Civil War memory is indeed a very strange landscape. Up until today I would have said that the once widely held view that slavery was benign and that the slaves themselves remained loyal throughout the war reflects its most absurd side. However, the folks over at Richard Williams’s site have somehow managed to trump even that.
In response to a short post marking the anniversary of the surrender of the Army of Norther Virginia at Appomattox on April 9, 1865 one reader had this to say:
It is a sad day indeed for all of us who love the South. This was followed by a response from Williams: “Yeah, me too.”
Apparently, that caught the attention of my good friend and fellow historian, Mark Snell, who posted the following in response:
Why is it sad that the killing ended? Why is it a sad day that the institution of slavery was coming to an end? Why is it sad that this date signaled the beginning of a new era, one that would make the United States the strongest and richest country in the world–with some of the ex-Confederate states in the forefront of that economy today? Can someone explain this “sense of sadness” to me?
Williams offers the following response:
That’s a legitimate question, but please don’t put words in anyone’s mouth. No one laments the end of slavery – at least not anyone I know. That’s absurd. Moreover, it was Lee who did not want to see the killing continue. Grant is the one who seemed to be willing to continue to supply an endless supply of human cannon fodder.
The sense of sadness to which I’m referring was eloquently expressed by none other than General Grant:
“My own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on receipt of Lee’s letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and so valiantly and had suffered so much for a cause.”
First, no one put words into Williams’s mouth. Mark was simply asking how anyone in their right mind could consider it to be a sad day given that it brought slavery that much closer to being finally extinguished. More to the point, it brought the slaughter to an end. How could it possibly be a sad day? Even stranger is the reference to Grant as somehow wishing to continue the violence. Williams provides no evidence whatsoever for this ridiculous claim. I guess somehow we are to believe that Grant had an easier time ordering young men into battle and to their deaths. Of course, the only way one could get away with such a claim is if he ignored the entire Seven Days’ Campaign, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg – to name just a few. That’s not a criticism of Lee. After all, they were both generals trying to win battles and bring about victory.
Mark offered a follow-up to Williams’s response, but unfortunately it was rejected without explanation. It’s difficult to understand why:
I didn’t put words in anyone’s mouth. I simply asked some very legitimate questions, and I still haven’t gotten a legitimate response to them. The only reason Lee surrendered when he did was because he had no choice. He was cut off from retreat and had no chance of linking up with Joe Johnston. Your assertion that Grant wanted to continue to supply cannon fodder is illogical: if he wanted to continue the war, he could have refused Lee’s surrender. That makes about as much sense as saying that the South had a vast unused manpower pool–all those black Confederates–that could have been employed to further prosecute the war. Grant’s feeling of depression concerning his defeated foe is quite understandable. After all, weren’t they all Americans? But to use Grant’s memoirs to validate your point tells me nothing about Mr. Simons’ remark that today ‘is a sad day indeed for all of us who love the South,’ nor does it explain your apparent agreement with it. I love the South, and I’m sure a lot of black Southerners do too, but I doubt if they see today as a ‘sad day.’
Thanks for allowing me to comment.
Well, so much for all the silly accusations about how the “liberal elite” stifle the free exchange of ideas. For the life of me I can’t think of a better example of pure nostalgic bullshit.