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Ulysses S. Grant: The 'Unconditional Surrender Continues

Originally published by Civil War Times magazine. Published Online: January 17, 2007 
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For most general officers, a headline-making victory accompanied by the abject surrender of an entire enemy army, such as Ulysses "Unconditional Surrender" Grant accomplished at Fort Donelson in February 1862, would have been quite enough for one career. But Grant would make the most of two more opportunities for practicing the "art of surrender," starting 17 months later at Vicksburg. This fortress city was the key to the Mississippi River and very nearly the last Confederate holdout on the "Father of Waters" by 1863. Federal assaults — two by the Navy and one by the Army — had been turned back three times in 12 months. After mid-May, the town was under siege, with no relief in sight.

Finally, on the morning of July 3, Confederate General John C. Pemberton sent a dispatch through the lines under a flag of truce asking for an armistice and a conference to discuss "terms of capitulation." What he had in mind was a traditional negotiating session between commissioners from the respective sides, a process that could drag out for days or even weeks. At the time Grant was preparing for a major assault on the city's fortifications and believed a successful military resolution of the siege was in sight. The Confederate communiqué was carried by Maj. Gen. John Bowen, chosen specifically because he and Grant had been friends back in Missouri before the war. Bowen was first taken to Union Maj. Gen. James McPherson, who unlike Brig. Gen. C.F. Smith at Fort Donelson, sent the Confederate representative on without comment to Grant's headquarters.

In his dispatch, Pemberton spouted the usual rhetoric about wishing to "save the further effusion of blood" and how long he could continue to hold out, but Grant would have none of it. He did not need Smith to advise him this time. His reply was blunt and identical in essence to what he had told Brig. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner at Fort Donelson: "The useless effusion of blood you propose stopping by this course can be ended at any time you may choose by an unconditional surrender of the city and the garrison." The words "unconditional surrender" came naturally to him now, but he cushioned the harshness of his response by telling Bowen, "I can assure you you will always be treated with all the respect due to prisoners of war." He added that he was opposed to the idea of appointing commissioners for the simple reason that "I have no terms other than those indicated above," and offered instead to meet Pemberton between the lines that very afternoon.

As at Donelson, old fraternal ties interjected themselves into the proceedings from the start. Not only was Bowen a personal friend of Grant's, but Pemberton and Grant had served in the same division in Mexico. When the two commanders met on the Jackson Road a little after 3 p.m., Grant greeted Pemberton as "an old acquaintance." The warm greeting did not cover up their differences. Pemberton came in full dress uniform, while Grant, following the pattern established at Fort Donelson, wore his usual fatigue dress under a field jacket. Bowen accompanied Pemberton to add the weight of his influence, while Grant brought along a full house of corps and division commanders plus assorted staff officers. There was no small talk between the two principals on this occasion. Pemberton was sensitive about the position he found himself in and full of bluster, while Grant was his usual taciturn self, showing no emotion while he chewed on an unlit cigar. With nothing but an empty field to host their discussion, the two senior officers sat down on camp chairs. Pemberton misinterpreted Grant's casual dress and boyish tugging at the grass beneath his chair as signs of weakness. The Southerner stiffly asked for terms, while Grant took time out from his cigar long enough to reiterate his stock answer — that he had no terms to offer but unconditional surrender. At that, Pemberton sniffed, "If this is all you have to offer, the conference might as well end," and prepared to mount his horse. Grant refused to be intimidated and would have let Pemberton go except that Bowen intervened to suggest that the two commanders go off and chat while their lieutenants talked things over. After 30 minutes the subordinates were back with a proposal pushed by Bowen, whose key point was that the garrison be paroled, not incarcerated as POWs. On top of that, they would be allowed to march out with their small arms, artillery and "all the honors of war." Grant flatly rejected the proposal, and that ended the meeting. However, Grant promised to contact Pemberton again with his final terms by 10 o'clock that evening.

Back at his headquarters, Grant mulled over the parole issue, talking to his senior officers informally. "This was the nearest approach to a 'council of war' I ever had," he would later say. Initially, he was totally opposed to the idea of parole, but he allowed his officers to change his mind, and his communiqué to Pemberton that night contained terms that must have made Pemberton and Bowen smile: "As soon as the rolls can be made out, and paroles be signed by officers and men, you will be allowed to march out of our lines, the officers taking with them their side-arms and clothing. The rank and file will be allowed their clothing but no other property."

