Archive | April, 2015

Appomattox Redux

10 Apr

The commemoration for Appomattox that signifies the end of the Civil War also seems to signify the end of our nation’s attempts at memorializing the 150th anniversary of our nation’s seminal event. Mike’s previous blog touched on the importance of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, but I wanted to approach this anniversary from another angle.

It can be easily argued that those four years of Civil War represent the most important years in our nation’s history. Much of the nation’s history before those years led to that point and all of our history today leads away from it. It is the fulcrum that our nation has balanced itself upon. And yet, it seems like attempts to honor the struggle have for the most part been a failure. There have been some noteworthy events and many have participated, but if the purpose of commemoration is to bring attention to the topic and get the general public to remember and appreciate its importance, then I think the overall movement has been a failure.


Perhaps the better question is why? Plenty of Civil War historians and enthusiasts have no doubt partaken in these special events, but it seems the general public is unaware. Perhaps the study of Civil War is a worn-down topic has simply become the “beating of a dead horse.” However, one major reason is the lack of coverage by the media. Commemorations of Civil War events have not seemed to catch the media’s attention.  Perhaps they are not newsworthy enough or perhaps these remembrances of the Civil War are not “politically correct.” I do know there has been no shortage of the coverage of Civil Rights anniversaries relating to the Civil Rights Movement. Mike and I have both addressed this topic in earlier blogs (August 19 and September 9, 2014). It is a shame that we have failed to make the obvious connection between the two.

It is just another sad reminder of our nation’s lack of historical appreciation.  To think that 150 years ago, our country concluded a bloody Civil War that dramatically changed the course of the nation and our general public today doesn’t even know.


April 9, 1865 and the End of the Civil War

9 Apr

I’ve always been intrigued with artificially tidy end date assigned to the Civil War of April 9, 1865. That is of course the date the General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Technically, though, his was just one of several Southern armies still in the field, and the terms made between Lee and Grant made no declaration of the surrender of the Confederate government, which was unraveling as it ran for its life the moment the two generals chatted in the parlor of the McLean house. Troops far surpassing the number of those directly under the command of Lee remained in the field in the form of the remnants of the Army of Tennessee, various military departments in Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas, ragtag bunches west of the Mississippi River, and that famous footnote that is Stand Watie’s Indian guerillas in Oklahoma. Admittedly, these scattered bands weren’t about to win an already forlorn Confederate independence, but I’ve always found their being shuffled to the side as irrelevant or totally forgotten a curious development in the remembrance of a war in which every detail of every encounter seems to have been studied. Our positive fascination with what brought on the war, the places it was fought, and the way in which it has been remembered and continues to resonate in our society seems to have no end. Why, then, do we know so much about how the war started and progressed and so relatively little about how it really ended?


Perhaps it’s because we like convenient specific dates for beginnings and endings of wars (Armistice Day in WWI, VJ Day and VE Day in WWII for example) that the date so quickly and so enduringly took root in the American consciousness as the date after which any further resistance was futile. The fact that the war’s beginning can be pinpointed so precisely probably didn’t help. The first shots on Fort Sumter were fired at exactly 4:30 AM on April 12, 1861, after all. Perhaps it is because the image of the gentlemanly, orderly agreement between two of the nation’s most respected military leaders seems a much more fitting way to remember the end of our national tragedy than the messy, chaotic nature of the piecemeal surrender of various bands of fighters attempting to protect a nation that no longer existed.

In truth I think there is one overarching, rather obvious reason why April 9th is remembered so universally as marking the end of the war and not any of the other days in April and May of 1865 when the remainder of the numerous other small Confederate commands surrendered to the nearest Union forces they could find. It is simply a testament to the remarkable symbolic power of Lee and his army in the nation’s mind and its centrality to understanding the course of the Civil War. By the time Lee surrendered, there really was no Confederacy to speak of, nor had there been for some time. Virtually every corner of the South had been subdued if not outright occupied, and its resources in material and manpower were totally exhausted. Still, as long as Lee’s army remained in the field, citizens both north and south believed the contest might still be in doubt and those few unconquered locations in the crumbling Confederacy had a slight thread of hope to grasp onto, provided they wanted to hope for independence any more at all. Lee seemed to be the one man who could stand up to the Union and win, or at least hold his own.

