April 9th was the 150th anniversary of the collapse of the Confederate cause and the end of the American Civil War. Thousands of people, historical re-enactors and tourists alike, gathered at the site where the war ended to mark this event. J. BROOKS SPECTOR contemplates that surrender by General Robert E Lee to General Ulysses S Grant, and the effect this event has had on the course of American history.
Some years ago, in the midst of a major blizzard while he was living in Washington, DC, this writer found himself with little to do and largely trapped in the house. The outside pavement walkways and driveways had been shovelled, and emergency supplies – the inevitable bread, peanut butter, milk, cat food, pasta and a couple of takeout pizzas – had been hauled back from a grocery store just barely within walking distance in the snow. Now it was time to curl up on the sofa with a good book, some ruby red port and a lap blanket in front of a roaring fire in the fireplace.
Newly arrived in the mail was the latest volume from the Library of America classical reprint series, The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S Grant. Picking it up, at first it seemed this would be a particularly dry and boring book. Grant, after all, had the popular reputation as a rather dim bulb, an unsuccessful president and an American Civil War general who had largely succeeded because he created a slaughterhouse for soldiers but won because he had been blessed with more of them than his opponents could muster. In fact, the book was a revelation. Completed just as he was dying of throat cancer and published by Mark Twain’s own publishing enterprise, it became the literary sensation of its time. And it was well worth a read.
Grant had an absolute no-nonsense style – very different from so many other writers in that Victorian period. And those detail-rich but synoptic views of his campaigns from 1861 to 1865 showed him to have a thorough understanding of the grand strategy needed to finally pin down and then beat his opponent, the redoubtable Confederate commander, General Robert E Lee, into surrender. Lee had been the master of battlefield tactics. He had battered and bested a whole list of Union generals – that is until Grant’s understanding of the evolving nature of modern warfare finally allowed him to outfight and grind down Lee’s army and vanquish him – forcing him to surrender on 9 April 1865 at a little crossroads in rural Virginia, at Appomattox Court House.
The broad outlines of that story used to be known by virtually every American school child, back when the country’s history was universally taught in classrooms. By the end, Lee, facing the collapse of his army from desertion, hunger, and even a lack of weapons and ammunition, had finally abandoned the Confederate capital of Richmond to its conquerors and moved in a westerly direction towards the mountains. He was trying to avoid a fixed battle he would surely lose – or, worse, become encircled and then forced into a humiliating surrender to Grant’s Army of the Potomac. Grant’s army was now vastly stronger and infinitely better equipped than Lee’s faltering Army of Virginia. Its morale was high and its troops knew the end was close.
In the final hours of the Confederacy’s efforts to avoid defeat, the Associated Press, as a recently formed press syndicate, had reported from the battlefront that Lee’s army. “After crossing the Appomattox the bridges were burned, and before our [the Union’s] troops could get over the enemy had taken a position a mile from the river, where they erected works and made a stand in order to allow their wagon train to get out of the way… The (Union’s) 2d division, under General Crook, attacked them vigorously, driving them back some distance. But they had a force dismounted, lying in ambush, which poured a severe fire into our men as they advanced to the second attack, and they were compelled to fall back on their supports. The rebels soon after departed from this place, not being disposed to await another charge….”
Meanwhile, two commanding generals had begun to trade notes about how it would all come to an end. Grant was effectively urging surrender and Lee was probing for the kinds of terms that might be included in any ceasefire.
In key parts of their correspondence, Grant had written to his opponent:
“April 9th, 1865.
General: Your note of yesterday is received. I have not authority to treat on the subject of peace. The meeting proposed for 10 A.M. to-day could lead to no good. I will state, however, that I am equally desirous for peace with yourself, and the whole North entertains the same feeling. The terms upon which peace can be had are well understood. By the South laying down their arms, they would hasten that most desirable event, save thousands of human lives, and hundreds of millions of property not yet destroyed. Seriously hoping that all our difficulties may be settled without the loss of another life, I subscribe myself, etc.,
U.S. Grant, Lieutenant-General”
Suffering a major migraine, Grant was on horseback, approaching the crossroads village of Appomattox Court House when a messenger from Lee caught up with him with a new note. It read:
“April 9th, 1865.
