Today, on the 10th of April 1865, general Robert E Lee delivered his famous farewell address to the army of Northern Virginia, see picture below. The previous day he had surrendered one of the fiercest fighting forces in history to general Grant.

After four years of battles, including a ten month siege during which his men subsisted on a starvation diet of a mere 1,200 calories, whereas his opponents got 4,000 calories a day, just to keep the fat on their ribs. Soldiering was kinda exhausting in those days.

He said he’d rather die a thousand deaths than surrender, but surrender he did.

After enduring a ten month siege, outnumbered and starving, Lee had decided to retreat, to link up with other Confederate forces, and then to go on the offensive again.

A bold, feasible plan, but his retreat wasn’t well prepared, and he lost time getting away.

He was practically surrounded.

He still had other options.

If he surrendered all other Confederate armies elsewhere would also surrender, because on his army in particular rode the last Confederate dream of victory.

To prevent that he could:

– fight till the last man, thereby signalling to other armies that surrender was not an option

– break his army up into small bands, let them slip through enemy lines and turn to guerilla warfare. A quagmire that would have prolonged the suffering for years to come

Lee wasn’t a madman, so he surrendered. His opponent offered magnanimous terms

The whole thing became the basis for a sort of Confederate victory, even though they had clearly lost the war.

Already in his Farewell Address to his army Lee suggests that the enemy only won because they had the bigger batallions. Might prevailed, not right. He probably even understated the actual number of soldiers he had at his disposal when he retreated to make it seem like an even more impossible affair.

When to surrender?

When you can’t win anymore without losing your dignity.

When you can’t win anymore unless by causing millions of people to suffer indefinitely.

When you know your opponent will treat you fairly.

When you can get closer to what you want, by formally accepting the terms of your opponent, and take what you want when he loses interest.

In the end the Confederacy did not win its independence, but in many ways it more or less got what it wanted. Slavery was abolished, but 40 years after the total defeat of the Confederacy on the battlefield, black people were clearly still under the white man’s thumb. The region built an identity around the exagerrated prowess of Confederate troops (they were exceptional soldiers, but they were not that well led, strategically speaking) and people quickly forgot how internally divided the Confederacy had been.

You can lose the war and win the peace.

In many situations in life you can get further by trying less hard.

Sometimes, when you want something really hard, it takes immense effort to stop making such an effort.