Lee at Appomattox

All this is somewhat ironic considering Lee’s army, while arguably the South’s most capable and unquestionably its most successful fighting force, barely moved beyond the 100 or so miles between Richmond and Washington DC during the war (with two notable exceptions of course). It and it alone comprises our notion of the “eastern theater” of the war for the Confederacy. In the “western theater,” which means pretty much anything South and west of Petersburg, Virginia, the South experienced one nearly continuous string of defeats that left capitals, ports and huge swaths of territory in Yankee hands, factories and plantations in ruins, and defeated armies on the run. It lost big and early, with New Orleans and practically the whole Tennessee River Valley falling into Union hands in 1862. It got turned back in its only major advance northward into Kentucky that year as well. It lost in the middle portion of the war, with the key transportation hubs in Chattanooga and Vicksburg falling in 1863. It lost down the stretch, as well. The strategic center of supply in Atlanta fell in late summer 1864 and it failed miserably in its campaign to retake the long lost city of Nashville in the close of that year. Nor was it done losing after Lee called it quits. It lost the vital supply centers of Mobile, Selma and Columbus even as Lee was finally cornered in Virginia. It kept right on being defeated until official word came that the Army of Northern Virginia had laid down its arms, when most everyone seemed to understand the gig was finally up. It may have not been a rational or realistic point of view, but Lee’s army was the spiritual heart of the rebellion. It must have been so at least in part, for by every other measure the war was long lost by the spring of 1865 yet people still willingly and bravely fought and died at places like Spanish Fort and Blakeley and a host of others stretching from South Carolina to Texas and beyond. I have a tough time believing they did so thinking the contest was already absolutely determined, especially with so little reason to believe fortunes might somehow be reversed anywhere but in Virginia.

As we commemorate the 150th anniversary of Appomattox and wind down our somewhat muted remembrance of the Civil War in American history, perhaps that is one thing to take away from the exercise. No matter how we stack the facts and demonstrate how the war was military won by the Union or lost by the Confederacy at any certain point, it was the will to fight and the belief that the outcome hung in the balance that animated the struggle. It is admittedly an oversimplification, but the final blow to that will in the South and the final proof of the triumph in the North occurred on April 9, 1865. It just took a little time for word to spread and the realization to sink in.

Union soldiers at Appomattox


Review of Journey to the Wilderness: War, Memory, and a Southern Family’s Civil War Letters, by Frye Gaillard

6 Apr

If there is any genre of book that seems overdone in American historiography, it is the published collection of Civil War letters. We seem to have thousands of these volumes floating about, each with buried nuggets of golden quotes surrounded by layers of tedious recounting of the monotony of camp life in bad grammar, all introduced by authors with rather formulaic overviews of the progression of the Civil War. I will admit these books have their place as reference resources and have certainly been of use to me over the years, but as readable narratives they usually leave much to be desired.


I say all this to better explain how much I enjoyed Frye Gaillard’s recently-published, provocative, and refreshingly brief book Journey to the Wilderness. While drawing on his family’s collection of Civil War letters, he manages to turn the manuscript into something more than a reference book and actually makes these assembled missives part of an interesting narrative. His success should come as no surprise, as he is “Writer in Residence” at the University of South Alabama and author of nearly two dozen books. The superb foreward by colleague Steven Trout, which sets the tone for the book by asking how the grisly reality of the war could have so long been downplayed in place of more romantic remembrances, is a nice addition.

Gaillard features a carefully-selected and edited batch of correspondence that, combined with his own commentary, offers a sweeping look at how the Civil War was anticipated, endured, and remembered by the people who lived through and helped shape our collective memory of the conflict. He observes candidly that his generation (he was born in 1946) was perhaps the last to be raised with stories of unequivocal Southern gallantry but also the first to be forced to square that veneration with the glaring inequities in Southern history forcefully brought to light by the Civil Rights Movement. The experience obviously challenged his notions of what the South he grew up and was taught to love was all about, indeed what he himself was all about in truth. The Civil War was brutal, horrific, and, as the Gaillard family letters demonstrate, by no means always glorious. These truths we as historians take for granted, but Gaillard beautifully reinforces the point with a well-crafted assemblage of letters loaded with meaning and a set of family stories that illustrate just how visceral a connection we Southerners have had, and continue to have, with the war and its commemoration.


Christ is Risen

6 Apr

We hope you and your family enjoy this most special of holidays as we reflect on the remarkable story of life, death, and resurrection it commemorates.




3 Apr

The teaching of the relevance of history must be made a priority by historians. PERIOD! We have touched on this topic before on this blog and this core value of the profession of history can’t be overestimated. As our field continues to become more and more specialized at the university level and more and more marginalized in grade school curriculums, we are losing touch with our true purpose as historians.  It is our job, no it is among our primary responsibilities, to make sure the study of history is made to be meaningful to the general public.  We must always be cautious to avoid our preoccupation with our individual special interests and think outside ourselves and determine how what we study must be relevant to the today’s society. If not, then our field has become nothing but a hobby and serves no practical purpose.


In the process of developing every project, whether it is a book, speech, exhibit, or event, a primary consideration must be determining how to make this project meaningful to the public on some level. The public should never be left to wonder why they should care about something. Obscure projects that focus on minutiae without some coherent connection to a larger story simply don’t resonate with our society. We as historians are partially to blame for the field’s decline. It is in part a self-inflicted wound because we have forgotten our audience and put ourselves first.