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Remembering Appomattox
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Remembering Appomattox

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Despite later fantasies of guerilla fighting, a soldier such as Lee would not support such a desperate and undisciplined tactic as that. He knew the war was over at Appomattox, the Confederacy was over at Appomattox. “Robert E. Lee leaving the McLean House following his surrender to Ulysses S. Grant,” by Alfred R. Waud, April 9, 1865, pencil on yellow tracing paper, Library of Congress.

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The meaning of the events at the McLean House on April 9, 1865, seem firmly embedded in our national story. In our country’s understanding, Appomattox is America at its best. The gentlemanly drama on this landscape showed Americans to be principled, generous, and fundamentally decent. The shaking of hands, the refusal of the sword, the unpretentious setting, the role of the Seneca Eli Parker, the humility of General Grant—all those things tell us that the bloodletting of the previous four years had been an anomaly. The paired stories of Confederate soldiers permitted to keep their horses and guns and of them melting away, suddenly civilians, back to their homes, has reassured generations of Americans that Americans are different from other nations. We are fundamentally unwarlike, fundamentally unified.

This is the story in the textbooks and in our recent bestsellers—and in our reenactments. It shows us as our best selves. It elevates soldiers into men of discipline, principle, restraint, and courage. It allows everyone to be a hero, even an icon, with the defeated Lee enshrined for his dignity and constraint. General Grant himself did much to create this version of the story. Here is what he wrote in his great memoirs, twenty years later. He ordered that there would be no firing of salutes or other “unnecessary humiliation” of the Confederates. They “were now our prisoners, and we did not want to exult over their downfall.” Indeed, Grant’s own feelings, which had been quite jubilant at the receipt of his letter, were sad and depressed: “I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”1

That’s a remarkable sentence and, in fact, a complete contradiction, with nothing but a comma between clauses that don’t seem to follow one another. But it is the non sequitur that has defined our understanding of this event ever since: the cause could not have been worse, and there was no excuse for that fight, and yet the man who led the fight had fought “long and valiantly.” The “cause” Grant identified was the disuniting of the United States, the world’s most hopeful democracy, to create a new nation that would be explicitly based on slavery.

It was that severing of the cause and of the fight that established the bargain that the white North and the white South would hold to for the next 150 years. As Grant continued, “I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.”2

Sincerity. Who could have doubted the sincerity of the Confederacy, who had bled itself to death in pursuit of that cause? The Confederacy was profoundly sincere. The soldiers were sincere in their longing to leave the United States, sincere in their hatred of what they saw as an invading army, sincere in their hatred of the abolitionists and black Republicans they blamed for starting the war, sincere in their belief that they had the best army and the best generals. They were never [End Page 8] shaken in those beliefs all the way up to Appomattox and beyond—for generations.

Appomattox gave the white South what it most wanted and thought it had earned: respect for its armies and their men. The soldiers were not fooled into fighting, were not traitors, they declared, but sincere believers that they upheld the same ideals that other Americans upheld: their own freedom, their own independence, their own rights...