Ed Ayers Cuts to the Chase at Appomattox

Today I had a chance to watch the National Park Service’s commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. It was a fitting conclusion to our Civil War sesquicentennial even if we still have a few more key events to get through. Of all the speakers I thought Ed Ayers stole the show. He cut through a lot of the sentimentalism that still colors our memory of this event. [Begin at the 1hr, 1 minute mark]

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.’

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’”

Why Do We Preserve So Much Civil War Battlefield Land?

In a couple of days I head out with thirteen students to follow the 20th Massachusetts Infantry from Antietam to Gettysburg. It’s going to be an incredible experience for my kids. We have a great deal of ground to cover both literally and figuratively. I want my students to grapple with the central questions that frame our civil war, including why men fought and endured, the importance of Union and the unraveling of slavery.

My trip also has a “social action” component. As we travel from site to site I am going to ask my students to think about why and whether we should preserve Civil War battlefields. Garry Adelman of the Civil War Trust is going to help us with this when he accompanies the group at Antietam. Continue reading “Why Do We Preserve So Much Civil War Battlefield Land?”

“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””

Crater 150 Talk on C-SPAN3 Tonight

Just in case you have absolutely nothing else to do tonight C-SPAN3 will air (10:15pm) the talk I recently delivered in Petersburg as part of the 150th anniversary of the battle of the Crater. In fact, C-SPAN is going to re-run the commemorative ceremony that took place on July 30 as well as Emmanuel Dabney’s CWI talk on the Crater beforehand. Yes, it’s an entire evening devoted to the Crater in history and memory. Continue reading “Crater 150 Talk on C-SPAN3 Tonight”