In sports, you always hear people talking about a “gracious loser” or someone who takes defeat well, and while that is important, I believe there is such a thing as a gracious winner as well. It’s realizing that you aren’t always going to win, that you are blessed for that victory and that you have a chance to show your character.
In times like these, it seems that life is a constant battle. When I think of the gracious character of a winner, I think of the surrender of the confederate army at Appomattox Courthouse. The South was defeated, weary, hungry and dying. Soldiers (my ancestors among them) had clothes rotting off their bodies and stomachs aching with hunger. Truly, it was the indomitable spirit of Southerners that caused the war to last as long as it did. They were proud, as seen by the example General Lee set when he met General Grant to talk the terms of surrender.
While Grant was muddy and unkempt, Lee was dressed formally, with a gilded sword, buttoned up uniform and straight back. General Lee was a legend even back then. It was his strategic mind that made up for the lack of supplies with the Southern army. I think if it weren’t for the staggering loss of lives mounting daily, Lee would have fought to the end.
They met at the courthouse and Grant addressed Lee first. “I met you once before, General Lee, while we were serving in Mexico, when you came over from General Scott’s headquarters to visit Garland’s brigade, to which I then belonged. I have always remembered your appearance, and I think I should have recognized you anywhere.”
Lee replied, “I know I met you on that occasion, and I have often thought of it and tried to recollect how you looked, but I have never been able to recall a single feature.” As if they had plenty of time, they continued to reminisce for a while longer until Lee made a move to the matter at hand.
In most surrendering armies of history, the victor demands complete humiliation—enslavement, death, all property relinquished. Grant was respectful from the beginning in his demeanor and terms. He gave the entire army amnesty—they could walk away and go home without punishment. The officers were allowed to keep their horses, guns and property. Grant even offered food and medical help to the starving Confederates. Afterward, Lee got on his horse and rode away.
What’s interesting to me is General Grant’s actions. While Lee is a naturally proud leader and commanded himself well during the meeting, Grant’s actions speak of respect and humility. He puts his adversary at ease and waits until Lee initiates the surrender. His terms were so generous, many Northerners were angry. The man was the obvious victor in one of the bloodiest wars in history, yet his concern was not for revenge, but for reconciliation.
That is an admirable man. A man who is not concerned with his reputation, appearance, or what history would make of him but with being generous enough to guarantee the end of a war to save lives. Whether it’s saying a kind word to a lonely soul at a party or pulling your car over for a funeral procession, it takes confidence in who you are to be a gracious person. In life’s battles, I can only hope that I show that humility of spirit in victory as well as defeat.