Meriting Mercy in Times of War

General Grant’s Lesson for All Generations

(Sept. 8, 2023–The following article first appeared in the Summer 2023 edition of The Banner, Journal of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, vol. 127, no. 4.[1] It is reprinted with permission. For additional material on this subject on this blog, click here.)

By Tony L. “Bo” Vets II, Camp Commander, Brig. Gen. Joseph Bailey Camp #5, Department of Texas*

Can one’s enemy earn mercy? If one man is forced to struggle and fight and bleed and suffer for years at the hands of another, and the former suddenly finds himself in a position to take revenge on the latter, is there anything the latter can do to merit mercy from the former?

I recently read Virgil’s epic masterpiece, The Aeneid, and spent the better part of two months contemplating this very question. For those unfamiliar with this classic, the protagonist Aeneas is a defeated Trojan forced from his homeland by the invasion of the Greeks, who travels for years at the urging of the gods in order to find and establish a new Troy in Italy. On one of his many stops he finds himself face to face with a Greek who was on his way to invade Troy, but who was deserted by his comrades in the land of the Cyclops. As the Greek warns Aeneas of the horrors of the Cyclops, a Cyclops approaches, and Aeneas and his Trojans flee to their ships, taking the lonely and terrified Greek with them, this Greek who at the very least part represented the very cause for all their strife and hardships.

Meriting Mercy in Times of War
The face of Aeneas, a detail from a statue by Gian Lorenzo Bernini

The fact that Virgil has Aeneas saving the Greek as they flee the Cyclops is interesting in and of itself. However, what makes this part of the tale even more interesting is the reason Virgil has the Trojans saving the Greek: in Robert Fagles’ translation the Trojans, “…take aboard the fugitive –he had earned his way…,” and in C. Day Lewis’ translation they take, “…on board that Greek who so merited mercy…”

Why did he earn or merit mercy? After rushing towards Aeneas and his Trojans, the Greek did explain to them the cause of his terror and warn them that Cyclops wandered the land: was this warning enough to merit mercy? While this type of quid pro quo, information that may save your life in exchange for my own, might be the most pragmatic answer, it could not be that simple. Before the terrified Greek explains his plight and the dangers lurking in the mountains, as he rushes upon the Trojans, Aeneas’ own father is seen giving “…the man his hand and the friendly gesture lifts the stranger’s spirits.” There must be something more than a sort of quid pro quo that makes enemies merit mercy.

The Surrender at Appomattox

To better understand how enemies can merit mercy, one really needs to look no further than to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and his treatment of Gen. Robert E. Lee and the men of the Army of Northern Virginia during and after the surrender at Appomattox Court House. In April of 1865, Gen. Grant’s Army of the Potomac crushed the exhausted and ill-equipped Army of Northern Virginia under Gen. Robert E. Lee. After years of being outmaneuvered, outsmarted, and outfought, the Army of the Potomac now had a major victory: a victory of victories that would end the war. It would be natural to expect the victorious army, and victorious general leading that army, to become proud, to gloat over the fallen enemy, to punish him for all the death and destruction that occurred throughout the war, and to teach him a lesson about the consequences of a failed rebellion.

Painting of Lee’s surrender, housed at the National Portrait Gallery.

Yet this was not the way of the man who had earned the sobriquet “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. Indeed, Gen. Grant’s only condition for the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia was that they “…lay down their arms, not to take them up against during the continuance of the war unless duly and properly exchanged.” He further agreed to “…let every man of the Confederate army who claimed to own a horse or mule take the animal to his home…” as these men were mostly farmers who would need their horses to help raise enough crops to see their families through the coming winter. When Gen. Lee informed Gen. Grant that his men were starving, Gen. Grant “…authorized him to send his own commissary and quartermaster to Appomattox Station, two or three miles away, where he could have, out of the trains we had stopped, all the provisions wanted.”

It was no small thing to see to the physical needs of those whom you had just conquered, and Gen. Grant certainly displayed great mercy in feeding the men of the Army of Northern Virginia and allowing them to keep their horses and mules. Yet it was in another act, one that I remember my father telling me when I was young, that Gen. Grant demonstrated perhaps an even deep type of mercy, one that helps us understand how an enemy can merit or earn mercy, as Virgil’s Greek did in The Aeneid.

Expectedly, as news of the surrender reached the Union rank and file, they were exuberant: “…our men commenced firing a salute of a hundred guns in honor of the victory.” This did not sit well with Gen. Grant, for he wrote, “I at once sent word, however, to have it stopped. The Confederates were now our prisoners, and we did not want to exult over their downfall.”

Grant’s Humility

In this simple act we see two humane traits that can lead us to the answer of how enemies can merit or earn mercy. Although victorious, Gen. Grant was humble, and through this humility he realized that like him, his prisoners were human too. Even though the men of the opposing armies fought for different ideas and ideals, there was a common thread running through them all.

Meriting Mercy in Times of War
General Ulysses S. Grant

They had all experienced hunger and privation. They had all seen bloodshed and felt the pang of sorrow and loss as their friends and comrades died. They had all experienced a longing desire to go home. They were all human, and in that, they all had something in common. Now was not the time to gloat, boast, punish, chastise, or abuse. Now was the time to heal and ease all suffering.

In the terrified Greek, Aeneas came face to face with someone who was more than just an enemy. He came face to face with another human who like him had experienced fear, privation, and loneliness; a human who needed mercy. Like Aeneas, Grant too came face to face with his enemy, and in his humanity found his enemy to be a man who merited mercy because of his own humanity.

*This manuscript was prepared in part by the author as part of his doctoral studies in the Humanities at Faulkner University. The author expresses his gratitude to Dr. Robert Woods for his comments and feedback on the original manuscript.

[1] For more on the Sons of Union Veterans, click here.

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