Obviously, Grant had become less accommodating since Fort Donelson. The mass of Confederates would be allowed to take with them only the clothes on their backs. His decision to parole the Confederates was probably influenced by the prospect that sticking to his "unconditional surrender" dictum would mean feeding and transporting some 30,000 POWs. Remembering the problems created by shipping some 15,000 prisoners into captivity after Donelson, Grant agreed to parole. He was also looking ahead to the day the war would be over, and was trying to do everything possible to avoid bitter feelings. Unnecessarily humiliating a defeated enemy would certainly foster bitter feelings.

Grant's terms for his latest "unconditional surrender" went off to Pemberton before 10 p.m. as promised. He gave the Confederate commander until 9 o'clock the following morning to decide. After that, the armistice was over. Before dawn, the Confederate commander's reply came back: He was willing to surrender Vicksburg on Grant's terms. The hopelessness of his situation plus Grant's concession on the parole issue were the deciding factors, but he did ask for a few additional concessions of more symbolic than substantive importance. First, would Grant allow the Confederates to march out of their defenses and stack their arms and regimental colors in a formal ceremony? Second, would he allow officers to retain their personal property? And third, would he respect the "rights and property" of Vicksburg's citizens? On all of these matters, Pemberton was only following the script laid out by Buckner at Donelson, trying to finagle a few last-minute concessions.

Grant, ever the conciliator, was willing to go along with the first request out of respect for the city's defenders who had fought so long and so hard, but he interpreted the second and third points to be thinly veiled references to slaves and emphatically rejected them both. All this led to yet another exchange of communiqués, which, since Grant insisted on handling all negotiations personally, kept him up all night and wore out horses sending couriers back and forth. Dawn was coming on before Pemberton gave up trying to wring concessions out of Grant and capitulated completely. The surrender would go forward.

At 10 o'clock on Independence Day, the Confederate commander ordered the Stars and Stripes raised over the Vicksburg battlements. After that, white flags appeared all along the eight miles of Confederate trenches. The two commanders scheduled one final meeting to sign the necessary documents. After Union troops had officially taken possession of the shattered city, Grant and his staff rode into Vicksburg under a white flag and headed for Pemberton's headquarters in one of the city's old antebellum mansions. Unlike the congenial meeting with Buckner at Donelson aboard New Uncle Sam, this encounter crackled with tension. Pemberton and his officers were rude from the beginning, failing to offer Grant a seat or even fetch him a drink of water when he asked for it. Grant was unperturbed, however, telling one of his staff who bridled at the treatment, "Well, if Pemberton can stand it, under the circumstances, I can [too]."

Grant on this occasion was not without his famous surrender prop: During the discussion and while the final terms were being drawn up by secretaries, he enjoyed a cigar with his usual composure. Whether he smoked on this occasion out of habit or for effect is impossible to say, but either way it caught the attention of the Southerners present. The Vicksburg newspaper commented on it in its last Confederate edition: "We pardon General Grant for smoking a cigar as he entered the smouldering ruins of the town of Vicksburg. A little stage effect is admirable in great captains." This, Grant's second mass surrender, was also easier than Fort Donelson in the details. Being a major general with a full staff allowed him to leave transcribing and proofreading duties to others.

Following the signing of documents, Grant's next stop was Admiral David Porter's flagship, sitting in the river below the town, to share the good news. While all around him Union officers celebrated with cheers and toasts, Grant sat calmly lost in his own thoughts.

Later that day, Confederate troops marched out to stack their colors and muskets while Union troops looked on from their own lines. Word had gone out, and the Northern boys were respectful. There was scarcely a cheer heard and no exulting in the shame of their opponents. In fact, an almost reverential silence hung over the battlefield. Grant would not have had it any other way.

At Vicksburg Grant was on top of things from the outset. He did not have to deal with self-serving subordinates as he did at Fort Donelson. But as at Donelson, he first demanded unconditional surrender, then showed that his ultimatum could be very flexible indeed. Again he showed concern for Johnny Reb's feelings, but he was less comfortable than he had been 17 months earlier with the idea of paroling men who were just a broken promise away from shooting at him again in the near future.

Twenty-one months later at Appomattox, when fate gave him a third chance to dictate peace terms, he had the routine down to an artform: officially, no negotiations; privately, flexibility; compassion for the foe; pragmatism and informality in the details.

