April 9, 2012
When Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered on this date in 1865 to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, national legends were born. The ironies of that event astonished the country for generations. Fewer and fewer Americans can tell you what every schoolchild once knew about this event in our countrys past.
The National Archives building in Washington proclaims its purpose in stone. It was built to house evidences of the glory and romance of our history. Increasingly, its not just the evidences of our American past that are dismissed, but the very idea of glory and romance that is denied.
Get real, we are told. But Appomattox is real. A nation that tore itself apart for four bloody years conducted a surrender ceremony marked by not a single act designed to humiliate a defeated rebellion.
How bloody? Today, we speak of 9/11 in hushed tones. Or at least we should. A nation of almost 300 million lost 2,975 on that terrible September day. It was the worst act of domestic terrorism in our history. Millions of Americans learned that they knew someone who died that day, or at least knew a relative of one of the dead.
Imagine how much more horrible it would be for a nation of just 35 million to lose 630,000 lives. Add to that suffering of tens of thousands of young men maimed for life in battles that, as The Civil War narrator David McCullough tells us, were fought in 10,000 places throughout America.
You would think a thirst for vengeance would overcome some of the Union soldiers. They had marched through Virginia for four years. Many had seen their brothers, or best friends, blown to pieces by rebel artillery.
My great-great uncle, Capt. Jonas Lipps, fought in the Stonewall Brigade. He was taken prisoner by Union forces outside of Spotsylvania Courthouse in May, 1864. One of his Union guards lunged at him with a bayonet. Jonas jumped back, but was stabbed through the fleshy part of his arm. He pulled out the bayonet and ran the guard through, killing him with his own bayonet.
When other Union soldiers rushed to kill Jonas, the captain of the guards ordered them to cease: That rebel captain is unarmed; he was only defending himself. Leave him alone. Jonas survived the day, only to die a year later in a POW camp, just days before Appomattox and peace. But this story especially the evidence of justice and mercy shown by the captain of the guard should strengthen us today.
Appomattox was not the final event of the Civil War. Union Gen. William T. Sherman was still vigorously pursuing Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston through the Carolinas.
But Lees surrender meant that Johnstons defeat, and soon that of other Confederate forces, was only a matter of time.
At sea, amazingly, the CSS Shenandoah would continue to destroy Union commerce and raid Yankee whalers long after Appomattox. Without reliable communications, this feared Confederate warship would fight on for months. Only in November, 1865, did the Shenandoah end her struggles in Liverpool, England.
U.S. Grant had respect for Robert E. Lee, but he did not hold him in awe. Bobby Lee! Bobby Lee! Grant had once growled at his generals. Im tired of hearing about Bobby Lee. Youd think he was about to turn a somersault and land in our campfires. I want to know what we are going to do. Grant always believed the best defense was a good offense.
Grants drive to destroy Lees army was a brutal, costly affair. Grant had ordered a charge at Cold Harbor, Virginia, that cost 7,000 Union lives in 20 minutes. Twenty years later, in his justly famous Personal Memoirs, he would express regret for ever having given that order.
Grant had to live with being called a butcher. Its a strange charge, since Robert E. Lee is never called a butcher. Lee had sacrificed, proportionately, more of his brave young men than Grant had.
It would be wonderful if every American could go to Appomattox. It is especially beautiful there in springtime. The blossoms testify to new life and rebirth.
I had the privilege five years ago of taking a class of FRC interns to Appomattox in the spring. They had come from as far away as California.
I had not fully realized how remote this little Virginia village is. Leaving Appomattox, we headed toward Richmond. A heavy spring rain turned the dirt roads to mud. It was the same road Gen. Lee must have traveled after Appomattox.
I remember pressing intern Nathan Macy about the GPS route. Fearing that we were lost, I asked Nathan to double-check. He did and assured me we were on the correct road. Well, I told Nathan, Gen. Lee only came here once. And he was being chased.