Thursday, April 9, 2015

The End of an American Tragedy

Today is the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War — the day that Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant — and I am reminded of my favorite story about that war.

Wilmer McLean's name is not one that most people recognize in conversations about the American Civil War, but he holds a unique place in its story. His farmhouse in Manassas, in northern Virginia, had been the headquarters for Confederate military leadership during the First Battle of Bull Run, the first real battle of the Civil War back in July of 1861, and it had drawn plenty of fire from Union forces.

McLean, a grocer, moved his family south in the spring of 1863. Most of his business dealings were in the southern part of Virginia; I'm sure that played a role in his decision. The presence of the Union army made it hard for him to continue to conduct business in the northern part of the state, but I have no doubt that McLean also wanted to make life easier for his family by putting some distance between them and the fighting.

All of which makes the fact that Lee surrendered to Grant in McLean's home at Appomattox Court House 150 years ago today more than a bit ironic.

Initially, he wasn't too keen on the idea of the surrender taking place in his home, but he agreed and, apparently, retained his sense of humor, observing, "The war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor."

There aren't many uplifting stories about that war. Inspiring? Yes. Uplifting? Not so much.

One hundred and fifty years ago today, the last real battle of the Civil War was fought. There would be skirmishes here and there, but, by and large, the Battle of Appomattox Court House was the last one. The Confederates were essentially a beaten army before the battle began. They were tired and hungry, inadequately equipped for battle. In the face of Union fire, they had abandoned their capitol, Richmond, Virginia, and retreated. The Union forces — superior in numbers, preparation and equipment — cut off the Confederates' retreat, forcing the battle at Appomattox Court House.

Lee attacked that morning, believing the Union forces to be entirely cavalry, but he soon learned the truth — the cavalry was backed by two corps of infantry — and he was left with no choice but to surrender. The surrender, in McLean's parlor, came that afternoon.

On that day, Grant displayed the kind of wisdom that, unfortunately, he seldom showed in his later actions as president. He permitted the Confederate soldiers to keep their sidearms and horses. None of them would be prosecuted. They could return to their homes, their dignity intact. After all, the Yankees and the Rebs would be compatriots again, just as they were before the war.

As Lee rode away, Grant's men began to celebrate, but Grant sent word that it should stop. "The Confederates were now our countrymen, and we did not want to exult over their downfall," he said later.

I've been hearing and reading about the Civil War all my life, and I have long believed that there were many examples of heroism, sacrifice and courage on both sides of that conflict, but it was a tragedy from which this nation is still trying to recover. Sometimes I wonder if it will ever fully recover from it.

It was a traumatic experience for the people who lived through it and the people who have lived and are living with the cultural consequences.

On this occasion, I suppose it is tempting to suggest that the war never really ended. It's a temptation that some, like David W. Bright of The Atlantic, seem to have found impossible to resist.

The war did end, of course — 150 years ago today. And what I can't help wondering is how different this country could have been — not if there had never been a Civil War (because I believe, as agonizing as it was, the Civil War was necessary to re–define what America stood for), but if Lincoln had not been killed only a few days later or if Grant had displayed the generosity to the South as president that he had shown to the South's soldiers 150 years ago today.

Lincoln, of course, was killed a few days later, and Grant's presidency lacked many of the fine qualities he had shown as general (among them backbone). As a result, those who wanted to punish the South did so in the form of Reconstruction. It is my belief that Reconstruction produced much the same result in this country that post–World War I sanctions on Germany produced in Europe — chiefly, resentment from those who felt oppressed.

I believe that much of the racism and bigotry that has survived for the last century and a half in the South was conceived in Reconstruction. The Jim Crow laws were enacted after Reconstruction had ended but the pain endured. In the Germany of the 1920s, much the same thing happened although the economic sanctions continued.

For the most part, I am inclined to think that a lot of what happened in 19th–century America and 20th–century Europe can be classified as unintended consequences. Oh, sure, I know there were some folks in both places and times whose only desire was to inflict pain on the vanquished — and they succeeded, perhaps beyond their wildest dreams. But I believe most simply wanted to fulfill a code of justice — arbitrary though it may have been.

I would like to believe, anyway, that what came to pass in 19th–century America and 20th–century Europe was not intended — because, if it was, that would be a greater tragedy than the one that preceded it.

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