- “I Only Knew What Was in My Mind”Ulysses S. Grant and the Meaning of Appomattox
“I only knew what was in my mind,” Ulysses S. Grant said, describing his feelings as he sat down to write out the terms of surrender at Appomattox Court House in Virginia on April 9, 1865.1 Somehow, that sentence makes it sound so simple. It was not. This essay highlights the meaning of the military surrender at Appomattox largely from the perspective of the top northern general, Grant, but also complicates and contextualizes Grant’s famous remark. Twice before Appomattox, Grant accepted the surrender of a major Confederate force—at Fort Donelson, Tennessee, in 1862 and at Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1863. In those two campaigns, Grant was relentless in pursuing victory, but once secured, he also displayed magnanimity, anticipating the more celebrated generosity of the 1865 surrender.
It is vital to point out that surrender has multiple meanings.2 In the context of the Civil War, a military or a political surrender is defined as giving up something valuable—a fortress, an army, a defined territory, a country, a set of demands—to an enemy. It can also mean something beautiful, tender, or forgiving. It can mean surrendering to a lover, or, surrendering a soul to God, it can mean a surrender of individual selfishness to a greater good. “Surrender”’s multiple meanings were present at Donelson, Vicksburg, and, especially, Appomattox. All three places were at once sites of brutal warfare and conflict, sites of humiliation received by the losers and inflicted by the victors, sites of reunion, sites of reconciliation, and almost immediately, sites of memory. Within the epic story of the Civil War, it was the surrender at Appomattox that attained mythic status as the ultimate symbol of reunion and reconciliation.3
Ulysses S. Grant’s conviction that the Union was going to be preserved is what guided and sustained his military policy, including surrender, throughout the war. He developed a broad national perspective on the means as well as the end of the rebellion. Vitally concerned with seeking out and destroying an enemy, he was also keenly aware of what kind [End Page 307] of conditions—military and political—would lay a solid foundation for reunion. As the conflict progressed, Grant’s notable gestures toward conciliation united his and President Abraham Lincoln’s desire for peace with the former Confederacy while insisting that the people of the rebellious states swear a loyalty oath to the United States and accept emancipation. To recover surrender’s different meanings and suggest some of the consequences for a nation torn asunder, Grant’s three military surrenders are situated within the progress of the war for their suggestive relationship to conciliation and reunion. By the end, Grant’s statement—“I only knew what was in my mind”—will be placed in an even more compelling perspective, revealing the richly textured nature of military surrender during the American Civil War.
Unconditional Surrender at Fort Donelson, February 16, 1862
Early Union strategy in the western theater targeted two vital forts protecting Confederate territory. On February 6, 1862, Grant and naval officer Andrew Hull Foote bore down on the smaller of the two, Fort Henry, situated on the east bank of the Tennessee River just south of the Kentucky border. Foote’s gunboats arrived before Grant and his infantry, providing the firepower that led to the surrender of the fort. Foote demanded “unconditional surrender” and sent two of his subordinates to accept Gen. Lloyd Tilghman’s ceremonial sword, a common feature of surrender ceremonies. Most of the Confederate infantry escaped capture by moving on the road to nearby Fort Donelson, where they awaited the expected Federal assault.4 After some delay, Grant’s troops, supported by the ironclads, attacked the more strategically important and strongly defended Fort Donelson on the Tennessee side of the Cumberland River. Sharp fighting in freezing weather gave the Rebels expectation of winning the battle, but mismanagement and disagreement between the leading southern officers led to the fort’s two senior Confederate commanders—Generals John B. Floyd and Gideon J. Pillow—abandoning the scene of carnage and destruction, leaving Gen. Simon...