National Saviors

One hundred fifty years ago this day, was a Sunday – Palm Sunday. It was the day that Confederate General Robert E. Lee met Union General Ulysses S. Grant at a house in Appomattox Virginia to surrender his army. This act ended, for all practical purposes – the American Civil War.

I chose the descriptive word for the war carefully. There have been long running controversies as to what properly to call that conflict. Each has its own ideological or partisan shade of meaning that is unnecessary to expound here. “Civil war” is a term, however, that describes a military action between and among factions in a body politic that are otherwise politically, culturally, and economically closely associated, and that certainly describes the states and their citizens who took sides in the 1861 – 1865 American conflict.

Most civil wars, before and since, have not ended well. The bloodiest and most devastating in the modern era was the Thirty Years War in Germany during the years  1618 – 1648; it took fully two centuries for that land to recover, and, arguably, longer. The English Civil War paused for 11 years when the king was beheaded and a theocratic dictatorship established. When that played out, bloody retribution was visited upon the leaders during the Restoration. The Russian civil war in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands, and 70 years of oppression with tens of millions more dead. Our Civil War was pretty much an exception. There was no mass retribution by the victors. There was talk of punishment for the Confederate leaders, but only one – Henry Wirtz, the commandant of the Andersonville prisoner of war camp – was convicted and executed. And that was for war crimes, not treason or secession. 

What has been called “waving the bloody shirt” – bringing up real or imagined past injustices in history to justify injustice being committed in the present — by politicians, occurred on and off. The aftermath could have been much worse. Since Appomattox, there has never been serious consideration of revanchism or secession, and many of the most ardent supporters of the Stars and Stripes and the ideals it stands for, are those whose ancestors fought under the other flag for four long years. The brunt of bitterness was born by the freed slaves, in all parts of the nation, not just the South. Racism was virulent, but it was not caused by the war. Racist attitudes intensified in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a nationwide, and worldwide, phenomenon, and were never confined to the American South.

Part of the reason for the reconciliation was the magnanimity Grant showed to Lee and the defeated Confederates. Unlike so many other wars of all kinds, the losers  were not required to stack arms and be marched to POW camps or worse, but allowed to immediately return home. The officers were treated with dignity and respect. Of course, Grant certainly had President Lincoln’s approval for such treatment. The President had already set the tone for binding up the nation’s wounds rather than seeking retribution, in his second inaugural speech. Lee’s surrender and bidding his soldiers to “furl the flag” and accept defeat and go home was no less an act to encourage reconciliation. The former Confederate soldiers could have headed for the hills and swamps to fight on as guerrillas indefinitely. In those days, that was a distinct possibility. Some called for just that. None, fortunately, were those who had the respect and confidence Lee inspired. The country owed a lot to Lincoln, Grant, and Lee for what they did – and did not do – at war’s end in April 1865.

For more, see April 1865: The Month that Saved America, by Jay Winik, HarperCollins Publishers, 2001.

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