Yesterday the state of Virginia permanently removed the nation’s largest confederate monument, a statue of Robert E. Lee, from its place on Monument Avenue in the capital city of Richmond, Virginia, where it had been erected in 1890. All other confederate monuments have already been removed. This was the last one to go. Lee was the famed confederate general who led a southern army of rebellion against the United States government during the American Civil War.
It was the right decision and long overdue. The historical truth is that Robert E. Lee and the confederate army fought a long and bloody war against the federal government of the United States over the legal right of the southern states to preserve and expand the institution of chattel slavery.
In reflecting on Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and the cause for which Lee and his army had served, U.S. Army General Ulysses S. Grant wrote in his post war memoir:
I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. [underlining added]
He liked to say that he was in morals, not politics. From this the logical deduction was that people who opposed him, numerous though they undoubtedly were, must be willfully wrong. . . .
Yet angry words were about the only kind anyone cared about to use these days. Men seemed tired of the reasoning process. Instead of trying to convert one’s opponents it was simpler just to denounce them, no matter what unmeasured denunciation might lead to. . . . Men saw what they feared and hated, concentrated on its wide empty plains, and as they stared they were losing the ability to see virtue in compromise and conciliation. The man on the other side, whatever one’s vantage point, was beginning to look ominously alien. . . .
A philippic, as he had promised. No single vote had been changed by it; the Senate would decide, at last, precisely as it would have done if he had kept quiet. But he had not been trying to persuade. No one was, these days; a political leader addressed his own following, not the opposition. Summer had been trying to inflame, to arouse, to confirm the hatreds and angers that already existed. In the North there were men who from his words would draw a new enmity toward the South; in the South there were men who would see in this speaker and what he had said a final embodiment of the compelling reasons why it was good to think seriously about secession.
These excerpts are from Catton’s book, This Hallowed Ground. Though he is describing something that happened 165 years ago, it feels eerily contemporary.
In the opening pages of his book, a section aptly subtitled “Sowing the Wind,” Catton is describing the mood of the U.S. Senate (and the nation really) as Senator Charles Sumner prepared and delivered a speech on the Senate floor denouncing slavery and calling for the territory of Kansas to be admitted to the Union as a free state.
A few days later, on the Senate floor, as a result of that speech, Sumner was attacked and almost beat to death with a cane by Preston Brooks, a senator from South Carolina, and a strong advocate for slavery and states’ rights.
It was May, 1856. The nation was just 5 years from the opening shots of a bloody civil war.
Historians call it the Hampton Roads Conference. It happened 156 years ago today. Not far from where I live now, near Fort Monroe, Virginia, on February 3, 1865, Abraham Lincoln met with commissioners from the southern Confederacy to discuss a possible peace agreement.
The conference is dramatized in the Oscar winning movie Lincoln. The movie, of course, cannot give us all that was said during a roughly 4 hour meeting. What the film maker does in this scene is give us the core sentiments of the negotiating sides, creatively summed up in this short scene:
“How have you held your union together? Your democracy? How many hundreds of thousands have died during your administration. Your union sir, is bonded in canon-fire and death.”
Lincoln’s reply brilliantly turns those words back on Alexander Stephens. Yes, the sacrifices had been immense, but these sacrifices will ultimately be proven worthy because they were made not just for our democracy but for democracy as an idea itself. “But say all we’ve done is show the world that democracy isn’t chaos. That there is a great invisible strength in a people’s union. Say we’ve shown that a people can endure awful sacrifice and yet cohere. Mightn’t that save at least the idea of democracy, to aspire to? Eventually to become worthy of? At all rates whatever may be proven by blood and sacrifice must have been proved by now.”
Again, the movie clip above is a creative dramatization. Stephens and Lincoln didn’t, as far as we know, actually say these lines, but if you read the correspondences related to this meeting and the various written recollections, you can see how what’s said could be interpreted as representing the central position of Stephens and Lincoln.
By the time of this meeting it was clear the Confederacy was defeated. It was over. The Hampton Roads Conference wouldn’t lead, however, to the Confederate government surrendering. Jefferson Davis, the Confederate President, would continue to allow southern troops to fight and die in a hopeless cause. The Civil War would end only when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865.
In your hand, my fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to “preserve, protect, and defend” it…We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
155 years ago today Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to United States General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, ending the American Civil War.
Lee had held the trenches at Petersburg for 10 months before he had abandoned his untenable position and marched his army west in an attempt to shake the federals and hopefully get reenforced by another confederate army marching north through North Carolina.
But it wasn’t meant to be.
Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was, by this time, hollowed out by desertions and in no shape to take on the much larger federal army pursing them. Knowing this, Lee did the honorable thing and surrendered his army to Grant at Appomattox. The contest had been decided.
With Lee’s surrender the Civil War was effectively over and the Confederacy was no more.