Yesterday was the 141st Anniversary of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Now I know it is tempting to think of the surrender as the beginning of national reunion, but a closer look at the historical record suggests otherwise. The tendency of many to see the surrender along these lines has no doubt been influenced by years of sentimental history as well as the more recent documentary by Ken Burns The Civil War. We concentrate on the stories of Joshua Chamberlain and John B. Gordon exchanging respectful salutes and we relish the retelling of stories about Union soldiers sharing their rations with starving Confederates. It is important that we not interpret Appomattox by reading back into the past. Of course you can find stories that support this more sentimental interpretation, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that reunion was not so easy.
One Confederate officer agreed that “Brave men may become good friends.” “You may forgive us but we won’t be forgiven. There is rancor in our hearts…which you little dream of. We hate you, sir.” Writing from New York, George T. Strong observed that Lee’s surrender meant that “Secession is now conquered, crushed, subjugated, and under our feet.” With Lincoln’s assassination and the end of slavery both sides held tightly to bitter perceptions of the other. One can go on and on here, but the point is that reunion and reconciliation was a challenge and required that both sides lay aside memories that the other might find offensive.
It is popular to assert that Appomattox began the process of healing the wounds of the nation. Such a stance not only dismisses the destruction, anger and bitterness that any civil war is bound to stir within the population, it also works to distance our national history from others. It is easy to acknowledge the long-term damage that internal strife causes elsewhere, but as the story goes, Americans are different in kind. Our feelings of nationalism are stronger and sufficient to deal with temporary disagreements – even if they result in the deaths of over half a million men. Another point: The idea that the surrender began the process of reunion ignores the steps taken nearly 100 years later by both black and white Americans to more fully achieve national reunion and reconciliation that more closely approximated our founding documents. In other words, when we celebrate Appomattox as some crucial watershed moment, whose reunion are we acknowledging? We need to check our premises.