“I saw the first meeting between Grant and Lee” – A Pennsylvania private’s Appomattox recollection
Just nine days before Ulysses S. Grant died on July 23, 1885, an article appeared in a Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, newspaper about the former United States lieutenant general and president.
On July 14, under the headline, “GRANT REFUSED LEE’S SWORD,” the Compiler detailed a Civil War reminiscence by Benjamin Jeffries, a Pennsylvania veteran who moved to Iowa after the conflict. According to the onetime private, he observed a conference between Grant and Confederate commander Robert E. Lee that happened before the latter surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865.
“One of the few surviving eye-witnesses of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox was interviewed concerning General Jubal Early’s recent denial of the story that Lee’s sword was tendered Grant,” reported the Compiler. “The man’s name is Benjamin Jeffries, a resident of Des Moines. He served through the war in a Pennsylvania regiment, and at the time of Lee’s surrender was a member of Company A, 191st regiment.”
Jeffries was born on August 18, 1838, in Fayette County, Pennsylvania, near the Commonwealth’s southwest extent. He was a late enlistment in Company D of the 37th Pennsylvania Infantry (8th Reserves), having entered service at Brownsville on February 23, 1864, and “at the battle of Spottsylvania [sic], May 8, 1864, was wounded by a grape shot striking his gun, causing internal injury, resulting in hernia,” according to Iowa Congressman Adoniram J. Holmes, who represented Jeffries during his fight for a pension before the Committee on Invalid Persons in 1884. On May 15, 1864 (one week after he suffered his ailment), Jeffries was transferred to the 191st Pennsylvania Infantry, from which he “was honorably discharged June 28, 1865.”
Although “he was treated in [a] hospital for some time after the date of the alleged injury and sent home on furlough,” for a seven-year period starting 13 years after the war (from 1878 to 1884), Jeffries’s pension case was in limbo as he struggled to prove “the character of the wound,” wrote Holmes. “The captain of [the] claimant’s company is dead and the lieutenant and surgeon were both killed at the time the soldier was wounded,” Holmes noted. However, “A number of comrades present in the battle testify to the wounding from personal knowledge.”
On January 23, 1885, just before Jeffries wrote his Appomattox account that was subsequently published in Gettysburg, Congressman Hiram Y. Smith (another Iowan) asked for “unanimous consent” from the U.S. House of Representatives. Fortunately for Jeffries, the private’s request for a pension on account of his wound was “authorized and directed...with the recommendation that it do pass.”
According to the 1885 Gettysburg Compiler article, “When asked as to the circumstances that followed the close of the fighting at Appomattox,” Private Jeffries professed that on April 9, 1865, “‘After fighting ceased General Grant rode to the front, where our regiment was deployed on the skirmish line, and ordered that a guard be stationed across the road leading down to the village that no one be allowed to pass. About two o’clock in the afternoon he returned, accompanied by an escort of two or three hundred officers,” Jeffries said. “Leaving all but one aid [sic] behind he rode through the lines and down the slope toward the Court-house, a short distance off.’”
“‘As he did so, General Lee, accompanied by one aid, came toward him from the opposite direction,’” Jeffries continued. “‘About seventy-five yards from where we were stationed on guard stood a small story and a half log house, near which grew a large apple tree. Grant and Lee met at this point and halted at this tree.’”
“‘Lee rode a large, handsome roan, while Grant was mounted on a small black horse,’” Jeffries detailed. “‘Dismounting, Lee drew his sword and offered it to Grant, but Grant refused to accept it, and, declining it with a wave of his hand, it was put back in the scabbard. Then Grant offered his hand to Lee, and they shook hands, as did their aids, and all engaged in conversation for about five minutes, when, remounting, they rode away to the Court-house, where the papers were drawn up.’”
“‘I saw the first meeting between Grant and Lee, and saw Grant refuse to take his sword, for I stood less than a hundred yards away at the time,’” Jeffries concluded. “‘I have as vivid a recollection of that scene as if it had taken place yesterday.’”
