One of the most famous scenes in American history occurred 150 years ago today, with the two central players in roles that were to shape things to come in the United States and particularly in the South.
The defeated Robert E. Lee was in dress uniform, every inch the patrician. He was the son of a Revolutionary War hero and had led the Army of Northern Virginia to remarkable victories against the odds, battles that are studied today as masterpieces of the military art.
The victor was Ulysses S. Grant, in his workday general’s uniform that had seen some use that day. He had first battered and then cornered the main Confederate army in Petersburg and forced its retreat and surrender.
With all the drama and stories about this scene, the day’s events were to cast long shadows.
Grant granted generous terms, as both he and Lee were deeply aware of the need for national reconciliation. The loss of Richmond and the surrender of Lee’s army meant the effective end of the Civil War.
Grant’s image was of the everyman soldier, a bit of a contrast with his masterful role as a grand strategist of the closing years of the war. That image, and the victory, were to lead him to the White House.
Lee’s image as the gallant knight in a losing cause was also to cast a long shadow. The South seized upon the heroic traditions of the Lost Cause, rejoining the Union but cherishing the glory of the war’s struggle while burying the harsher and uglier truths of slaveholder rebellion.
The savagery of the Ku Klux Klan and the “white councils” of the postwar future were progeny of the mythology of the Lost Cause. Symbols had meanings far beyond the immediate surrender, some of them far from the wishes of Lee himself, who was personally ambivalent about slavery and who sought reconciliation with the northern states in the years remaining to him.
The war was not over at Appomattox Court House. A remnant of the Confederate army surrendered in North Carolina later in April. Here in Louisiana, what the Confederate government called the Trans-Mississippi Department continued, based in Shreveport, having defeated an invading army in 1864 in the Red River campaign. Yet the inevitable surrenders occurred during May and June as the Confederate government had been captured or gone into hiding, basically ceasing to exist.
America has never forgotten the war and the personalities have passed into history. Grant and Lee knew they were about making history when they met for the second time, having been only briefly acquainted as young U.S. officers in the Mexican War.
The commemorations of the great war of the North American continent are over only for this 150th anniversary, for Americans are never going to leave behind the effects of the Civil War. And with the drama of it all, it would be a storied series of events even if its relevance to today were not so great.