Chapter XXXI. Lee's Years of Peace
Desperate as their plight had been for many days, Lee's men had not wholly abandoned the hope of escape, but when their beloved commander returned from the Federal lines they saw by his face that the end had come, and crowding around him, they pressed his hands, even the strongest among them shedding bitter tears. For a time he was unable to respond in words to this touching demonstration, but finally, with a great effort, he mastered his emotion and bravely faced his comrades.
"Men," he said, "we have fought through the war together; I have done my best for you; my heart is too full to say more."
Brief as these words were, all who heard them realized that Lee saw no prospect of continuing the struggle and meant to say so. He was, of course, well aware that the Confederates had many thousand men still in the field, and that by separating into armed bands they could postpone the end for a considerable period. But this to his mind was not war and he had no sympathy with such methods and no belief that they could result in anything but more bloodshed and harsher terms for the South. A word from him would have been quite sufficient to encourage the other commanders to hold out and prolong the cruelly hopeless contest, but he had determined not to utter it.
Grant was firmly convinced that this would be his attitude, but whether he would actually advise the abandonment of the cause was another question, and it was to suggest this course that the Union commander sought him out on the morning after the surrender. This second interview occurred between the lines of the respective armies and as the former adversaries sat conversing on horseback, Grant tactfully introduced the subject of ending the war.
He knew, he told Lee, that no man possessed more influence with the soldiers and the South in general than he did, and that if he felt justified in advising submission his word would doubtless have all the effect of law. But to this suggestion Lee gravely shook his head. He frankly admitted that further resistance was useless, but he was unwilling to pledge himself to give the proposed advice until he had consulted with the Confederate President, and Grant did not urge him, feeling certain that he would do what he thought right. Nor was this confidence misplaced, for though Lee never positively advised a general surrender, his opinions soon came to be known and in a short time all the Confederate forces in the field yielded.
But though peace was thus restored, the war had left two countries where it had found one, and to the minds of many people they could never be united again. It was then that Lee showed his true greatness, for from the moment of his surrender he diligently strove by voice and pen and example to create harmony between the North and South and to help in the rebuilding of the nation. To those who asked his opinion as to whether they should submit to the Federal authorities and take the required oath of allegiance, he unhesitatingly replied, "If you intend to reside in this country and wish to do your part in the restoration of your state and in the government of the country, which I think is the duty of every citizen, I know of no objection to your taking the oath."
He denounced the assassination of Lincoln as a crime to be abhorred by every American, discountenanced the idea of Southerners seeking refuge in foreign lands, scrupulously obeyed every regulation of the military authorities regarding paroled prisoners and exerted all the influence at his command to induce his friends to work with him for the reconciliation of the country. Even when it was proposed to indict and try him for treason he displayed no resentment or bitterness. "I have no wish to avoid any trial that the Government may order. I hope others may go unmolested," was his only comment. But no such persecution was to be permitted, for Grant interfered the moment he heard of it, insisting that his honor and that of the nation forbade that Lee should be disturbed in any way, and his indignant protest straightway brought the authorities to their senses.
In the meanwhile, innumerable propositions reached Lee, offering him great monetary inducements to lend his name and fame to business enterprises of various kinds, but although he had lost all his property and was practically penniless, he would not consent to undertake work that he did not feel competent to perform and would listen to no suggestion of receiving compensation merely for the use of his name. His desire was to identify himself with an institution of learning where he could be of some public service, and at the same time gain the peaceful home life of which he had dreamed for so many years. As soon as this was understood offers came to him from the University of Virginia and the University of the South at Suwannee, Tennessee, but he feared that his association with a State institution like the University of Virginia might create a feeling of hostility against it on the part of the Federal Government, and the Vice-Chancellorship of the Tennessee university would have required him to leave his native state.