When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.
O powerful western fallen star!
O shades of night—O moody, tearful night!
O great star disappear’d—O the black murk that hides the star!
O cruel hands that hold me powerless—O helpless soul of me!
O harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul.
While I enjoyed having my intellectual curiosity stimulated by speakers such as Ed Ayers, David Blight and John Hennessy, the reenactors at last week’s commemoration of Appomattox Court House just didn’t do it for me. Perhaps reenactors should exercise more control over who shows up at such an event, especially one about Lee’s surrender.
I mean, were the men of the Army of Northern Virginia really this old and overweight or are we witnessing not just the ‘passing of the armies’ but the passing of the Centennial generation?
These are just a few things that ought to be considered for the bicentennial commemoration of the American Civil War.
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.’
Update: Brian Beutler doubles down with a follow-up post offering some thoughts as to why even Southern white liberals are hard pressed to agree to the author’s proposal. This is what happens when you report from inside a bubble. Again, as I suggest below, the author would have done well to spend just a little time researching how the Civil War has been commemorated throughout the South over the past few years.
On the eve of the 150th anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, an essay in The New Republic by Brian Beutler is getting some traction by calling for the event to be celebrated as a national holiday. Actually, Beutler is not so much calling for a holiday as he is suggesting that “in a better America” and one that was more honest about its past, April 9 would already be acknowledged as such. The essay is worth reading, but like so many other commentaries on how the Civil War is remembered in the South it fails to consider the reality on the ground.
The author proceeds as if memory of the war is both static and uniform throughout the South. What is needed is action by the federal government.
This week provides an occasion for the U.S. government to get real about history, as April 9 is the 150th anniversary of the Union’s victory in the Civil War. The generous terms of Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House foreshadowed a multitude of real and symbolic compromises that the winners of the war would make with secessionists, slavery supporters, and each other to piece the country back together. It’s as appropriate an occasion as the Selma anniversary to reflect on the country’s struggle to improve itself. And to mark the occasion, the federal government should make two modest changes: It should make April 9 a federal holiday; and it should commit to disavowing or renaming monuments to the Confederacy, and its leaders, that receive direct federal support.