Appomattox is one of the many names in history that has come to represent an event more than a place. And that event, the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia under the command of R. E. Lee to U. S. Grant has come, not entirely accurately, to represent the end of the Civil War. Last April saw the 150th anniversary of the surrender. But it saw as well the 150th anniversary of other events that could equally well symbolize the end of the Civil War—the fall of Richmond and the assassination of Lincoln. But the so-called Confederate government continued to meet and it wasn’t until May that Union troops captured its president Jefferson Davis. On May 10, 1865, the new president Andrew Johnson proclaimed the “armed resistance” of the states in “insurrection… was virtually at an end”–as close to an official date that we have, yet one I don’t remember ever being generally celebrated. How do we decide when a war is over when legally it is not a war but an insurrection? Why do we insist on picking a date that cannot be definitive?
The Civil War fascinates many people, not just Americans, and they primarily see it as a military event more than a political one or a social revolution. When such people speak of the Confederacy, they often mean the Confederate Army. And even today, when people speak of the Confederate Army, they usually mean the Army of Northern Virginia when it was under the command of R. E. Lee. This was the army that won battles at Bull Run, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville; this was the army that reached the so-called “high water mark of the Confederacy” at Gettysburg; this was the army that resisted Grant’s armies the last year of the war;. This is the army that people are actually referring to when they say in error that the Confederacy seemed to have better soldiers, better generals, better armies than the Union. Most white southerners and many Americans in general prefer to have R. E. Lee rather than Jefferson Davis symbolize the Confederacy—not entirely incorrectly, since during the war more southerners felt allegiance to Lee than to Davis, to the army than to the government.
Lee was forced to negotiate this surrender on Palm Sunday. He met with Grant at Wilmer McLean’s house at Appomattox Courthouse. In all accounts, the occasion is marked by Lee’s sad dignity and Grant’s almost-embarrassed magnanimity. At their meeting, Grant opened with small talk about the Mexican War and it was Lee who finally steered their conversation back to the business at hand. Grant, known as “Unconditional Surrender” from his earlier defeats of Confederate armies, offered Lee’s conditions, and generous ones. After the agreement was announced, when Grant heard his own soldiers cheering, he ordered them to stop. The rebels, he reasoned, were now fellow countrymen. Thus the story of the surrender becomes, in its customary telling, the story of national reconciliation.
On April 12, this Army of Northern Virginia formally surrendered. Joshua Chamberlain was the Union general appointed to accept the surrender. (Such has been the power of Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels and the film Gettysburg, that Joshua Chamberlain is more famous now probably than ever before.) Determined to honor not humiliate an enemy he regarded as “the embodiment of manhood,” he ordered the Union army to salute the Confederates as they passed; and the Confederates answered with a marching salute. “On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glorying, nor motion of man standing again at the order, but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead!”
A most dignified affair, famously celebrated in strangely mystic terms by Chamberlain himself, a fitting end to a war sometimes still miscalled “the last war between gentlemen,” and a nearly all white affair. As the years rolled on, that is the way many Americans preferred to remember the entire war. It was commemorated and apparently even celebrated as a war between white men. It took the influence of the Civil Rights Movement on historians to make black people central to the meaning and the experience of the Civil War, and even now many reenactors reject the new conventional wisdom. If we focus too tightly on Lee’s surrender, we miss the whole story of how the rebellion wound down. The mid-20th century historian Bruce Catton wrote of a “Stillness at Appomattox.” We can admire the phrase but should remember that it does not mean there was stillness after Appomattox
After Appomattox, R. E. Lee did not consider the war over and the Confederacy officially dead. He insisted he lacked the authority to arrange a general surrender of Confederate forces, an odd insistence given that the Commander-in-Chief Jefferson Davis was in flight and that Lee was General in Chief of all Confederate armies. Punctilious, on April 12th, he reported the surrender of his army and its cause—lack of supplies–to Davis. A week later, he did write Davis again and recommended that the president arrange a general peace. Apparently Lee did not realized that the Union government would not and could not treat with Jefferson Davis because to them Davis was president of nothing. Lee reported that “the country east of the Mississippi is morally and physically unable to maintain the contest unaided with any hope of ultimate success,” advising surrender but still referring to the Confederacy as a separate country. He also argued against guerrilla warfare. “A partisan war may be continued, and hostilities protracted, causing individual suffering and the devastation of the country, but I see no prospect by that means of achieving a separate independence.”
