Of the two most detailed contemporary published versions of Lee's interview with President Grant at the White House on May 1, 1869, one represented General Lee as saying too little, the other as talking too much. The New York Herald1 reported the incident in this manner:
"The following conversation occurred between the President and General Lee, which lasted about five minutes:
"General Lee: Mr. President, I called today, in accordance with your kind invitation, with my friends here, Mr. and Mrs. Taggart [sic], of Baltimore, to thank you for the honor you have done me.
"President: I did wish, General, to have a somewhat lengthy conversation with you in regard to matters relating to your section of the country, if such will be agreeable to you.
"General Lee: Mr. President, I would much prefer that you should not take my opinions and views as representing those of the people of Virginia and the South, and I do not think I could give any useful information on that subject. If you will excuse me, Mr. President, I will repeat my thanks for your invitation, and bid you goodday."
All this may conceivably have been said, in substance, but it certainly is not all that was said. Lee would not have been so abrupt.
p521 The other extended version is that of The New York Tribune.2 It described the interview as "polite and cordial," but marked by "a certain reserve." Nothing was said about the war, but Lee, at Grant's instance, is alleged to have "made several suggestions" on politics respecting Virginia and the South. He is credited, also, in this account, with opinions that hardly could be ascribed to him.
As neither of these accounts can be accepted, it probably is best to take the statements of Robert M. Douglas and of Robert E. Lee, Jr., as authentic, however much one might wish for something colorful, something dramatic: "The visit," Judge Douglas wrote long afterwards, "was merely one of courtesy, and did not last long."3 Said Captain Lee, "this meeting was of no political significance whatever, but simply a call of courtesy. . . . The interview lasted about fifteen minutes, and neither General Lee nor the President spoke a word on political matters."4
General Badeau, who was not present, stated that his information came from Grant and from J. L. Motley. He wrote: "Motley said that both men were simple and dignified, but he thought there was a shade of constraint in the manner of Lee, who was indeed always inclined to be more formal than the Northern general. The former enemies shook hands; Grant asked Lee to be seated, and presented Motley. The interview was short, and all that Grant could remember afterwards was that they spoke of building railroads, and he said playfully to Lee, 'You and I, General, have had more to do with destroying railroads than building them.' But Lee refused to smile, or to recognize the raillery. He went on gravely with the conversation, and no other reference was made to the past. Lee soon arose, and the soldiers parted. . . ."5
1 Quoted in The Richmond Dispatch, May 8, 1869.
2 Reprinted in The National Intelligencer, May 4, 1869.
3 R. M. Douglas, in The Youth's Companion, Dec. 19, 1912, p700.
4 R. E. Lee, Jr., 349.
5 Badeau, Grant in Peace, 26‑27.
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