On the evening of the day before Lincoln was inaugurated for a second term, and just as he was sitting down to dinner, General Ulysses S. Grant received an urgent message from his opposing number, General Robert E. Lee. “Sincerely desiring to leave nothing untried which may put an end to the calamities of war,” the Confederate General-in-Chief wrote to propose that they have an interview “as to the possibility of arriving at a satisfactory adjustment of the present unhappy difficulties by means of a military convention… with the hope that upon an interchange of views it may be found practicable to submit the subjects of controversy between the belligerents to a convention of the kind mentioned.” Grant acted upon to this offer to talk of an armistice immediately - for if Lee were authorized to make peace, he needed to ascertain whether he had the power to do so. A message then went out to Stanton, noting that he had not yet returned a reply but promised to do so by noon tomorrow – at just the moment, in fact, that Lincoln was due to take the oath of office.
The telegram which Grant received in reply, though signed by Stanton, was written by Lincoln. Grant was to have no conference with General Lee, it directed, unless it was to receive the surrender of his army, or to arrange a minor military matter. Furthermore, and explicitly, Grant was “not to decide, discuss or confer upon any political question.” Such issues were solely the province of the president: Grant’s job was to press, to the utmost, his military advantages - and so it behooved him, immediately, to send word back across the lines that the war would be fought to the finish.
Here is Grant’s reply to Stanton, appropriately obedient; yet the repeated protestations, all crossed out, that he was not trying to usurp executive authority, show that even in hot pursuit, the rough commander understood that sometimes discretion is the better part of valor.
Your dispatch of 12 p.m. the 3rd received. I have written a letter to Gen Lee. Copy of which will be sent to you by tomorrows mail. I can assure you that no act of the enemy will prevent me pressing all advantages gained to the utmost of my ability. Neither will I under any circumstances as such exceed my authority or in any way compromise embarrass the Govt. It was because I had no right to meet Gen. Lee on the subject proposed by him that I referred the matter for instructions.
peace must come some day and I would regard it just as wrong to I would regard it as wrong to receive such reject such communications without referring them
But sooner rather than later Grant would in fact be authorized to sit down and talk with General Lee: at Appomattox Court House, on April 9, 1865. "I met you once before, General Lee,” Grant began, “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."
Autograph Letter Signed (“U.S. Grant”), war-date as General-in-Chief, being a much-emended cipher message; 1 page, quarto, Head Quarters, City Point, Virginia, March 4, 1865.To Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton in Washington.