Lee’s conduct made it clear: he did not regard his surrender as the end of the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis and his cabinet thought to continue the war by making their way to Cuba and from there to the Trans-Mississippi Confederacy. There were other calls for the white South to fight on. When on Good Friday, 1865, John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln, he also hoped for a chance to kill Grant and had associates attempt to murder other high ranking officials. Apparently, he thought he could throw the American government in disarray long enough for the Confederacy to rally. Booth did not think the war was over. His last diary entry read, “Our cause being almost lost, something decisive and great must be done.” But he died knowing he had failed.
After Appomattox, other surrenders staggered in. J. E. Johnston’s army surrendered to W. T. Sherman; these two generals tried to end the war in more sweeping terms than Lee and Grant, leading to Sherman’s higher-ups repudiating the original terms. Other departments, including the Trans-Mississippi, whence Davis had hoped to raise the standard again, surrendered in turn, and Davis, captured and in chains, could not raise the standard in any case. But Texas was not officially occupied by the Union army until mid-June; last summer saw the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth.
Cherokee Chief Stand Watie was the last Confederate general to surrender. The Cherokees were one of the “five civilized tribes,” and accepting white civilization had meant embracing the institution of slavery. The Cherokees and other tribes signed treaties of alliance with the Confederacy. As the war went on, most Cherokees switched their loyalties to the Union, and Watie’s cavalry spent much of their time fighting other Cherokees, including burning the house of his arch rival John Ross, in what became a tribal civil war with roots going all the way back to the removal from Georgia in the 1830s. Watie’s troops also offered no quarter to African-American soldiers, massacring as many as they could find after their raids on Union hay camps in Indian Territory; a Creek general with Waite described his soldiers after battle hunting African-American soldiers “as sportsman do quails.” In June 1865, Watie negotiated a cease-fire for the First Indian Brigade. A few months later, he led an unsuccessful effort to get the federal government to recognize a separate, ex-Confederate, Southern Cherokee Nation and to remove all emancipated slaves from Cherokee territory.
Appomattox, then, is the symbolic end of a war that had no exact ending. Most of us would agree that after Appomattox, the other surrenders were inevitable—though that might be scant consolation to the remaining soldiers who subsequently died in battle. In a most unfortunate way, however, Appomattox excludes significant historical actors. As it is usually told, the story of the Appomattox almost leaves out race entirely.
The only well-remembered person of color as Appomattox was Colonel Ely S. Parker, a Seneca Indian on Grant’s staff. His presence startled Lee and it’s been speculated Lee initially thought Parker was black. If so, Lee recovered quickly and observed he was glad to see one real American there. Parker, as conciliatory as Grant could have wish, answered “We are all Americans.” The story of his exchange with Lee fits well into the story many Americans wish to tell about the end of the Civil War.
But the black soldiers present at the surrender of Lee’s army have been largely forgotten, allowing that event to become white in popular memory. As far as I know, there were two thousand black soldiers at Appomattox, and I have never seen them mentioned in accounts of the surrender. Their absence from history is in line with the old view that the Civil War was a war between whites only. But there is an additional side to the story – for the two thousand black soldiers who were present represented only a fraction of those under Grant’s command. During the chase after the Army of North Virginia, Grant’s largely black corps had been left behind, ordered as we shall see, to perform other duties. If the older view of the war erases black participation altogether, the events at Appomattox symbolized the victory of the Union far better than the on-going struggle for black rights. That struggle would unfold elsewhere in Virginia.
If we are dissatisfied with ending the story at Appomattox, where else should we look, not to simply replace Appomattox but to augment our narrative of the end of slavery and the insurrection? In older times, Americans had a phrase for irresistible force. Such and such would happen or had happened “Like Grant took Richmond.” For several generations, the fall of Richmond represented Union—or northern—dogged determination. If we must have a symbolic end to the war, why not the fall of Richmond?
