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This is my favorite painting of the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox in April 1865. It was painted in the 1920s by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris and clearly reflects the ascendency of Lee in our national memory and imagination. Ferris titled his painting, “Let Us Have Peace” even though these words were not spoken by Grant for another three years as a campaign slogan at the start of his presidential bid in 1868. We spent quite a bit of time with this painting in class last week and a number of my students were struck by the placement of both Grant and Lee as well as their hand gestures. In fact, a few students thought that if a viewer didn’t know any better they would have to conclude that Grant was surrendering to Lee. Notice Grant’s hand as it embraces a much more forceful and self-confident Lee who appears to be in charge of the situation. The relaxed pose of Grant’s officers in the background reinforces this contrast.
Much has been made of the attire of the respective commanders, which is also quite telling as a reflection of what we find worth remembering. Supposedly Lee’s immaculate dress and Grant’s muddy boots point to fundamental differences in character rather than the exigencies of the day. At times it seems as if the contrast is meant to imply that Grant didn’t really deserve to accept Lee’s surrender. The emphasis on dress in the McLean Parlor continues to find voice. Consider this short piece in the Vicksburg Post by Gordon Cotton who speculates on whether those boots were gifts from two Vicksburg sisters, Sallie and Lucy Marshall. It’s a legitimate question, but would it matter at all if a particular narrative of this moment in time had not been burned into our Civil War memory?
One of the reasons I find the study of historical memory to be so fascinating is that often it is not about history at all, but about what the remember believes he/she needs to make sense of the present. In some cases the form of remembrance eclipses entirely the historical subject in question and its borders become porous. Robert Moore’s most recent post is a thoughtful reflection on our remembrance of Lee-Jackson Day:
It is fine to both privately and, to a degree, publicly reflect upon the lives of historical persons. It fulfills various needs of the living. Look at a historical person (or persons) and consider the part of the historical person’s character, actions, etc., and consider how one may take meaning from these reflections. For some, these reflections might even translate into incorporating qualities that some find desirable in the historical person into the way they conduct themselves in their own lives. As long as reflection does not become something greater than a source of inspiration, and I suppose, guidance (as long as it is positive), then it seems innocent enough.
Mr. Cotton includes the following tribute by Ben Hill, which appeared in the Confederate Veteran in 1901 at the end of his article: “He was a foe without hate, a friend without treachery, a soldier without cruelty, and a victim without murmuring. He was a public official without vices, a private citizen without wrong, a neighbor without reproach, a Christian without hypocrisy, and a man without guile. He was Caesar without ambition, Frederick without tyranny, Napoleon without selfishness, and Washington without his reward.”
Perhaps he was all these things and more. I couldn’t possibly know one way or the other without having spent significant time with the man. It may even be the case that Lee’s boots were a gift from two residents of Vicksburg. Mr. Cotton notes that it is impossible to know for sure. What I do know is that Robert E. Lee surrendered to Grant in the McLean house on April 9, 1865.
I guess I should have anticipated a decision by H.K. to use the Obama election/inauguration to unify white and black American around the Confederate flag. My local newspaper is reporting that H.K. is making his way up Rt. 29, which will take him right through Charlottesville, Virginia to Washington, D.C. I can’t tell where along the highway he is, but if I find out I am going to make an attempt to meet him in person. No doubt, he is freezing his ass off, but that is a small price to pay when the goal is to highlight the loyalty that African Americans demonstrated as Confederate soldiers throughout the war. Some choice quotes from the article:
I’m an African-American and I’m a Southerner and I believe my heritage, which is represented by the flag bearing the Christian Cross of St. Andrew, is being ignored and destroyed. It’s continuing to divide the black folks and the white folks who have a lot in common.
Mr. Obama said he is about unity and bringing this nation together. If he is truly a man of unity, I hope he will consider showing the Southerner that [the Southerner] is an important part of this country. He could have a Confederate color guard at the White House,” he said. “He could give the Confederate flag a respected place as part of the history and heritage of this country.
It does not represent slavery, although slavery was a fact of life. The flag represents a heritage, a way of life that my forebears had. It represents the men and the families that lived together and fought together to preserve their country from invasion. My family volunteered for the Confederacy and fought side-by-side with white Southerners and Indian Southerners. They are all my family.
I am Southerner. This flag is not about slavery, it’s about family and God and country. I have more in common with fellow Southerners like George Wallace than I do with [the Rev.] Al Sharpton. I’m from the South. I’m of the South and my family is Southern, be they white, red, black or yellow. We share a heritage and a way of life.
I’ve commented extensively on the issue of black Confederates/Confederate slaves so I will refrain from belaboring the point. However, it is worth reflecting a bit on Edgerton’s emphasis on the Confederate experience as somehow constituting a point of unity between black and white Americans. It’s not simply a reflection of poor history, but also of the Confederacy’s overwhelming place in Southern/American memory. Of course this is no surprise given its importance to the region and the nation, but it clearly overshadows in a way which minimizes other significant moments in the history of the South that had the potential to bridge the racial divide. Consider the Populist Movement led by Tom Watson, not to mention the Civil Rights Movement itself.
It’s unfortunate that H.K.’s embrace of American history is ultimately a gross distortion of it. Fortunately, it wouldn’t take much to correct it once he arrives in D.C. I recommend that he approach the reenactors in the 54th Massachusetts and request to march in the inaugural parade as part of a legitimate historically-based unit. You want to honor black Southerners who sacrificed everything for their families and nation (even at a time when the Dred Scott ruling was still on the books) than don that blue uniform and acknowledge the heroism of your fellow black Southerners (1).
(1) Of course, I am aware that the 54th was made up primarily of free blacks from the North, but you get my point.
From the Richmond Planet, June 7, 1890:
The negro was in the Northern processions on Decoration Day and in the Southern ones, if only to carry buckets of ice-water. He put up the Lee monument, and should the time come, will be there to take it down. He’s black and sometimes greasy, but who could do without the Negro….
You may say what you will the Negro is here to stay. Nothing goes on without him. He was in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the War of the Rebellion, and will be in every one that will take place in this country….
An old colored man after seeing the mammoth parade of the ex-Confederates on May 29th and gazing at the rebel flags, exclaimed “The Southern white folks is on top–the Southern white folks is on top!” After thinking a moment, a smile lit up his countenance as he chuckled with evident satisfaction, “But we’s got the government! We’s got the government!” Yes, our party has the cations, the most people will allow them to keep.
Read Gov. Tim Kaine’s official proclamation acknowledging the day and notice the choice of words. I have no doubt that Lee and Jackson are rolling over in their graves in anticipation of Tuesday’s inaugural event.