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Battle of Appomattox: Understanding General Lee's Surrender

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battle of appomattoxThe Battle of Appomattox Courthouse is considered by many historians the end of the Civil War and the start of post-Civil War America. The events of General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to General and future President Ulysses S. Grant at a small town courthouse in Central Virginia put into effect much of what was to follow.

The surrender at Appomattox Courthouse was about reconciliation, healing, and restoring the Union. While the Radical Republicans had their mercifully brief time in the sun rubbing defeated Dixie’s nose in it, largely in response to the Southern "Black Codes," they represented the bleeding edge of Northern radicalism that wanted to punish the South, not reintegrate it into the Union as an equal partner.

The sentiment of actual Civil War veterans is far removed from the attitude of the far left in America today. Modern day “woke-Americans” clamor for the removal of Confederate statues in the South, the lion’s share of which were erected while Civil War veterans were still alive. There was little objection to these statues at the time because it was considered an important part of the national reconciliation to allow the defeated South to honor its wartime dead and because there is a longstanding tradition of memorializing defeated foes in honor cultures.

The Events of the Surrender at Appomattox Courthouse

Long story short, the Battle of Appomattox Courthouse was a last ditch effort by General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to meet up with the remaining Confederate forces to consolidate their efforts. The Greys failed and General Lee surrendered to Grant which effectively ended the war.

Grant, who suffered from migraines, noticed his headaches end once he and Lee had negotiated a ceasefire. Grant, in his magnanimity, allowed Lee to choose the place of his surrender – Lee famously chose the Appomattox Courthouse.

General Grant’s generosity extended beyond allowing Lee to choose the location of his surrender. Lee’s men were allowed to keep their horses, sidearms, and personal effects, including their mules ­–Grant recognized the importance of the mules for the upcoming plowing season. Grant went so far as to give Lee’s men rations for their journey home. Lee could not have hoped for much more and certainly would have been satisfied with far less.

The terms of surrender were dictated to Grant’s assistant, a Seneca Indian by the name of Ely S. Parker. Lee commented at the time that "It is good to have one real American here," to which Parker replied, "Sir, we are all Americans." Indeed, this was perhaps truer than it had ever been in American history.

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A particularly poignant moment followed when Lee exited the courthouse and Grant’s men applauded in celebration but were quickly rebuked by their commanding officers. He immediately ordered an end to any celebration, remarking that “The Confederates were now our countrymen, and we did not want to exult over their downfall."

General Custer and other officers purchased furnishings from the room where the surrender took place as souvenirs. General Grant went out to visit General Lee and other Confederate soldiers. The two sat on the porch of the McLean House, where the two talked before setting off for their respective capital cities. Generals Longstreet and Pickett also made an appearance.

Grant was not the only one willing to make concessions in the name of national unity – the very idea of a ceremony of surrender was anathema to much of the top brass in the Confederacy.

General Joshua Chamberlain, a celebrated figure among some of the most hardcore Unionists, ordered a salute of arms to the defeated Confederates at the surrender, an act that he could justify using the plausible deniability that he was saluting the lowering of the Union flag. His words on the matter are powerful and speak to prevailing moods of the time:

“Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood: men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond;—was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured”

General George Meade is reported to have cried out, "it's all over," when he received news of the surrender. While 175,000 Confederate troops remained in the field, they were starving, exhausted, and spread thin. It was all over but for the shouting.

Over 650,000 Americans died in the Civil War, which is the equivalent of six million men today. Because the militaries were organized by location, many towns were left with no young men, only young children, old men, and widows. Part of this can be attributed to innovations in firepower. Due to advances in rifling, men had guns that could hit the side of a barn door at 100 yards for the first time in history.

Reconciliation in Post-Civil War America

After the war, most Americans were eager to reconcile with one another, which included the Southern states honoring their war dead with statues and the naming of military bases after Confederate heroes. The idea here is that both sides were Americans, both sides were brave, and both sides fought valiantly in the war. Slavery was de-emphasized because it was a moot issue –slaves had been freed and slavery wasn’t coming back. The nation wanted to move forward.

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It is not difficult to separate the cause from the men who fought for it. However, there is little reason to believe that slavery and the dubious “benefits” of which were only enjoyed by a third of the population were motivating factors for the men in the Confederate Army. To put this into perspective, how eager would you be to fight for the holdings of Citibank or Amazon? Slavery was, by and large, an institution for elites, and even the majority of slaveholders were not big plantation owners, but small farmers who owned a slave or two.

This is not to excuse the institution of slavery which is both morally reprehensible and socially corrosive. We are simply attempting to provide important historical context that is sorely lacking from the current discourse on slavery, the Civil War, and the Confederacy. Much of the current discussion surrounding Civil War monuments in the South is centered around erasing history rather than understanding, appreciating, and learning from it.

