George A. Custer with a captured confederate prisoner. Custer was a man of action, but not of cruelty.
It is often forgotten that the aim of generalship is not winning a war, but winning a stable peace. In that sense, most generals and most diplomats are failures; their victories benefit only the undertaker; their peace-treaties only provide time to reload. That was the case with the Mexican civil war but not the US civil war. The choices and surrender at Appomattox, 150 years ago lead to a genuine, stable peace. It’s worthwhile, therefore to consider the how that was done here and not in Mexico, perhaps as a lesson for the future.
I begin, near the end of the war with a much-maligned general, George A Custer on April 8, 1865; this is the day the 13th Amendment passed, four days after Lincoln walked through a defeated, smoldering Richmond, the capital of the south. The war would end soon, but would the result be peace, or chaos. George A. Custer had graduated at the very bottom of his class at West Point, the position known as goat. As is not atypical with goats, he was not particularly suited to following orders during peacetime, but was supremely suited to war and action. Custer liked to attack first and think later, but he was also a man of peace; he become the youngest Union Brevet General in US history. On April 8, with Lee at Appomattox Court House (that’s the name of the town), Custer led a small group of men to attack a nearby town, Appomattox Station, a rail depot three miles to the southwest. There he captured, without a fight, three, rail cars full of desperately needed arms, ammunition and supplies that had been sent to Lee’s army from Lynchburg.
While leaving the station, Custer’s men ran into the artillery unit of Confederate Brig. Gen. Reuben Walker, and attacked (of course) eventually capturing 25 artillery pieces, nearly 1,000 prisoners and all of their supplies. It took several attacks to win, but the results were worth it. Custer took the cannon and his troops, and positioned them on Lee’s likely escape route, on the Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road south of Appomattox Courthouse. Lee was now nearly trapped, but didn’t know it yet.
Painting in honor of the 45th regiment colored troops: Afro-American soldier stands, with flag, before a bust of Washington and a depiction of battle (Fair Oaks? Petersburg?)
On the same day, April 8, General Grant sent Lee a proposition to surrender. Lee responded that he was not interested in that, but would like to meet at the McLean House at 10:00 A.M. April 9 to discuss “restoration of peace.” Grant replied that he didn’t have that power but agreed to meet Lee, none the less.
In the meantime, Lee prepared his forces to clear the Stage Road so his forces could escape south-west, to Appomattox station and home. Grant, no newcomer to war, ordered two corps (XXIV and V) under the commands of Maj. Gen. John Gibbon and Bvt. Maj. Gen. Charles Griffin to march all night to the west and north. These corps included 5000 Afro-American troops, mostly in the 45th and 116th U.S. Colored Troop Brigades. On the morning of April 9, Lee attacked to the south and managed to capture the forward pickets defending the Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road. But when he reached the rise of the hill, he saw his escape was blocked. His 45,000 troops were surrounded by 113,000, better-armed Union soldiers, cannon and cavalry. It was then suggested that Lee disband his troops for an extended guerrilla war, an option he refused as it would lead to murdering bands roaming the county, and would make peace nearly impossible. Instead Lee rode off to discuss surrender to Grant.
Map of the troop arrangements April 9, 1865. Checkmate. Lee’s forces, x or +, are out numbered, out gunned, and surrounded.
Lee’s surrender, finalized that afternoon, was penned by Grant’s aide-de camp, Lt Col’, Ely S. Parker, a Seneca Indian who had an engineering degree and studied law. The kindness to Indians may have suggested similar kindness to the surrendering Confederates. Parker eventually rose to the rank of general, and then to head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The terms of surrender too, were chosen to be unusually generous. Grant did not take the confederates soldiers captive, but instead allowed them to return home, relatively unmolested. Also, he allowed the officers to keep their swords and personal weapons. Kind acts like these may have eased reconstruction. Custer had demanded unconditional surrender from General Beauregard on April 9, something he probably imagined U.S. (Unconditional Surrender) Grant would have wanted; he was over-ruled by his commanding officer, Phillip Sheridan, who probably knew Grant better.
After the war, most of the confederates swore loyalty to the US. Lee did what he could to promote reconciliation; he supported civil rights and reconstruction, and became president of Washington and Lee College. Some confederate generals and 2500 soldiers headed south to Mexico to join the French/Austrian forces of Emperor, Maximilian I, engaged in a civil war of his own. Maximilian, only 34 years old and a highly decorated Austrian officer, had little local support. He was captured and executed, June 19, 1867. Mexico then descended into chaos: a Pyrrhic victory, and a model to avoid.
Surrender at Appomattox; with Grant are Philip H. Sheridan, Orville E. Babcock, Horace Potter, Edward O.C. Ord, Seth Williams, Theodore S. Bowers, Ely S. Parker and George A. Custer. With Lee is Charles Marshall, his military secretary. After the signing, most of the furnishings were purchased by Union officers as souvenirs. Lee shook Parker’s hand and said, I’m glad to see a real American here.” Parker replied, “We are all Americans.”
What did Mexico do wrong? For one, in order to win a peace, they failed to get the other side to agree to the peace, with clear documentation about what it is that’s been agreed to (That’s why Parker’s role is so important). Instead of killing Maximilian, they should have had him sign some sort of document and retire him to a farm or college where he could support the peace. In order to win a peace, it’s important to leave a stable country, with stable borders and a strong military, one that can govern itself fairly and well. A stable peace generally involves recognition of your government by other nations, and that too requires not killing your defeated enemy wholesale.
Robert E. Buxbaum, April 7-12, 2015. My sense is that the conditions for building a lasting peace get far too little attention in the study of war and history. I should mention that the 45th were mostly escaped slave volunteers. The 116th were ex-slaves that the Union purchased from Kentucky slave-owners at the beginning of the war to fight for the Union cause. This was thought to be a good emollient for peace, and may have helped keep Kentucky on the Union side. I should note too, that Lee freed his slaves in 1862, near the beginning of the war, a time when Grant still owned some. I’ve noted that men who choose beards tend to show a surprising republican (or communist) generosity. As Lincoln said, “Do I not defeat my enemy when I make him a friend?” For more thoughts on Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, see here.