Why Confederate Defeat Does Not Need to Be a National Holiday

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.

As Beutler acknowledges, this call follows a proposal by Jamie Malanowski in 2013 to rename military bases that honor Confederate generals. Continue reading “Why Confederate Defeat Does Not Need to Be a National Holiday”

Not Your Grandfather’s ‘Fall of Richmond’

The week-long commemoration marking the fall and liberation of Richmond, the evacuation of Petersburg by Lee’s men and its eventual surrender at Appomattox Court House is in full swing. A slew of events marking this important moment in American history are being offered by a wide range of organizations. Taken together these programs offer the public a tapestry of narratives that reflect the many ways in which the events of early April 1865 were experienced.

Such a project is not without its challenges given the strong emotions that often shape the responses of people who are invested in certain narratives of the war. It is easy to focus on moments of conflict, but from what I’ve read thus far I can’t help but conclude that Richmonders and many others are taking full advantage of this opportunity to learn about the many voices that could be heard in this final chapter of the war. [I say this even as I make my way through Greg Downs’s new book. More on this at a later time.] Continue reading “Not Your Grandfather’s ‘Fall of Richmond’”

“The Port is Near, the Bells I Hear, the People all Exulting”

The sound of bells in the city of Charleston announced secession in December 1860. The tolling of bells served as a rallying point for Americans throughout the war. Soldiers marched off from their homes and some returned for final burial to the sound of bells. Bells marked important victories and the arrival of a slain president on his journey home.

Now the National Park Service wants to mark the end of the Civil War sesquicentennial with the ringing of bells throughout the nation.

In conjunction with a major event at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, the National Park Service and its partners invite communities across the nation to join in this commemoration. The bells will ring first at Appomattox at 3:00 p.m. on April 9, 2015. The ringing will coincide with the moment the historic meeting between Grant and Lee in the McLean House at Appomattox Court House ended. While Lee’s surrender did not end the Civil War, the act is seen by most Americans as the symbolic end of four years of bloodshed.

I can’t think of a more appropriate way to mark the 150th anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox (which all but assured that our Union would be preserved) and the end of the sesquicentennial. Continue reading ““The Port is Near, the Bells I Hear, the People all Exulting””

A Meeting Between Grant and Lee

It’s probably safe to assume that a recreation of the meeting between Grant and Lee in Wilmer McLean’s home at Appomattox Court House will be part of the sesquicentennial anniversary next April. Unlike the video below, the performance will likely stick to a well vetted script that adheres close to the available historical record. There is something about this meeting that strikes a chord with our Civil War memory. Of course, the two commanders didn’t have to meet to agree to terms of surrender. That they did presents us with a dramatic conclusion to and a sharp contrast with the previous year’s bloodletting. We want to know what these two men thought of one another. Continue reading “A Meeting Between Grant and Lee”

Will Civil War Reenactors Surrender at Appomattox in 2015?

Last week I learned of the retirement of long time Robert E. Lee impersonator, Al Stone. Mr. Stone plans on using the 150th anniversary of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House as the backdrop for his final performance. I’ve noticed an uptick in stories from around the country that plan on using this particular anniversary as the final roll call for local reenactments. Check out this story from Keokuk, Iowa. Not too long ago I read that a large group of veteran reenactors was going to lay down its arms for good at Appomattox in April 2015. Continue reading “Will Civil War Reenactors Surrender at Appomattox in 2015?”