On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee met General Ulysses S. Grant at the McLean House in Appomattox, Virginia, for the purpose of surrendering the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee had asked for the meeting and had prepared by putting on his finest uniform: a new, long dress coat with a high collar buttoned to the top, a bejeweled long sword at his side, a pair of high-topped boots with spurs. Grant appeared in his typical attire, the simple uniform of a common soldier: a short coat and plain, spur-less boots, both much spattered with mud.
The contrast in attire matched the contrast in the men themselves: Lee was tall, straight in his bearing and solemn in his manner; the silvery-white hair and beard that ringed his visage befitted a king. The younger Grant was four inches shorter, somewhat stoop-shouldered, with a close-cropped brown beard. He was clearly ill at ease in the presence of Lee and nervously attempted some small talk. Grant offered that he still remembered Lee well from their one meeting during the Mexican War, almost two decades earlier. Lee confessed he could not recall anything about the occasion. Hearing Lee’s response must have been an awkward moment for Grant.
This climactic scene of the American Civil War has often been cited as emblematic of a watershed moment in history, the allegorical surrender of the Old World with its regal personalities, chivalric bonds, and inherited wealth to the New World embodied by Grant, a man of humble origins who had failed repeatedly in business and who finally made himself by making war (albeit with overwhelming advantages of men and material on his side). And it was indeed this.
But it was more. Less often noted is Grant’s careless disrespect to Lee in failing to dress properly for this meeting. Excuses have been made that Grant hurried to the meeting preoccupied with its impending business, that he was suffering from a days-long headache that morning and that consequently such “trivialities” as proper dress were the furthest thing from his mind. Grant’s admirers even point to his crude attire as a badge of honor: here was the real rough-and-tumble American of the frontier, the true democrat, whose worth was to be found in his inner fortitude, his stick-to-it-tiveness, and not in the superficiality of his dress, the foppish concerns of an effete and decaying era.
But appearances do matter. As a student, the young George Washington once performed a copy exercise, titled “Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation,” based on a 16th-century Jesuit text. At the top of this list of 110 rules was this guiding admonition: “Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.” This maxim had presided over Western culture since the Middle Ages, and it was exemplified in the courtly manners of the upper classes everywhere and at all times, from the knights of the Frankish kingdom to the nobles of the Elizabethan Age to the American Southern aristocratic class represented by Washington and Lee. Where the upper classes led, the lower classes followed. Manners trickled down, so that even the common laborer of nineteenth-century London attempted, when wearing his Sunday best, to emulate the attire of his betters. His top hat and waistcoat may have been worn and of inferior quality, but he wore them proudly nonetheless.