As an historian, I’ve been continuously surprised by the lack of attention to the series of 150th anniversaries of the events of the American Civil War, including yesterday’s sesquicentennial of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Perhaps this is because we no longer do real history in our colleges and universities. The past has become something we access, not for perspective or instruction, but as a source of raw material, to be shaped as needed to fit a contemporary narrative, in service to present-day political purposes. (Google ‘Michael Bellesiles’ for just one example.) The History Department at my alma mater is the center of unruly activism in pursuit of a radical anti-fossil fuel agenda. How those particular dots connect is a puzzlement to me.
I believe history matters. One of the most significant events in American history happened 150 years ago, at a farmhouse in the small Virginia town of Appomattox Courthouse, named after the nearby river itself named for a Powhatan Indian tribe. On Palm Sunday, April 9 1865, Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant, General in charge of all the Union armies, including the Army of the Potomac and the Army of the James, to end our nation’s bloodiest war.
Lee, even in his late 50s and after four years of war, was a magnificent figure. At a time when the average man stood just over five and a half feet, Lee was six feet tall, but his trunk was long and his legs unusually short. With massive shoulders and huge hands, Robert E. Lee on a horse was an impressive sight. He was related by blood to five of Virginia’s seven signers of the Declaration of Independence. He owned two houses with names. He arrived at the McLean farmhouse before Grant, wearing an immaculate uniform with gilt buttons, armed with a ceremonial sword with a jeweled hilt.
Grant arrived late after a hard ride. His boots and trousers were spattered with mud. He was unarmed. With his mouse-brown hair and short beard, he looked, as one of his aides commented, “like a fly on a shoulder of beef.” But Grant was the victor. The shopkeeper-general beat the grand-nephew of two of the Founders. More, the system of which Grant was a representative was the victor. Free men prevailed over the slave masters. Capitalist productivity prevailed over agrarian virtue. Immigrants and the children of immigrants swelled the ranks of the Union armies.
The South lost a war whose essential purpose was to keep human beings in bondage. Lee’s skill and courage, and that of the under-fed, under-equipped army he led, excite our admiration to this day. Yet if the Army of Northern Virginia surely fought bravely and well, the cause for which they fought was just as surely, to borrow Grant’s words, “one of the worst for which a people ever fought.”
What is the duty we owe to the past? If nothing else, perhaps simply the memory and understanding of just how large a price we paid to expiate our nation’s original sin of slavery — over 620,000 dead in a nation of thirty millions, equivalent to an unfathomable 6.2 million deaths as a similar proportion of our current population. As Abraham Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural: “If God wills that [the war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’ “