Lee’s Life Hangs By A Thread

The story of how Robert E. Lee ended the Civil War compels me to draw a leadership point.

The defeat of Lee and his army in 1865 pivoted in many ways on the efforts of one man, Ulysses S. Grant. Grant's approach to leadership of US armed forces ultimately compelled Lee to surrender. Grant was impervious to the massive US casualties that it took to force Lee's capitulation. No one man was more responsible for Lee's defeat in spring 1865 than U.S. Grant.

Ironically, no one man was more responsible for Lee's life either. When the Confederacy collapsed in May–a few weeks after Lee surrendered–momentum began to build for the trial and execution of top Confederate leaders, particularly Lee. The only thing that saved Lee's life was the insistence of Grant that the original terms of surrender negotiated with Lee remain in force. Those conditions included the right of Lee and his men to return to a peace-time existence. Grant threatened to resign if President Andrew Johnson (successor to the murdered Lincoln) pursued prosecution of Lee. Grant defeated Lee's army. Grant saved Lee's life.

Few things are permanent. Today's opponent is tomorrow's ally. People have an infinite capacity to surprise you. And sometimes, perhaps more times than we know or care to admit in our cynical age, those surprises are good.