Saturday, October 3, 2009

A trip to Appomattox, a reminder of the consequences of war

Lori and I, and our house guest, Tony, took a road trip Friday. We were much in need of a day off, and realizing we have not done much to explore our new surroundings, we set out to rectify that situation.

Our tour guide for the day was Bill Bergen, a member of St. Paul's and an accomplished Civil War historian. We went to Appomattox Court House, the place where Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysess S. Grant in April 1865, drawing to a close the most lethal conflict in American history.

Bill described for us how Grant's army chased Lee's army westward, finally surrounding Lee at this obscure stage coach stop in the rolling piedmont of central Virginia. The final battle was sharp and short, and Lee gave up rather than face certain annihilation.

Grant and Lee met for 90 minutes in a small parlor inside a house in the town of Appomattox Court House. What they said is lost to history, but Grant offered a "parole" to the Confederate soldiers, allowing them to surrender their arms and flags on the promise they would fight no more, and then he let them go home.

Lee accepted, and the next day his army marched into town, unit-by-unit, stacking their guns and shrouding them with flags. It took seven hours to complete the disarmament of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

The Appomattox Chamber of Commerce has long ago ballyhooed their town as the place "where the nation reunited," but it is really much more than that. The nation was reunited not as it had been before. Appomattox is where a terrible war ended, where slavery ended, and where Abraham Lincoln's vision triumphed "that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Yet there is a sadness to this place. The sadness is in the graves of soldiers. The sadness is embedded in the historical markers that were attempts, long after the fact, to cast the war as a noble clash of noble principles. As Lincoln more aptly put it, "the prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully."

In fact, the war was a terrible miscalculation of Southern political leaders grossly underestimating their opponents, and a terrible miscalculation by Northern political leaders grossly underestimating the threat that they posed. The overheated political rhetoric of the time had real life consequences. Those who paid the price in blood were common soldiers and common people caught in the path of a horrific war through no fault of their own.

Here is the question for us: Can monuments like Appomattox better serve as reminders to us of the folly of resolving our differences by violence, either through arms or words? Can this terrible war long ago serve as a reminder to us that the overheated rhetoric of our own political conflicts has consequences? Can the ghosts in the soil of Virginia, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Georgia, Missouri, the Carolinas, and across this great land remind us of the cost of a civil war and how we should pledge to never repeat it?

Postscript: My great-great grandfather, George W. Richardson, served in the Union Army in Memphis. He was the white chaplain to a black artillery regiment. He understood well the stakes of the war for his men and for the nation, and this is what he wrote in his journal about the end of the war:
About 4 o’clock in the afternoon of April 4th the news of the surrender of Lee and the fall of Richmond reached Memphis. The city was illuminated and guns were fired and there was wild joy among all the Union men. It meant that the hardships of the field were about at an end. It meant that the soldiers, after an honorable discharge, could return to their families, and to their peaceful occupations. It meant that the thousands of prisoners who had languished in military prisons or in prison pens would at once be liberated, and breathe the air of freedom once more. It meant that the principles for which our nation had contended for four years had at last triumphed, and that America would henceforth be “the land of the free and the home of the brave”. It meant that the four and a half million of men, women and children of African dessent [sic] would have a chance to become intelligent American citizens; and this class were very demonstrative in their joy.

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