One hundred and fifty years ago today, on April 9, 1865 after four years of Civil War that tore the nation asunder and resulted in nearly 630,000 deaths and over one million casualties, General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, at the McLean home in Appomattox Court House, Virginia.
From a strategic perspective, the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia allowed the Federal Government to redistribute their army forces to other areas of the south culminating in the surrender of the remaining armies of the Confederacy over the following months. But the symbolism and cessation of armed hostilities between the States preserved the future of our country and eventually led to the emergence of the United States as a superpower during the century and a half that followed.
The meeting between the two wartime generals lasted approximately an hour and a half and the terms agreed to by General Lee and Grant would become a model for future surrenders and a lesson for future generations of military leaders.
In a gesture of magnanimity that seems all the more poignant considering our society’s quest for absolutes, in war and in peace, General Grant expressly included the following language in the terms of surrender: “This will not embrace the side-arms of the officers, nor their private horses or baggage.” It was not a small concession, historically, surrender meant complete capitulation and humiliation of the other side, sometimes justified as deterrence against future aggression and sometimes because the human lust for revenge runs deep.
Compromise is difficult. Compromise means giving something up, for a greater good or avoidance of a greater bad. With his army surrounded on all sides, General Grant did not have to make any concessions and he did not have to compromise. However, he recognized that allowing the defeated Confederate army to retain some measure of dignity, by retaining their pistols, horses and bags, would enable a complete defeat to be a little bit easier to swallow on the long journey home.
It is a business lesson we all can learn in our negotiations. If there is room on the table to give something to the other side, something they may value, without costing your side much if anything, it is a worthwhile step toward deepening a partnership or preserving the opportunity for a relationship in the future.
As the bells chime today throughout the land at 3:10 PM, marking the 150th Anniversary of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, let us recall the lessons of this fateful Anniversary and remember the statesmanship, grace and generosity that led to the end of the deadliest war in American history.