I remember reading as a southern boy—a white southern boy—how Grant actually never took Richmond. Technically, this is true, if irrelevant. When Lee’s army left the defensive lines around Richmond, Grant, the Army of the Potomac, and the XXIV Corps of the Army of the James followed it. At eight-thirty in the morning, on April 3, 1865, the XXV Corps of Army of the James, under the command of Godfrey Weitzel, marched into the abandoned Confederate capital. According to the New York Herald, “Many Union flags were displayed, and great rejoicing manifested at the deliverance so long and so anxiously looked for.”
The Union army had finally captured the capital of the Confederacy after years of trying. Admittedly, the strategy of conquering cities, while politically popular, was not militarily sound, and one of Grant’s many real contributions to the war effort was making Confederate armies, not cities, the targets of the various Union armies. Nonetheless, Richmond had fallen. Jefferson Davis and the other leading politicians had fled the city. Confederate soldiers had set key structures—the armory, government warehouses, bridges—on fire and the flames had spread throughout Richmond. The Yankees put out the fires and saved Richmond even as they conquered it.
President Lincoln himself along with his son visited the city on April 4, five days before the surrender at Appomattox. The New York Times reported that “the colored population turned out in great force, and for a time blockaded the quarters of the president, cheering vociferously.” It also added a “considerable number of the white population cheered the President heartily” but that the Provost Marshall had ordered white Richmonders to stay home. It’s important that we remember how black southerners reacted, but it’s also important to remember that not all white southerners were represented by the dignified line of Confederate soldiers soon to surrender at Appomattox. Not every white southerner had been pro-Confederate. During his Richmond visit, Lincoln admired the statue of George Washington at the State Capitol. He also went to Davis’s office at the “Confederate White House” and sat at Davis’s desk.
Surely this is the stuff of legend?
And yet. And yet…. The XXV Corps was composed almost entirely of African-American soldiers. Its officers were white, of course, but the rank-and-file were black. The 4th Massachusetts Cavalry was the first unit to enter the fallen city, but the first infantry to march in were black. A few days after Lincoln’s visit, the Union army set up a recruiting station and black Richmonders were enlisting. Grateful freed slaves greeting Lincoln suits white American traditions; but perhaps some still would rather forget black soldiers clearing the way for him. The XXV Corps soon had other duties; while many units of the Union army marched in the Grand Review in Washington, the XXV Corps left Richmond to liberate Texas.
Commemorating the fall of Richmond might serve to remind us that the Civil War was not just a war between white men, and that there were southern white unionists. It might also remind us that freedom was not something that white people gave to black people but was something that black people fought for. Black Americans were not simply waiting in Richmond to be set free but fighting their way to Richmond to set their brothers and sisters free.
Perhaps spring 2015 was a little too early to commemorate the end of the Civil War. We might pay attention to other anniversaries that show the issues of the war were not, are not, yet resolved. 1866 is a year well deserving our attention. May 1866 in Memphis saw confrontations between white police and black soldiers led to widespread white violence against the freed-people. Two months later, the New Orleans Riot saw a white mob attack the delegates to a reconvened state constitutional convention. These events too were part of the Civil War.
Henry Clay Work, with his perfect Whig name, composed many popular songs of the time and has been best-remembered for “My Grandfather’s Clock,” the temperance aria “Oh Father Come Home,” and the rousing “Marching through Georgia,” a song of jubilee which obscures the actual policy of Sherman towards enslaved Georgians. In his 1866 song “Who Shall Rule This American Nation?” he raised the question of the war’s conclusion. Referring to the anti-black riots in Memphis and New Orleans and President–“a human dictator”–Andrew Johnson, the songs asked “Did we vainly shed our blood in battle? Did our troops resultless win the day? Was our time and our treasure all squandered.” The chorus is a resolute “No, never! No, never!” 1866 seems a little early to begin campaigning against Johnson’s election, but as the son of an abolitionist family and an enthusiastic supporter of the war and emancipation, Work sincerely feared that the year after Appomattox revealed that without a stiffening of northern will, white southerners would win the peace. The two riots led to the passage of the 14th Amendment and to so-called Radical Reconstruction.
Once again, there was no stillness after Appomattox.
Reid Mitchell earned his PhD in American history from the University of California, Berkeley, and is the author of Civil War Soldiers and other work on the American Civil War.