This is Our Appomattox

I created New Carthage with the aim to cultivate a place to share all the things that are interesting, beautiful, and important to me in the world. That’s a hefty task, as the world is full of things worth learning about. Above all, however, NC actually started as a history blog–I wanted to highlight and make relevant my most favorite subject: the past.

So on this day of April 9, 2017, we celebrate the anniversary of the surrender at Appomattox. The day when the bloody American Civil War effectively ended as Robert E. Lee agreed to Ulysses S. Grant’s generous and hospitable terms.

The Civil War is a topic of great interest to me, as America fought this bloody and devastating fight for four long years, then somehow wove itself back together. Civil Wars, though all somewhat equal in horrific events, usually do not end in such a way. And this idea of surrender–well, in my limited knowledge there is no better story of surrender than the story of Appomattox.

Richmond was being overcome, William Tecumseh Sherman had marched his men to the sea, both armies were exhausted, and the war needed to be called. And called it was, on April 9, 1865–Palm Sunday of that year. Harper’s Weekly, one of the most popular periodicals of the day, published an illustration of the event at Appomattox in parallel to Jesus Christ’s coming into Jerusalem–a symbol of salvation and forgiveness. (Today also happens to be Palm Sunday, oh how we come full-circle.)

The great U.S. Grant, not a general of much pomp, circumstance, or showiness, was wearing his muddied uniform when the Robert E. Lee sent a note agreeing to meet for talks of surrender that morning. The Southern general wore a uniform of formal, more elevated fashion, and had his traditional sword hanging from his hip. Straying from the usual constructs of surrender, however, Lee did not offer the sword to Grant after the terms of surrender had been signed.

Ulysses S. Grant is often remembered for his terms of unconditional surrender in the war, but the general also displayed clear conciliatory motives after key battles. For example, after the Union victories at Donelson and Vicksburg, Grant promoted amiable acceptance of Confederate surrender, exhibiting tremendous maturity and understanding.

Grant’s ability to see past the Confederate exterior and view the rebel soldiers as once-American men truly embodied the heart of the reconciliation legacy that President Lincoln always planned for. The war’s intent was not to entirely shame and strip the South of what they held dear, but rather to take two broken pieces of a nation and cement them together once more—this time into one indivisible whole.

President Lincoln appreciated U.S. Grant’s understanding of the greater political implications of war. In fact, by 1863, Lincoln professed that “Grant is my man, and I am his, the rest of the war.”

The Great Emancipator’s respect and favor of Grant lay not only in the fact that Grant was an exceptional commander, but also because he had the farsightedness to see the war was not the end, but merely the beginning of a long road to American redemption. Lincoln and Grant were cognizant of the fact that if all decency was thwarted, the assimilation of the South back into the Union would be so much more difficult to achieve.

The final surrender of the South at Appomattox, with conditions drawn up by General Grant and agreed to by Robert E. Lee, marked the end of the bloody war. Unlike other famous surrenders, such as the end of WWI or WWII, there was little rejoicing allowed on the part of the Union soldiers. In fact, Grant ordered that they not make a scene of their victory, as now the Southerners were Americans once more and there was no need to make a spectacle. The commander also chose not to enter the city of Richmond after the end of the surrender, fearing it would cause unnecessary distress to citizens in the fallen former Confederate capitol.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of both Lincoln and Grant’s approach to terms of surrender and treatment of the fallen rebels was how levelheaded both leaders were despite the onslaught of war. Surely the war was extremely personal for both of them, yet they displayed such magnanimity and tolerance for the faction of the nation that literally seceded from its mother country.

But what does Appomattox mean today? To Americans now? I fear that few truly even know what it is at all. We should know such things, however. We should know the actions of great–and flawed–American men. We should know that even the most horrifying, the most desperate and terrible of times do end–and sometimes even end with some semblance of amiability. The war is not the full story, not the only concept worth glorifying. There is beauty in surrender, too.

Sources: Joan Waugh ‘“I Only Knew What Was in My Mind” Ulysses S. Grant and the Meaning of Appomattox’ from The Journal of the Civil War Era (2012).

(Photo: Property of the Library of Congress)

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