Jeffries released his version of events in response to the publication of a statement by Jubal Early, one of Lee’s former lieutenants who self-exiled at the end of the rebellion two decades earlier (before he became an icon of the Lost Cause mythology). On March 29, 1885, a correspondent representing the St. Louis Globe-Democrat spoke with Early in Richmond, Virginia. As Grant suffered with throat cancer in New York, the Missouri journalist recorded Early’s feelings about leading the “Lee Camp Confederate veterans, of this city, in adopting resolutions of sympathy with Gen. Grant, in which they spoke of his magnanimous treatment of Lee at Appomattox in declining his sword.”
Early entirely disagreed with the details of stories like that voiced had been by Jeffries. “‘The fact is that Gen. Lee’s sword was never tendered to Gen. Grant, and the latter, therefore, had no opportunity to decline to receive it or return it after it had been surrendered...,’” Early stated. “‘It was not, therefore, to Grant’s magnanimity that Gen. Lee was indebted for the privilege of retaining his sword, or for the terms granted to his army, but to his own resolute will and the anxiety of Grant to obtain the surrender of an adversary who had thwarted him so long.’”
“‘There is, then, as little truth in this story about Gen. Lee’s sword as there is in the famous apple-tree fiction,’” Early maintained, pointing out another detail espoused by the likes of Jeffries. “‘It would seem that the time for Grant to display his magnanimity toward the defeated Confederates was when he occupied the Presidency of the United States for eight years. How he then displayed it let impartial history tell.’”
Despite his confidence, it became apparent that Benjamin Jeffries was alone in his perspective among Union and Confederate veterans alike. In addition to the comments made by Early, in 1874 the Rev. J. William Jones (who edited Lee’s letters and the Southern Historical Society Papers) claimed that Lee once pronounced in a conversation, “‘we did not meet under an apple-tree,’” and was subsequently asked, “‘General Grant returned your sword, did he not, general?’”
According to Jones, Lee responded to the sword inquiry: “‘No, sir! he did not. He had no opportunity of doing so. I was determined that the side-arms of officers should be exempt by the terms of surrender, and of course I did not offer him mine. All that was said about swords was that General Grant apologized to me for not wearing his own sword, saying that it had gone off in his baggage, and he had been unable to get it in time.’”
“This spoils a great deal of rhetoric about ‘Grant’s magnanimity in returning Lee’s sword,’” Jones believed, using traditional Lost Cause language. “Even General Grant’s connivance at this so-called ‘historic scene’ will not save it when the world knows that R.E. Lee said that nothing of the sort occurred.” (Emphasis original.)
But just as Jeffries’s explanation proved to be folklore, Jones’s assessment of his adversary’s motive demonstrated the persistence of an unreconstructed Rebel falsehood—for in the end, Grant agreed with Lee’s acolytes and disproved the sword tale in his own right. “The much talked of surrendering of Lee’s sword and my handing it back, this and much more that has been said about it is the purest romance,” Grant wrote in his memoirs, just prior to his death.
Other accounts have proven that Jeffries was also mistaken in his evaluation of the timetable he applied to this supposed “first meeting.” In fact, the initial confrontation between Grant and Lee occurred in the McLean parlor on April 9, while a second interaction took place nearby, just after 9:00 the following morning. Grant’s aide-de-camp, Horace Porter, penned a detailed account of his own in 1897. He was an eyewitness for the formal surrender on April 9, and in his memoir Porter related “the substance of the conversation” on April 10 as “General Grant repeated to us that evening.” In any case, Porter never said that Lee offered his sword to Grant as a surrender token on either occasion, the 9th or the 10th.
