Perhaps my favorite story of the Civil War comes from Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox, which took place 150 years ago today. Here’s an excerpt, below the fold, from a piece I wrote last year about that episode.

A patient historian could have traced the long arc of the Civil War by waiting out the conflict at Wilmer McLean’s kitchen table. Bull Run, the first major battle in the war’s Eastern Theater, took place on McLean’s property on July 2, 1861; a Union shell tumbled down his chimney that day. Realizing that combat would continue to dog his neighborhood for the duration of the conflict, McLean chased peace and relocated more than a hundred miles to the south. Then in spring 1865, William Sherman, having laid waste to swaths of Georgia and the Carolinas, continued marching north. Along with Ulysses Grant, Sherman hoped to trap Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in a vise. Lee’s men, long noted for their high morale, sensed that the end was nigh. They melted away in the spring heat, heading home to begin rebuilding a region ravaged by war. At the start of April, Lee, with his troops deserting in droves and Sherman’s army drawing ever closer, abandoned his trenches. Less than a week later, Grant’s forces caught Lee’s remaining men on the run. On April 9, 1865, Generals Grant and Lee met in Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. They negotiated a formal surrender to end the war—in Wilmer McLean’s parlor.

The details of that meeting are both familiar and obscured by conflicting accounts and the politics of memory. Lee, we know, arrived in a dress uniform and bearing a ceremonial sword. Grant, by contrast, wore mud-stained trousers and a coat battered by campaigning. The soldiers swapped war stories before agreeing to generous terms: Grant would parole Lee’s officers and enlisted men and allow the rebels to return with their horses and side-arms to their homes, where, he hoped, they would put in a crop to feed their families during the lean times that lay ahead. The Union general then introduced his staff to his Confederate counterpart. Lee lingered near Ely Parker, Grant’s military secretary. A member of the Seneca tribe, Parker had dark skin, leaving one observer sure that Lee “mistook [him] for a negro, and was struck with astonishment to find that the commander of the Union armies had one of that race on his staff.” Parker himself recalled that, after Lee stared at him for a beat, the vanquished general “extended his hand and said, ‘I am glad to see one real American here.’” Parker replied, “We are all Americans.”

Like most iconic stories drawn from the American past, Lee’s surrender to Grant remains open to multiple interpretations. Grant’s chief of staff, having helped win the war but wary of ongoing struggles over the peace, hinted that even in defeat Lee could not overcome the racism that marred the Confederate cause. Lee’s chief of staff, on the other hand, provided fuel that would in time explode into the Lost Cause myths. He juxtaposed the martial grace of his commander, a Virginia cavalier and Southern gentleman in every sense of the word, with the slovenly Grant, who, he reported, seemed ashamed of his attire and also perhaps of having bested the better man. More recently, Civil War historians have focused on Grant’s kindness toward Lee’s men. As Jim McPherson recounts, Lee remarked at the time that Grant’s decency would “do much toward conciliating our people.” Grant and Lee, in this view, began sowing the seeds of reconciliation at McLean’s house.

What, though, of the conversation between Ely Parker and Robert E. Lee? What of Lee’s comment and Parker’s retort—assuming that such an exchange even took place? (In his recollection, Parker notes that he and Lee had their backs turned to the room when they spoke, meaning that onlookers could only speculate about their interaction.) Elizabeth Varon, in her excellent new study of the Civil War’s final chapter, suggests that Parker’s Iroquois heritage left him “especially attuned to Lee’s plight.” Parker, from Varon’s perspective, acted “magnanimously to a defeated foe.” Viewed from a different angle, though, one might argue that Parker pushed Lee to move past treason, past making war against the United States, to acknowledge that all the people gathered in McLean’s home shared a common heritage: they were all Americans. Parker, then, might have been strumming the mystic chords of memory that President Lincoln had invoked four years earlier in his first inaugural address. Still another reading might suggest that Parker anticipated struggles over citizenship that would mark the era of Reconstruction, suggesting to Lee that the category “American” had become expansive enough during the war to encompass formerly excluded groups, including freed slaves and Native peoples.