Honoring the Confederate dead does not imply support for the Confederate cause. These statues are an acknowledgment of the tragedy of war and the bravery of individuals whose only crime was valuing their homeland and family over abstract principles. Currently, the left is attempting to paint this as simple “Lost Cause” -ism, but nothing could be farther from the truth as honoring the dead does not require accepting the Southern cause as noble or honorable. There were brave and moral men on both sides of the conflict, and each is worthy of reverence and respect for doing what they thought was right. Reconciliation began in the 1880s and 1890s, and during these years, Civil War monuments were built in the North and South alike.

In April of 1898, a statue was completed in Wisconsin of a soldier rescuing downed regimental colors from a fallen comrade. The statue was not greeted with ire by the South, but admiration. A Virginia Congressman wrote a letter to the local paper stating, “a soldier of the Old Dominion in the war between the states, a representative of the suffering and heroic people of Richmond, Va., wishes you success in commemorating your heroic slain."

Likewise, when Virginia unveiled a large equestrian statue of General Robert E. Lee, largely seen as the embodiment of Southern values, the North did not kick up a fuss but sent similar regards to the city in honor of Lee. The New York Times wrote that "There is no question at all that his conduct throughout the war, and after it, was that of a brave and honorable man.”

It's worth noting that the erection of statues came after the Black Codes, Radical Reconstruction, and the KKK – the tumultuous period following the War's end. Nor was every Confederate statue made for men of Lee's stature, many are for more obscure local figures and lesser lights. But the generation of young men who fought the Civil War, now entering old age, were firmly in control of the country and the culture.

The goal was not to justify slavery or rebellion, but rather it was, as President Lincoln put it, to “bind up the nation’s wounds.”

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What We Can Learn from the Surrender at Appomattox

Lincoln’s famous remark, “With malice toward none; with charity for all,” largely sums up the prevailing, mainstream attitudes of the time. Americans had just suffered through four years of war that literally tore the country apart. The cliche about “brother against brother” was true especially in the border states that were hardest hit by the conflict, as many families had members on both sides of the conflict.

The war took an immense physical, psychological, and financial toll on the nation. Few were eager to see the conflict extended any further than it needed to be, despite knowing that there was still some work to be done regarding the integration of former rebellious states back into the Union.

The men who were most directly involved in the final battle of the Civil War were not eager to boast or punish the South for their rebellion. Although part of this can surely be ascribed to the fatigue coming from years of open warfare, there is something else going on here that is hinted at by General Chamberlain’s words. There was respect due to any group of brave men who can lose honorably and maintain their dignity, but there is also the knowledge that many of these men were not fighting to preserve slavery.

We will not attempt to pull out the old chestnut that the Civil War was not about slavery. It was about slavery, but it was also about much, much more. The United States prior to the Civil War was effectively a northern industrialized nation and a Southern agrarian nation shackled together. American history between 1776 and 1861 is largely about repeated attempts to cobble these two nations together. The key difference was between industrialized free labor and agrarian bonded labor, but there was a myriad of other social and cultural differences.

It is also worth pointing out that the North did not attempt to use the war to end slavery until several years in and then half-heartedly at that. President Lincoln once famously remarked that "If I could save the union without freeing any slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that."

The North fought to keep the Union intact and everything else was just a window dressing. While it would be disingenuous to say that no one in the South was fighting to preserve human bondage, this was not the motivation for all, nor even for most men fighting what they called “The Second American Revolution.”

It is somewhat fashionable today on the left to refer to the Southrons fighting for the Confederacy as “traitors,” but we should examine what we mean when we say this word. To whom does one’s allegiance belong – homeland and family or to the federal bureaucracy? For the lion's share of Confederate soldiers, their fight was not for slavery but for Virginia, or Mississippi, or Arkansas. Thus, fighting the Union was not an act of disloyalty, but quite the opposite.

During the Civil War, the North and the South shared a common set of political principles that were exemplified in the Constitution. The Confederates copied the Constitution almost word for word, however, they added verbiage to justify and protect slavery and enshrine state sovereignty. Confederate courts even used United States Supreme Court decisions as precedent.

It is unlikely that the current rift in the United States can be reconciled in the same way as the Civil War. America’s two main political factions – let's call them liberals and conservatives for simplicity's sake – do not share a common set of political principles or social goals which leaves no room for compromise.

The men who fought in the Civil War had less animosity toward one another than leftist college students have toward Confederate soldiers today. If the brave men there that day at Appomattox Courthouse weren’t angry enough to stop the former Confederates from honoring their war dead, how can we take seriously the caterwauling of far-left students and activists? The attack on Confederate war monuments and history has nothing to do with outrage over events taking place 150 years ago and everything to do with attacking and erasing American history and heritage.

Sam Jacobs
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Sam Jacobs