Prologue: April, 1865
The brutal American Civil War is drawing to a close. Three scenes unfold simultaneously as Julia (Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant), Mary Custis (Mrs. Robert E. Lee) with her daughter Agnes, and Mary Todd Lincoln with her seamstress Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave, separately express their anxieties, then jointly voice their foreboding about the suffering that is imminent.
ACT I: April 2–9, 1865
Scene 1 — Aboard his floating headquarters on the Potomac, President Lincoln meets with Grant and enunciates his River Queen Doctrine, outlining the generous terms of surrender to be offered to Lee. Their wives arrive, Mrs. Lincoln voicing petty grievances, while Mrs. Grant is steadfast and calm. Hearing of the success of the day's battle, Grant orders the final assault on Richmond.
Scene 2 — Mrs. Lee rejects her husband's advice to flee Richmond before the coming battle. Lee reflects on his reason for joining the Confederacy despite having been offered the leadership of the Union forces: his invincible loyalty to his home state of Virginia. General Cobb arrives to protest the proposal, favored by Lee, of arming slaves to fight for the Confederacy. If slaves can make good soldiers, he argues, where does that leave their theory of slavery? Lee responds that his business is war, not theorizing.
Scene 3 — On the eve of the Union's attack on Richmond, Julia Grant reflects on the hard years of her husband's earlier life, including his business failures and alcoholism, but she recalls her mother's prophecy that he would rise to be the highest in the land. Now she worries about the horrible strain the long, bloody war has put on him. Grant assures her that the seemingly endless killing will soon be over.
Scene 4 — Refugees flee Richmond amid terror and chaos, but Mrs. Lee and Agnes remain in their home. A troop of black union soldiers rejoices in the city's capture. T. Morris Chester, a black journalist from the Philadelphia Press, writes a triumphant news dispatch while seated in the Speaker's chair at the Confederate Congress. Greeted in Richmond by a crowd of newly freed black laborers, Lincoln raises one who had dropped to his knees, saying he must kneel only to God, in thanks for his liberty. With her house now under occupation, Mrs. Lee protests to Union General Rawlins that placing a black soldier as a sentry is an insult. Rawlins apologetically replaces the guard with a white man.
Scene 5 — Grant and Lee exchange a series of letters. Grant proposes that Lee surrender to avoid further bloodshed. Lee's initial response is equivocal, only inquiring as to the terms Grant might propose, and later suggesting they meet to discuss "peace" rather than "surrender." But when Lee receives news of his encircled army's failed breakout attempt, he realizes his options are disappearing. An aide proposes a radical change of strategy: guerrilla warfare. Lee rejects the stratagem, saying that the soldiers would have to revert to robbing and plundering just to subsist. With no remaining alternative, Lee writes to Grant and asks for a meeting to discuss surrender. The full, crushing weight of his decision weighs upon him as he accepts the reality of defeat.
ACT II: April 9, 1865, and later times
The meeting to negotiate the surrender is being prepared in a house owned by Wilbur McLean in the small town of Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Lee arrives impeccably dressed, while Grant appears in a battered, stained uniform. After polite reminiscence about their past acquaintance, Lee finally raises the subject of surrender. Grant proposes the broader terms and proceeds to write them down.
Their discussion is interrupted at times by scenes from both the near and distant future, starkly calling to mind that, although these two generals are conducting themselves with uncommon civility, grace, and humanity, long-established inequalities and injustices will remain for generations to come.
Grant proposes--to Lee's great relief--that all officers and men be allowed to return to their homes after handing over their arms. Grant then accedes to Lee's request that all his men, not just the officers, be allowed to keep their horses, so that they can return home to work their farms. The meeting concludes as Lee signs the letter accepting the terms, and the generals shake hands. After Lee bows and leaves, Lee approaches his troops and confirms the surrender; they can go home now, and if they are as good citizens as they were as soldiers, then he will be proud of them.
As the generals depart, soldiers and civilians advance, and the McLean household is systematically ravaged by souvenir hunters. Rapacity and greed—harbingers of the future—violently intrude on the heels of a moment of historic reconciliation.
Julia Grant leads a group of women who lament the tragedy and inevitability of war.
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