Porter described Lee’s “handsome sword and sash” worn at the April 9 ceremony. “The sword was of exceedingly fine workmanship, and the hilt was studded with jewels,” he recalled. “It had been presented to him by some ladies in England who sympathized with the cause he represented.” Porter added that at one point, Grant “looked toward Lee, and his eyes seemed to be resting on the handsome sword that hung at that officer’s side.”
On another occasion, said Porter, “Grant’s eye now fell upon Lee’s sword again, and it seemed to remind him of the absence of his own, and by way of explanation, and so it could not be construed as a discourtesy, he said to Lee: ‘I started out from my camp several days ago without my sword, and as I have not seen my headquarters baggage since, I have been riding about without any side-arms. I have generally worn a sword, however, as little as possible—only during the active operations of a campaign.’ ‘I am in the habit of wearing mine most of the time,’ remarked Lee, ‘when I am among my troops moving about through the army.’”
Aside from the Gettysburg press, other periodicals picked up Benjamin Jeffries’s tale, including the New York Herald, the Fall River Daily Evening News in Massachusetts (which incorrectly referred to the 191st Pennsylvania as “‘Bucktails’”), and the Goldsboro Messenger in North Carolina. The Cincinnati Commercial-Gazette resorted to humor to dispute Jeffries. “As we understand it, Grant had no sword at Appomattox, and Lee had a very handsome article of the kind,” proclaimed the Ohio source. “Grant did not ask Lee for his ornament, and Lee did not press it upon him. Lee rode away with it. Grant was armed with a lead-pencil only.”
“It is astonishing that certain papers will persist in publishing, and many persons persist in believing, the story about Gen. Grant’s refusing to receive the tendered sword of Lee at Appomattox,” the Goldsboro Messenger opined. “This canard has been authoritatively contradicted, and the contradictions repeatedly published, that its repetition now is only explicable upon the familiar maxim that falsehood will travel twenty leagues while truth is putting on his boots.”
Further, the North Carolina paper quoted Grant as answering, “‘There was no demand made for Gen. Lee’s sword and no tender of it offered.’” The periodical even went so far as to sarcastically respond to Private Jeffries by jesting that he “shows that Lee and Grant were mistaken, and, in fact, knew nothing whatever about the way things actually occurred.” “Here comes Benjamin Jeffries with the account of ‘an eye witness,’” the Messenger prodded. “Benjamin, if he hasn’t a coat of many colors, has a highly colored and no doubt veracious story of the Appomattox affair. Now we trust that Gen. Early, and Dr. Jones, and General Grant will desist from contradicting or in any way throwing discredit upon this plain statement of the facts as they fell under the eye of our Des Moines brother of the tribe of Benjamin.”
“He was ‘an eye witness’ to it,—sword, apple tree and all,” the Messenger continued sardonically, in a partisan tone; “for Benjamin, in eye-witnessing the thing clings to the apple tree as the apple of his eye. It doesn’t matter that there never was an apple tree there at all, notwithstanding that thousands of thrifty Yankees, (including Benjamin, no doubt), have turned many a thousand ‘honest pennies’ by selling twigs and cuts from that apocryphal tree.”
“It doesn’t matter that there was no ‘story and a half log house’ there,” the Tar Heel publication mocked. “It doesn’t matter that General Lee never, during the war, owned or rode a roan horse. Benjamin Jeffries with his own eyes saw the sword, the apple tree, the log house and the roan horse and that ends the matter, and makes up the final and completed page of history on the Appomattox matter.”
“Meanwhile, for the centennial and cyclopean liar of the present era commend us to that glorious old veteran who delectates the rising youth of Des Moines, Iowa,” the Messenger decided cynically, “with his thrilling reminiscences of the bloody fields in which he bore a prominent part, and the historical and tragic scenes that he witnessed with his own eyes, during the stormy days of the civil war.”
