wounds and to care for those who had borne the battle, and their widows and orphans. Nowhere did he distinguish between blue and gray soldiers.
The common wisdom might be that the Southerners were the beneficiaries of Grant and Lincoln’s generosity. The better view of reconciliation is found in the words of Shakespeare. The quality of mercy is not strained, the Bard wrote. It is twice blessed, blessing him that receives, but also he that gives. By choosing reconciliation, the victor eschews the darker, revengeful side of human nature. He is then touched, as Lincoln said, by the better angels of our nature. Given the fertile soil of accommodation, the slow process of evolutionary growth can proceed.
Significantly, with the abandonment of post-war Reconstruction, the promise of reconciliation was denied the freedmen, even the 180,000 who had fought valiantly in the Union Army. This retreat from equality remained a stain on the nation’s record for a century.
In recent decades, the simple, but profound message of the meeting between the aristocrat and the former store clerk at Appomattox Court House has been lost in the noxious atmosphere of American politics. Triumph at the polls is now the occasion for contempt, not respect, for the vanquished. The new majority arrogantly rams through its agenda without concern for the minority’s deeply held values. Reconciliation? How quaint. However, as Lincoln, Grant, and Lee knew, victory without reconciliation is a prescription for an endless cycle of rancor and revenge.
“Reconciliation is more beautiful than victory.”
Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, President of Nicaragua, 1990