May 1, 1869: Lee visits Grant at the White House

May 1, 1869: Lee visits Grant at the White House
President Ulysses S. Grant, left, invited former Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, right, to the White House shortly after his inauguration as president in 1869.

(WWBT) - Much is known about the meeting between Gens. Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.

Very little is known about a meeting the two had a little more than four years later when Lee, then president of Washington College in Lexington, was invited to the White House by Grant, who had only two months earlier been inaugurated as President of the United States.

Grant chronicled the Appomattox meeting extensively in his journal. At least four accounts of the May 1, 1869, meeting at the White House exist, and neither fully corroborates another.

Contemporary newspaper accounts do exist, but they do not agree with each other and are disputed by Lee’s son, Robert E. Lee Jr.

One known fact is that the meeting was brief. Lee Jr wrote that it lasted 15 minutes and no political matters were broached.

According to an account by John Motley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom who was in attendance, the conversation included only one passing reference to the Civil War, a joke by Grant that he and Lee were more familiar with destroying railroads than constructing them.

The meeting had come about due to Lee’s desire to invite Grant to Washington College, though he was deferential and did not wish to impose on the new president. Grant learned of Lee’s wish and offered the invitation himself.

The two men never met again. Lee died 17 months later.

Lee is believed to be the only person to visit the White House after having their United States citizenship revoked.

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