General: I received your note of this morning on the picket-line, whither I had come to meet you and ascertain definitely what terms were embraced in your proposal of yesterday with reference to the surrender of this army. I now ask an interview, in accordance with the offer contained in your letter of yesterday, for that purpose.
R.E. Lee, General.”
Grant immediately wrote the following reply:
“April 9th, 1865.
General R. E. Lee Commanding C. S. Army:
Your note of this date is but this moment (11:50 A.M.) received, in consequence of my having passed from the Richmond and Lynchburg road to the Farmville and Lynchburg road. I am at this writing about four miles west of Walker’s Church, and will push forward to the front for the purpose of meeting you. Notice sent to me on this road where you wish the interview to take place will meet me.”
Lee had finally taken full cognisance of the truth his troops were in no condition to put up any further resistance. To meet his foe, Lee put on his best, full dress uniform, polished boots, sword and the rest of the 19th century’s final nods to military chivalry, then rode with his aides to Grant’s temporary headquarters where Grant, still suffering from that migraine, had only got around to pulling on a field coat with his general’s bars on that rough uniform.
In the end, his surrender terms were generous – the defeated, unarmed men could begin to return to their homes, and the officers could keep their side arms, personal baggage and horses. With that, the war was effectively over, even if Confederate President Jefferson Davis was still on the run and several of the smaller Southern armies did not surrender until a few days later.
Union General Horace Porter wrote of the actual surrender scene:
“At a little before 4 o’clock General Lee shook hands with General Grant, bowed to the other officers, and with Colonel Marshall left the room. One after another we followed, and passed out to the porch. Lee signaled to his orderly to bring up his horse, and while the animal was being bridled the general stood on the lowest step and gazed sadly in the direction of the valley beyond where his army lay – now an army of prisoners. He smote his hands together a number of times in an absent sort of way; seemed not to see the group of Union officers in the yard who rose respectfully at his approach, and appeared unconscious of everything about him. All appreciated the sadness that overwhelmed him, and he had the personal sympathy of every one who beheld him at this supreme moment of trial. The approach of his horse seemed to recall him from his reverie, and he at once mounted. General Grant now stepped down from the porch, and, moving toward him, saluted him by raising his hat. He was followed in this act of courtesy by all our officers present; Lee raised his hat respectfully, and rode off to break the sad news to the brave fellows whom he had so long commanded.”
And as for Ulysses S Grant’s story, as told in his own words, all through the next two days in the aftermath of that blizzard, this writer found Grant’s memoirs were impossible to put down. It became clear that he had discovered, almost before anybody else worldwide, that the real secret for success in modern warfare would be the industrialisation of it. Generals who had a firm grasp of logistics and the use of modern telegraphic communication and rail transport – married with an understanding of strategy and military tactics – were going to prevail in brutal military campaigns over those still in the embrace of the heroic romanticism of an earlier age, of Napoleon’s sense of battlefield élan, and of the chivalry of the warrior instead.
Grant’s massive forces increasingly were moved by rail, were controlled quickly and effectively by telegraphic orders, and were fed, clothed and armed by a massive supply chain system managed from the new bureaucracy of the War Department in Washington, DC. In this sense, Grant was the father of modern industrialised warfare, the melding together of manufacturing and communications with the battlefield, helping to set in motion the technological marvels (and consequent horrors) of the much larger wars that would follow in the 20th century.
And he and his deputy commanders did their job. After four long years of grinding warfare that devastated vast swathes of territory across the South, dislocated thousands, led to hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded, the country was again one nation, and slavery was abolished throughout the land, even if the eleven states of the South were an occupied territory with an often sullen, defeated white population.
