Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant were both great military minds and tenacious fighters who came to have great respect for each other throughout their long campaign throughout Virginia at the tail end of the Civil War. All accounts describe Lee’s concession to Grant to have been a cordial occurrence with long, pleasant conversation, but the two men represented vastly different causes. Lee, a wealthy Southern slaveholder, fought to protect his way of life and place atop a society strictly ordered by race and class. Grant fought alongside freed slaves that he and other Union generals emancipated throughout the war. Despite differing views on secession, slavery, and emancipation, Lee and Grant both struggled to come to terms with the Union victory and the means through which it occurred. This corresponded with the dominant feeling across the South, where the white population felt shock in the short term, and for years to come felt downtrodden by Union victory and emancipation.
Though initially hesitant about his role in the war, Robert E. Lee was a true believer in slavery, and the cause of the Confederacy became his. Lee owned a number of slaves that ran his family plantation, and became known as a cruel master (American Experience). He is described as a slavery apologist – he had moral qualms with slavery, but gave justifications such as how slaves are better off than they would be in Africa (American Expereince). After conceding the war to Grant, Lee struggled for the rest of his life to accept Confederate defeat and emancipation. He was described as ‘bewildered’ by the sight of freed slaves asserting their political rights, encompassing the collapse of a social order that he thought to be divine (American Expereince). Reflecting on the outcome of the war, Lee still thought his men possessed more ‘moral power,’ but that they only lost because of a lack of resources. While Lee was quiet on the subject in public, he personally thought that the wrong side won, and struggled to reconcile that belief with a belief in a just god (American Expereince).
Ulysses S. Grant found the Confederate cause to be “one of the worst … for which a people ever fought” (Grant, 713). He thought that the people of the South likely would not have formed consensus around secession were it not for a class of slaveholding demagogues who did not allow for a fair discussion of the issue (Grant, 150). Reflecting back on the war, Grant wished that he could celebrate the bravery of Confederate soldiers like some other Northerners, but he struggled to do so knowing that slaves had had to toil during the war for no cause of their own (Grant, 721). He regretted that the institution of slavery gave the Southern upper classes a sense of nobility (Grant, 151). Grant supported how emancipation played out, noting that “the nation still lives,” and citing the freedom to avoid social intimacy with African-Americans as a reason for emancipation being reasonable (Grant, 145). At the same time, Grant found war regrettable and struggled with its resolution. He wanted to hasten the end of the war to save lives and protect property, and found himself melancholic when receiving Lee’s concession, because he saw someone who had sincerely fought hard for a cause (Grant, 713).
When Lee conceded to Grant, he said that the Union army might have to march over it three or four times before the war entirely ended (Grant, 718). He was prescient in that violence continued as the South found itself in horrors about defeat and emancipation. In 1866, the poor whites of Memphis, including police- and firemen, rioted against the freedpeople of the city, beginning a scourge of violence across the antebellum South, and inspiring terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, the White League, and the Red Shirts(Ash, 187). Reconstruction in New Orleans was marked by a series of street battles between poor whites and the city’s African-American population (Hogue, 6). These White Southerners saw emancipation as an economic threat, as they competed at the lowest rungs of employment (Nelson, 4), and were spurred to violence by racial hatred and nostalgia for a lost past.
Lee and Grant had different feelings about the cause of the Civil War and its aftermath, but both were struck by the hard fought battles and neither took joy from Union victory. The war left open wounds in the South, as violence inspired by the same problem set continued throughout reconstruction. While it was Southern elites that dragged the Confederacy to war, it was most often poorer whites who felt the ill effects of the disruption of the Southern system and turned to violence in the following years.