150 years ago, two men saved our country

“After four years of arduous service marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources. I need not tell the survivors of so many hard fought battles, who have remained steadfast to the last, that I have consented to the result from no distrust of them. But feeling that valour and devotion could accomplish nothing that could compensate for the loss that must have attended the continuance of the contest, I have determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen.

By the terms of the agreement, officers and men can return to their homes and remain until exchanged. You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from the consciousness of duty faithfully performed, and I earnestly pray that a merciful God will extend to you his blessing and protection. With an unceasing admiration of your constancy and devotion to your Country, and a grateful remembrance of your kind and generous consideration for myself, I bid you an affectionate farewell.”

-- R.E. Lee, General, General Order No. 9 -- farewell to his troops

On this day 150 years ago, two proud men, both West Point graduates, one, “Resplendent in his magnificent crisp gray uniform” and the other, according to Jay Winick’s “April 1865 -- The Month That Saved America,” was dressed in a “private’s muddy shirt, his boots and trousers splattered with mud.” The meeting place was the home of Wilmer McLean in Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. And what a meeting. Gen. Robert E. Lee was surrendering his Army of Northern Virginia to Gen. Hiram Ulysses Grant. While this meeting wasn’t the end of the Civil War, it was the beginning of the end.

We could learn from these two men today. The surrender could have been a time of bloodletting and score settling. Rather it was a moment of great respect. Both Lee and Grant’s wish, along with President Lincoln’s, was to heal a nation after four years of war. The soldiers from the South were basically told to go home and make no more war. Can you imagine where we would be if these two men had decided to do otherwise? A week after the surrender, Lincoln would die from an assassin’s bullet. Two months later, the last Southern army would surrender.

Our country has been through a lot of self-inflicted pain trying to live up to our guiding principles. As much as some Americans think we are going to hell in a hand basket, if we were able to survive the Civil War and its ending that could have turned into a guerrilla warefare lasting years and an assassination of a president, we can survive whatever challenges we face.