The Battle They Fought to End the War

They had come a long way, these young men. many of whom were still young.  In the fifth April of the war they felt both tired and energized: weary of a long winter of raids and bombardments, sharpshooters and endless mud, but energized because spring was coming, and the armies around Richmond were moving again.

In February Wilmington, North Carolina, the Confederacy’s last deep-water port with rail links, had been occupied by Union troops.  At Five Forks on 1 April 1865, a part of Army of Northern Virginia under George Pickett was trying to protect the Southside Railroad junction from the concerted attacks of Philip Sheridan.  Overwhelmed and badly placed, the Confederates were forced to run.  Using the Richmond and Danville line, Jefferson Davis and his government ran south while Robert E. Lee took the Army of Northern Virginia south and west, under close attack from the Army of the Potomac under George G. Meade.

With Meade behind him, William T. Sherman’s army group was somewhere to his south where Joseph P Johnston was trying to get away from Sherman and join Lee, and Federal cavalrymen were closing off the major roads.  After nine days of moving and fighting, and after his last ration train was captured, Lee saw little choice but to give up the fight.

So the patrician Lee and the plebeian Ulysses S. Grant, who commanded all the Union armies, met on 9 April 1865 to work something out.  They sat in the parlor of Wilmer McLean, a sugar broker whose house at Manassas Junction was the center of the first major battle of the war.  Now, at Appomattox Court house, it would see the end of the largest theater of what had become a global war. Photographs of the time show Lee resplendent in an immaculate, new, custom-made uniform, and Grant in a mud-spattered private’s coat with lieutenant general’s shoulder straps.  There was a little small talk: Grant recalled their only other meeting in Mexico, which Lee could not remember.

The talked about horses, weapons, rations, terms.  Grant wanted the return of what property the Federal government owned before the war, but realized that it would be impossible to separate it from the rest, so did not press the issue much.  Lee said his officers owned their animals and their sidearms, and Grant decided he would not confiscate them.  Much as he had at Vicksburg, Grant knew this 28,000 man Confederate army was spent, and with nearly a hundred thousand men in arms under his command in the area, could afford to be generous.  After Ely Parker wrote out the final terms, Lee signed the surrender.

Then the real battle commenced, and continues to this day. The “battle of the books” has been the most consistently acrimonious and contentious action of the American Civil War, and this scholar contends that while it is far from over it needs to end sooner than later.

There are two major battlefields of this fight: the cause and The Cause.  The first centers around the reasons for the fighting to begin with, where tariffs, slavery, secession, state’s rights, firing on the flag, and other issues are the most often discussed.  The second is by far the noisiest.  It has more to do with the end of the war and how the entire conflict has been perceived, remembered and recorded.  To many scholars this is embodied in Lost Cause Mythology, or LCM, a position that holds that the Confederacy was always going to be the loser, but was the nobler of the two factions fighting the war–hence the Lost Cause.  For others, LCM is part and parcel a product of Union/Yankee imagination.  But for a few, including this one, both factions are cooperating in the management of Civil War Inc., the robust and thriving enterprise where a reasonable and compromising explanation for the conflict is out of the question simply because there’s so much advantage (in the form of profit and reputation) in keeping the contending factions going.

Unlike other civil conflicts, the American Civil War holds a global audience.  One can search far and wide to find a thousand reenactors of all other civil conflicts in history in the United States, but nearly every nation on the globe has at least one group of dedicated souls who dress up in wool serge to replay Gettysburg.  American Civil War books outsell all other American history titles worldwide in every language.  Civil war scholars, nearly all Americans, are always welcomed to speak at conferences and seminars on 19th century topics.

But the battle that they fight, unlike the battle that their subjects fought, will never end.  And, in the interest of scholarship and sanity, it needs to.

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