It appears that Benjamin Jeffries did little to prove his case or convince any readers of the veracity of his claims, though he was successful in making his name and his story known. After Grant died, celebrated historian Herman Dieck (perhaps best recognized for his book on the Johnstown Flood of 1889) published a “Memorial Edition” of The Most Complete and Authentic History of the Life and Public Services of General U.S. Grant, “The Napoleon of America.”
In verbiage almost identical to that which appeared in the Gettysburg Compiler earlier that year, Dieck explained the testimony of, “One of the few surviving eye-witnesses of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox....The man’s name is Benjamin Jeffries,” the text stated, “and he is a carpenter by trade and a resident of Des Moines.”
A lifelong member of the Crocker and Kinsman posts of the Grand Army of the Republic, Jeffries died at age 65 on April 22, 1904. “Mr. Jeffries was an old soldier, and had lived in Des Moines for the past thirty years...,” reported his obituary in the Des Moines Register. “He leaves a widow and several children, all of whom live in Des Moines.” His wife, Anna, perished seven years later. The couple is buried at Oakwood Cemetery in Pleasant Hill, Iowa.
 “GRANT REFUSED LEE’S SWORD,” Gettysburg Compiler (Gettysburg, PA), July 14, 1885, 1.  Muster out roll of 37th Infantry (Eighth Reserves), in Samuel P. Bates, History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-65 (Harrisburg, PA: B. Singerly, 1869), vol. 1, 771; Muster out roll of 191st Infantry, in Bates, History of Pennsylvania Volunteers (1871), vol. 5, 306; “Benjamin Jeffries,” June 26, 1884, in Index to the Reports of Committees of the House of Representatives for the First Session of the Forty-Eighth Congress, 1883-’84 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1884), vol. 7, 1981.  “Benjamin Jeffries,” June 26, 1884, in Index to the Reports, vol. 7, 1981.  “Benjamin Jeffries,” Jan. 23, 1885, in Congressional Record: Containing the Proceedings and Debates of the Forty-Eighth Congress, Second Session (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1885), vol. 16, 978.  “GRANT REFUSED LEE’S SWORD,” Compiler, July 14, 1885, 1.  “GRANT AT APPOMATTOX,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat (St. Louis, MO), March 30, 1885, 5. Also see “Grant and the Confederate Surrender,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, April 9, 1885, 1.  J. William Jones, Personal Reminiscences, Anecdotes, and Letters of Gen. Robert E. Lee (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1874), 303-304. Also see W.B. Conway, “The Surrender of Gen. R.E. Lee. He Did Not Offer His Sword to General Grant,” in Southern Historical Society Papers, edited by R.A. Brock (Richmond, VA: Southern Historical Society, 1907), vol. 35, 159-160.  Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Charles L. Webster & Company, 1886), vol. 2, 494.  Horace Porter, Campaigning with Grant (New York: The Century Co., 1897; reprint, 1906), 489-491.  Porter, Campaigning with Grant, 474, 476.  Porter, Campaigning with Grant, 483.  Cincinnati Commercial-Gazette (Cincinnati, OH), excerpted in Richmond Dispatch (Richmond, VA), April 23, 1885, 2.  “THE APPOMATTOX SURRENDER,” Fall River Daily Evening News (Fall River, MA), April 9, 1885, 1; “THE SWORD OF LEE,” Goldsboro Messenger (Goldsboro, NC), April 13, 1885, 1.  “THE SWORD OF LEE,” Goldsboro Messenger, April 13, 1885, 1.  Herman Dieck, The Most Complete and Authentic History of the Life and Public Services of General U.S. Grant, “The Napoleon of America” (Philadelphia: Thayer, Merriam & Co., 1885), 362.
 “Benjamin Jeffries,” Find A Grave, https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/64378446/benjamin-jeffries; “Grand Army of the Republic,” in Will Porter, Annals of Polk County, Iowa, and City of Des Moines (Des Moines: Geo. A. Miller Printing Company, 1898), 338; “DIED,” Des Moines Register (Des Moines, IA), April 23, 1904, 6.