By 1865, Grant was war-weary and desirous of bringing the long conflict to a close. He recognized that the Army of Northern Virginia, which virtually was the Confederacy by that point, was on the ropes and looking for an honorable way to surrender. On the afternoon of April 7, Grant told Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright, "I have a great mind to summon Lee to surrender." He wrote a note to Lee not so much "summoning" as asking the Virginian to capitulate, and he used familiar words, stating his desire to prevent "any further effusion of blood." He entrusted the note to Lt. Col. Orville Babcock, who went off to find Lee and deliver the message. Lee's courteous and exquisitely polite response came back a few hours later, agreeing that it would be nice "to avoid the useless effusion of blood," but without conceding that further Confederate resistance was hopeless. He asked for Grant's terms, beginning a diplomatic pas de deux that would hopefully end in peace.

As at Donelson and Vicksburg, ties of friendship from prewar days played a role in bringing the principals together. Lee knew Grant only by name and reputation. While awaiting Grant's reply, Lee confided to his "old warhorse," Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, that he was concerned Grant might demand "stiff terms." Longstreet, who had been a year ahead of Grant at West Point and considered himself an intimate friend, believed that the Northerner "would impose only such terms as Lee himself would if the roles were reversed." This reassurance went a long way toward putting Lee's mind at ease that Grant was a man he could work with.

Grant's response the next morning set just one condition: "that the men and officers surrendered shall be disqualified [from] taking up arms again, against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged." Since Vicksburg, the two sides had terminated the parole cartel that was in place from 1861-63, but an ad hoc revival of that agreement was exactly what Grant was proposing now. He also deviated from his previous opposition to appointing commissioners by telling Lee, "I will meet you or will designate Officers to meet any officers you may name for the same purpose, at any point agreeable to you, for the purpose of arranging definitely the terms upon which the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia will be received." In this, his last surrender negotiation, most of the detail work was ultimately done by commissioners, who arranged the stacking of arms, the transfer of property and a formal ceremony.

Grant did not threaten dire consequences if Lee refused his offer, as he had done with Buckner at Donelson, but it was his intention to keep pushing the Confederates, hopefully toward the peace table, until "terms are agreed upon." Having determined each other's whereabouts and willingness to talk, both commanders kept the lines of communication open. Lee blinked first. Late on the night of April 8-9, he sent a dispatch proposing a face-to-face meeting the next morning, albeit for the sole purpose of exploring terms. Grant ignored Lee's stubborn refusal to use the word "surrender" in any of his communications to this point, but he kept the pressure on by waiting several hours before composing a reply. In it he accepted the desirability of a face-to-face meeting while making it clear that he was only authorized to discuss terms for the Army of Northern Virginia to "lay down their arms." At 11 a.m., while Grant was inspecting his lines, Lee's reply caught up with him. For the first time, the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia used the fateful words, speaking of "the surrender of this army" and requesting an interview with Grant to that end. It was the turning point.

Grant and Lee let their staffs arrange the meeting place, but this time it would be neither commanding general's headquarters. The agreed-upon neutral ground was Wilmer McLean's home in the village of Appomattox Court House. Grant took along his personal staff, plus Generals Philip Sheridan and O.C. Ord. Grant arrived at the meeting place after Lee, and per his habit wore a field uniform, mud-spattered boots and no sword. Lee, accompanied by a single aide, Colonel Charles Marshall, was dressed to the nines. The two men greeted each other cordially, not because they were old friends, but because it was the nature of both. The tension in the room was a product of the situation, not of either commander's behavior.

Grant followed the same script he had with Buckner and Pemberton, starting the discussions by making small talk that recalled happier days when they had fought on the same side. It was Lee who finally brought the conversation around to business. He asked what terms Grant was offering. This was Grant's opportunity to demand unconditional surrender, but instead he adopted a more conciliatory approach. Confederates must lay down their arms and go home, promising not to take up arms again unless they were properly exchanged. Those terms were acceptable to Lee, and the conversation wandered off the subject once more, as though the two commanders were relieved at having found common ground for settling this unpleasant business. At some point Grant lit up one of his ever-present cigars and puffed away. Lee again reined the conversation in when he suggested that Grant commit the terms to paper. Grant, taking on the role of corresponding secretary for the two of them, took pen in hand and, after thinking for a few moments, began to write in his order book, not in the flowery rhetoric reserved for historic documents but in clear, simple prose.

Lee's ornate sword was very much on Grant's mind during the meeting, leading him to the thought that "it would be an unnecessary humiliation to require [Confederate] officers to surrender their swords," and so that was omitted from the terms. Along the same lines, he decided to let Lee's officers keep their side arms, horses and "personal baggage." Unlike at Vicksburg, he no longer believed that personal baggage could be construed to include slaves.

