General Robert E. Lee’s surrender greg bustin executive leadership blog

3 Lessons from Appomattox

April 7th, 2015  | 

Published in Conflict Resolution

Two days from now marks the 150th anniversary of the end of North America’s bloodiest war that pitted countryman against countryman and, occasionally, brother against brother.

On April 9, 1865, Union General Ulysses S. Grant accepted General Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Northern Army of Virginia at Appomattox Courthouse, effectively ending the American Civil War.

When the end is at hand in business – whether with a customer, a supplier or an employee – there are three lessons from Appomattox that can inform today’s leaders.

  1. When it’s over, it’s over.  Lincoln’s 1864 re-election signaled the end for the South. In February 1865, Lincoln rejected Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ request for peace because Davis wanted the South to remain independent. The following month, retreating Confederates burned Richmond, Virginia, to prevent Union troops from capturing it. By early April, Lee’s retreating army was exhausted, outnumbered and out of options. Believing the end was near, Grant wrote Lee: “The result of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance…in this struggle. I feel that it is so, and regard it as my duty to shift from myself the responsibility of any further effusion of blood, by asking of you the surrender of…the Army of Northern Virginia.”  Lee wanted one more chance for his army to escape, but when it became clear he was surrounded on three sides, Lee realized the war was over and he agreed to surrender.

Lesson One: One of the most difficult decisions leaders must make is assessing the performance gap – whether real or imagined – that exists between your company and your supplier, your company and your customer, or between two colleagues. Your assessment will help you answer the hardest question of all: How much more time will we invest in this cause?

  1. Be specific about the terms. Once Lee accepted the inevitable truth that surrender was eminent, he wrote to Grant:  “I reciprocate your desire to avoid useless effusion of blood, and therefore, before considering your proposition, ask the terms you will offer on condition of its surrender.” The eight letters Grant and Lee exchanged leading to their meeting at Appomattox Courthouse are known as the “Surrender Correspondence” and offer insight into each man’s character. Grant stipulated that officers give their word they would not take up arms against their country. Officers were allowed to keep their pistols and sabers, and the defeated Confederates were allowed to return home with their horses and mules. The terms were as generous as Lee could hope for since his men would not be imprisoned or prosecuted for treason.

Lesson Two:  Performance is a choice. The person or organization that is unable or unwilling to perform has made a choice and must be prepared to accept the consequences of their decision. Ensure the rewards and penalties for performance are specific, reasonable and clear. 

  1. End relationships with dignity. Grant received Lee’s letter inquiring about the terms of surrender on the morning of April 9th. Grant’s reply that Lee could determine “where you wish the interview [i.e., meeting] to take place” is remarkable, because it allowed the defeated Lee to choose the place of his surrender. Grant’s generous offer that allowed the Confederates to keep their horses and mules meant spring planting could be carried out. Grant also provided Lee with food rations for 25,000 men, which Lee said “will have a very happy effect among the men and do much toward reconciling the country.”  The character of Lee and Grant was of such a high order that the surrender at Appomattox has been called “The Gentlemen’s Agreement.” With surrender papers signed, Lee rode away, and Grant’s men began cheering in celebration. Grant ordered an immediate stop to the cheering, saying, “The Confederates were now our countrymen, and we did not want to exult over their downfall.” Three days later, Union Brig. Gen. Joshua L. Chamberlain led a formal surrender ceremony, and later wrote a moving tribute:

The momentous meaning of this occasion impressed me deeply. I resolved to mark it by some token of recognition, which could be no other than a salute of arms. Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood: men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond;—was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured? Instructions had been given; and when the head of each division column comes opposite our group, our bugle sounds the signal and instantly our whole line from right to left, regiment by regiment in succession, gives the soldier’s salutation, from the “order arms” to the old “carry”—the marching salute. [Confederate Gen. John Brown] Gordon at the head of the column, riding with heavy spirit and downcast face, catches the sound of shifting arms, looks up, and, taking the meaning, wheels superbly, making with himself and his horse one uplifted figure, with profound salutation as he drops the point of his sword to the boot toe; then facing to his own command, gives word for his successive brigades to pass us with the same position of the manual,—honor answering honor. On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glorying, nor motion of man standing again at the order, but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead! 

Lesson Three:  Handle your final meetings in a professional and respectful manner.  It’s the right thing to do. And, you never know when your paths will cross again.

Character is revealed in moments of hardship.  How your organization terminates relationships speaks volumes about your character.

About the Author: Greg Bustin advises leaders of some of the world’s most admired companies, and he’s dedicated a career to working with CEOs and the leadership teams of hundreds of companies in a range of industries. He’s facilitated more than 200 strategic planning sessions, and he’s delivered more than 500 keynotes and workshops on five continents. His fifth leadership book—How Leaders Decide: A Timeless Guide to Making Tough Choices—examines 52 of history’s greatest triumphs and tragedies and debuted in April as the #1 new historical reference book on Amazon.

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