Tag Archives: Appomattox

If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox

Interestingly, this film was done in 1982, well before the YouTube Era.  You will have to excuse me, but for some reason I find this sort of video to be quite funny.  This one clearly reflects the persistence of the “Grant the Drunk” narrative.  A more recent video that depicts Grant with bottle can be found here.  Enjoy.

Lee Accepts the Surrender of Grant in His Vicksburg Boots

let_us_have_peace_vhsThis 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.

“There Is Rancor In Our Hearts…Which You Little Dream Of”

Yesterday was the 141st Anniversary of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Now I know it is tempting to think of the surrender as the beginning of national reunion, but a closer look at the historical record suggests otherwise. The tendency of many to see the surrender along these lines has no doubt been influenced by years of sentimental history as well as the more recent documentary by Ken Burns The Civil War. We concentrate on the stories of Joshua Chamberlain and John B. Gordon exchanging respectful salutes and we relish the retelling of stories about Union soldiers sharing their rations with starving Confederates. It is important that we not interpret Appomattox by reading back into the past. Of course you can find stories that support this more sentimental interpretation, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that reunion was not so easy.

One Confederate officer agreed that “Brave men may become good friends.” “You may forgive us but we won’t be forgiven. There is rancor in our hearts…which you little dream of. We hate you, sir.” Writing from New York, George T. Strong observed that Lee’s surrender meant that “Secession is now conquered, crushed, subjugated, and under our feet.” With Lincoln’s assassination and the end of slavery both sides held tightly to bitter perceptions of the other. One can go on and on here, but the point is that reunion and reconciliation was a challenge and required that both sides lay aside memories that the other might find offensive.

It is popular to assert that Appomattox began the process of healing the wounds of the nation. Such a stance not only dismisses the destruction, anger and bitterness that any civil war is bound to stir within the population, it also works to distance our national history from others. It is easy to acknowledge the long-term damage that internal strife causes elsewhere, but as the story goes, Americans are different in kind. Our feelings of nationalism are stronger and sufficient to deal with temporary disagreements – even if they result in the deaths of over half a million men. Another point: The idea that the surrender began the process of reunion ignores the steps taken nearly 100 years later by both black and white Americans to more fully achieve national reunion and reconciliation that more closely approximated our founding documents. In other words, when we celebrate Appomattox as some crucial watershed moment, whose reunion are we acknowledging? We need to check our premises.