Today I had a chance to watch the National Park Service’s commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. It was a fitting conclusion to our Civil War sesquicentennial even if we still have a few more key events to get through. Of all the speakers I thought Ed Ayers stole the show. He cut through a lot of the sentimentalism that still colors our memory of this event. [Begin at the 1hr, 1 minute mark]
First, I want to second Ayers’s congratulations and thanks to the National Park Service for all their hard work over the past four years. Ayers’s brief speech builds on a brief passage in Ulysses S. Grant’s memoir, where he assesses his feelings for the vanquished foe alongside a clear articulation of the cause for which it fought.
What General Lee’s feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassible face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result, and was too manly to show it. Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had 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. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.
Ayers correctly notes that Grant’s assessment could be and was interpreted in a way that allowed ex-Confederates to frame their bid for independence as a noble cause. It certainly did not capture Grant’s understanding of the event and Ayers forcefully encourages his audience to acknowledge that it should not color our own. Grant’s ‘worst cause’ was a clear reference to a commitment to the destruction of the Union and the establishment of a nation, whose foundation would be built on the right to own slaves.
I suspect that the theme of Ayers’s talk troubled a select few. It shouldn’t. As Americans we ought to be able 150 years later to acknowledge that the right side won the war.
Ultimately, according to Ayers, what was at stake at Appomattox was the ‘future of the United States and everyone in it.’