This morning I set out to write a post in response to Jamelle Bouie’s column at Slate which details his assessment of a commemoration of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. A few of you likely read it before I took it down. I had some strong words for the author that turned out to be completely unjustified and I want to take this opportunity to apologize to Mr. Bouie. I could not understand how he arrived at his conclusions after claiming to have attended the event, but what I didn’t understand is that there were two commemorations of Appomattox and apparently they offered two very different narratives.
Bouie attended an event organized by the Appomattox County Historical Society and featured primarily reenactors. The author noted the lack of references to slavery and the presence of USCTs in the Army of the James, which helped to prevent Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia from reaching Lynchburg.
But missing in this remembrance, and in the audience as well, were black Americans. Of the thousands of re-enactors and thousands more spectators, only a handful were black. And while this may seem minor (or worse, a needless invocation of race), it’s a terrible disadvantage. The real Appomattox wasn’t just about reunion; it was about emancipation as well.
I am not surprised that this is what Bouie experienced given the focus of the event, but I do wish that the author had resisted the urge to draw a conclusion about the sesquicentennial based on this one event. In fact, if he had attended the National Park Service’s 3-day commemoration Bouie would have witnessed a very different commemoration.
Here are just a few excerpts from the many presentations that took place.
Today we will remember the costs of this immense war, but also its legacies: freedom for millions of enslaved Americans and a transformed Union—a nation that would in the following decades stride onto the world stage as a force for freedom and democracy. – Superintendent Snyder
I am Emmanuel Dabney, the descendant of Benjamin Dabney of Dinwiddie County, Virginia, a young free black who believed his future depended on Union victory. “If the Union succeeded,” Benjamin later wrote, “we hoped to see slavery put an end to, and
On the morning of April 9, 1865, about a mile west of us on the Coleman farm, an artillery shell crashed into a simple cabin and struck 60 year-old Hannah Reynolds. Hannah was a slave, owned by Dr. Samuel Coleman. She was wounded just after the Union lines had swept past her. She died on April 12. Cruel circumstance robbed her of the transformation from chattel to citizen. Of her nearly 15,000 days on earth, Hannah lived just three of them in freedom—and for those three she lay dying in a Union field hospital. – Bud Hall
My name is Phyllistine Mosley, born in Prince Edward County Virginia. With the surrender at Appomattox, ten members of my family went free: Booker, Beverly, Monk, Phillip, Martha, Almo and Fanny Ward. And Emaline, Ann, and John Thompson. From Appomattox, the tide of history rushed forth, carrying the United States onto the world stage. But that tide was chopped by crosscurrents, stalled by eddies. Many white Americans clung to a vision of nation that did not include equal rights for former slaves. A week after Appomattox, a soldier from Pennsylvania told his family at home, “grave questions remain to be settled, for which God alone can give the true wisdom and guidance.” – Phyllistine Mosley
As I suggested yesterday, Ed Ayers offered one of the most powerful statements of slavery’s centrality to Appomattox and our memory of the war as a whole. While Bouie offers David Blight’s Race and Reunion as an explanation as to why the event he attended failed to attract African Americans and all but ignored their role at Appomattox and the war, he would likely have been surprised to see none other than Blight himself as one of the NPS’s featured speakers.
All of this leaves us in an odd place. In our history books, the war is a conflict over slavery. But in our remembrance, it’s still a fable, where valiant white men fought each other over abstract principles. The difficult reality—the facts that made this war so vital—is absent. At the sesquicentennial of the surrender at Appomattox, we weren’t commemorating our history; we were celebrating a myth.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Slavery and the role of United States Colored Troops has been front and center in the NPS’s commemoration of the war. Their chosen theme is none other than, “From Civil War to Civil Rights.” Indeed, the NPS is responsible for some of the most innovative public history of the entire sesquicentennial.
As I’ve said before, this has not been anything like your grandfather’s Civil War commemoration.