Odd ideas arise at the strangest times. Early Monday morning (I mean late Sunday night) just such an odd idea came to me. I was driving through Appomattox, Virginia, and the thought occurred to me that everyone living in America today needs to come to Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia.
The village of Appomattox Courthouse sits just outside of the current town of Appomattox, under the watchful care of the National Park Service. There, on Palm Sunday of 1865, Robert E. Lee met Ulysses S. Grant in the home of Wilmer McLean to negotiate the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia. For all practical purposes, the War Between the States ended with Lee’s surrender, though it would be another two months before all Confederate forces surrendered.
If General Lee had the resources to continue fighting with a reasonable prospect of success, he would have done so. However, with his army exhausted, his supplies depleted, continued fighting was pointless. One of the first things that General Grant did as the surrender talks began was to send food to the Confederate soldiers who had not eaten in some time. He also made provision for any Confederate claiming a horse or mule to be given the animal. Lee had pointed out that the animals would be needed to plow the fields to which his troops would be returning.
General Lee had refused to consider a suggestion from one of his subordinates to break up the Army of Northern Virginia into small groups, and to continue the war in a guerilla fashion. Lee had reached the conclusion that the best thing for his men was to return to their lives as American citizens. So the bloodiest conflict in United States History was ended.
The nation we live in today is marked by many divergent opinions, on a wide range of issues, some of them important and some of them less so. I found myself feeling a sense of gratitude as I drove by the exit for Appomattox Courthouse that in the midst of all those deeply held diverse opinions, we have not yet become as divided as we were in 1861. I also marveled at what we have accomplished since Lee and Grant met together on that morning long ago. Out of that severest of divisions, a nation emerged capable of meeting any challenge and achieving any goal.
Enemies stopped being enemies. Brothers became brothers again. The common good returned as an idea worth considering. After four years of bloody conflict, resulting in the deaths of over 620,000 Americans, Americans decided to stop shooting at one another. Instead, they set about to work together to bind up wounds and heal the land; and in doing so, quietly became a country that is the envy of the world.