The legend of the South with its glorious “Lost Cause” was born out of that defeat, creating a special identity that lived on in its politics, literature, poverty and racial circumstances. In reaction to the Republican Party that had prosecuted the war, as soon as white Southerners managed to reassume political leadership in their states (after the US Army was fully withdrawn in 1876 as part of the presidential electoral compromise peppered with charges of fraud and backroom dealing), they quickly disenfranchised the newly manumitted, black former slaves. In this way, the South effectively became a one-party state where a Democratic candidate filled nearly every elected office – and where politics became a stage for factional intra-party fighting as depicted in Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men.
The long runs of their elected congressmen and senators to the federal government then meant that Southerners largely controlled the committee structure and governance of Congress whenever Democrats were in the majority. And it would only be Richard Nixon in 1968 who would see an opening for the Republicans’ “Southern Strategy” of winning over white voters in the wake of the JFK’s and Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights revolution and the federal laws and regulations that were part of it. In this way he captured the presidency with a majority of Southern states’ electoral votes in his column by the time the voting was over, resetting the electoral balance in the country for a generation.
Economically, for many decades, the South continued to be a place that was disproportionately poorer than the rest of the nation. It had all the socio-economic consequences that came with that condition: lower levels of industrialisation, less education, poorer health, and less home electrification and running water, among other indicators. Economically, the Depression, and then the needs for war production during World Wars I and II (along with the continuing racial discrimination) helped provoke the great migration north of millions of black Southerners to the cities of the Northeast and Midwest.
And it developed a unique cultural and artistic tradition as well, rooted in a kind of gloomy nostalgia for its “Lost Cause” and lost civilisation, found in works as varied as William Faulkner’s novels and short stories, plays by Carson McCullers and Tennessee Williams, or the poetry of Vachel Lindsey. And codifying the “Lost Cause” (and its defiant corollary, “The South Will Rise Again”) and the uniqueness of the South for a majority of general readers, of course, was Margaret Mitchell’s blockbuster novel, Gone With The Wind, and the vast canvas of a film made out of it. And, of course, too, the South was the home for gospel, the blues, and country. And some say it also gave birth to jazz and rock ‘n’ roll as well.
The years after World War II finally brought real change to the South as millions of ex-servicemen and factory workers, black and white, returned home. In particular, the old verities of Southern life came under examination and the nation’s civil rights struggle was born in those years, eventually spreading throughout the country.
Meanwhile, the growth in electrification across the South – and the growing introduction of air conditioning as a mass product changed the way of life as well, speeding up the pace, even in summer in homes, schools and offices. That, in turn, helped create a yearning for the lower cost of living and a still-relatively leisurely pace of life among northern retirees, tired of winter up North, and happy to enjoy the South’s warmth instead. One unanticipated effect of that more recently has been to change the electoral nature of a very big population state like Florida, moving it out of its place as reliably in the Republican column and into the Democratic one, at least for presidential votes.
But, even now, the South continues as a place somewhat apart, with its special sense of history and cultivated folk memories as a defeated nation. And as statistics demonstrate, the South significantly remains a region more church going, more socially conservative, and still less likely to eagerly embrace changing social mores such as gay rights than the rest of the United States.
Even so, it is no longer unusual to see inter-racial couples or to find black political leaders and officials in cities throughout the region. What still matters for many southerners, however, is that collective sense of being a nation inside a nation, a nation apart, and a place overflowing with its special history and traditions. Or, as Faulkner had so famously written of his home region in his novel, Requiem for a Nun, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” And so much of this can be said to have been born out of General Robert E Lee’s surrender to General Ulysses S Grant, a hundred-and-fifty years ago, on 9 April 1865. DM
Photo: Robert E Lee surrenders to Ulysses Grant on 9 April 1865.
For more, read:
Surrender at Appomattox, 1865 at the Eyewitness to history;
Appomattox Court House at History.com;
The South The present past at the Economist;
Civil War: 150th anniversary of Lee surrender at Appomattox at the AP;
Today’s GOP is the party of Jefferson Davis, not of Lincoln, a column by Harold Meyerson in the Washington Post
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