He did exceed his military authority when he wrote that "each officer and man will be allowed to return to their homes not to be disturbed by U.S. authority so long as they observe their parole and the laws in force where they may reside." Here, Grant was on thin ice, but he had the confidence of knowing the president felt the same way. He also had the imposing authority of his own immense reputation to reinforce his language. In other words, he had little fear of being overruled by the politicians in Washington.

The final document came to two pages of scrawled talking points. Grant reviewed what he had written, then passed it over to Lee for his perusal. The Southerner read silently until he came to the last two sentences. Then he looked up, visibly relieved, and complimented Grant, saying, "This will have a very happy effect upon my army." The only substantive change Lee asked for was that not just officers but men also be allowed to keep their horses, explaining that Southern soldiers brought their own animals when they joined the army. Grant refused to alter the wording of the surrender draft, but said he would issue instructions to provost marshals to permit paroled Southerners to take their horses and mules with them. This concession likewise pleased Lee, who remarked: "This will have the best possible effect upon the men. It will be very gratifying, and will do much toward conciliating our people."

With the last details worked out, Grant passed the order book over to Ely S. Parker, his military secretary, to draw up an official copy of the agreement. Even as Parker was transcribing an official copy, Grant continued to make concessions. When Lee commented that his commissary provisions had not kept up with the army, Grant promised to send over 25,000 rations.

Some two hours after Grant had walked through the door into Wilmer McLean's parlor, the surrender was done. Despite Lee's presence, the entire thing from start to finish had been pure Grant. Charles Marshall, Lee's aide, called it "the simplest, plainest, and most thoroughly devoid of any attempt at effect that you can imagine." The two commanders stood and solemnly shook hands one more time, then walked out to their horses. The final act was anticlimactic but revealing of the high regard Grant held Lee in, as opposed to either Buckner or Pemberton: After Lee mounted his horse, and just before he turned to ride out of the yard, Grant lifted his hat in informal salute, and his officers quickly followed suit. Without hesitation, Lee returned the gesture.

Back at his headquarters, when Grant heard the bluecoats begin to cheer and fire off their guns, he issued orders to his officers to stop such celebrating immediately. "The war is over," he said; "the Rebels are our countrymen again." A little later, he sat down on a large rock and composed a simple telegram to the War Department notifying them what had transpired. As at Donelson and Vicksburg, he refrained from tooting his own horn except to note that the surrender was "on terms proposed by myself."

Grant proved himself a master of the art of surrender by developing certain distinctive techniques in his approach to negotiation. First and foremost, he was never vengeful or vindictive. While others wanted a pound of flesh, Grant wanted peace. Compassion and magnanimity were always his watchwords, even when others occasionally took advantage of those traits. Porter Alexander, the reknowned Confederate artillerist, credited Grant with "a great and broad and generous mind." Second, he knew how to gain the upper hand with his famous pronouncement of "unconditional surrender," but once he had the upper hand, he showed himself willing to negotiate generous terms within reason. He favored personal, informal negotiations over the use of commissioners to hammer out surrender terms. Having secured his enemy's capitulation, he eschewed all pomp and circumstance, which meant skipping stylized ceremonies if at all possible. (At Appomattox the surrender ceremony was set up by subordinates.) Yet he insisted on an unequivocal act of surrender that could not be twisted by a defeated enemy later. For example, at Appomattox he would not let Confederates simply drop their rifles and walk away. On every occasion, his simple modesty shone through; none of the men who surrendered to him had any reason to feel bitterness toward Grant personally.

Grant was ever the pragmatist. He was not afraid to break new ground in setting terms and even to exceed his authority if he believed the rewards justified it. He fed the hungry soldiers at Fort Donelson and Appomattox, paroled the defeated garrison of Vicksburg and the remnants of Lee's army at Appomattox, allowed the rank and file to take their horses home after Appomattox and promised there would be no reprisals or show trials of members of the Army of Northern Virginia while he was calling the shots. These were things that no victorious American general had ever done before.

Finally, Grant always kept one eye on the future when negotiating the surrender of an enemy force. He looked toward the postwar era and eventual reconciliation, and thus he was able to begin healing the wounds of war even while the war was still raging. Among American military commanders, Ulysses S. Grant was truly one of a kind in his instinctive understanding of the art of surrender. Porter Alexander's comment about Appomattox might well be applied equally to Vicksburg and Fort Donelson: "For all time it will be a good thing for the whole United States that, of all the Federal generals, it fell to Grant to receive the surrender of Lee."


This article was written by Richard F. Selcer and originally published in the January 2007 issue of Civil War Times Magazine. Part 1 of this article appeared in the January 2007 issue. For more great articles, be sure to subscribe to Civil War Times magazine today!


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