I watched this live a few months ago and was hoping CUNY would eventually upload it for public viewing. It really is a wonderful conversation that considers our collective memory of Appomattox and, especially, Downs’s new book, After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War, which is a must read.
Last month the headmaster of a middle school in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania took some time from the day to talk with his students about the significance of April 1865. What do you think about what this headmaster had to say?
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.
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.’