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The Myth of Appomattox

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

The 150th anniversary of the surrender of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army at Appomattox was commemorated in New York City this weekend with some celebratory cannon shots from Castle Clinton in Battery Park.  Historian Gregory P. Downs also had an excellent column in the New York Times about some of the pernicious myths that cloud our understanding of this hallowed event. As Downs points out, the war hardly ended at Appomattox, as Southerners continued to violently and rather successfully resist efforts towards racial equality in the years that followed. Indeed, on assuming office in 1869, Ulysses S. Grant remarked that many of the rebel states remained in the “grasp of war.” From this perspective, the era of Reconstruction was not something that happened after the war, but a continuation of it. This ongoing struggle and the violence, though, has  largely been obscured by the myth of reconciliation at Appomattox, where Confederate soldiers were supposed to have accepted their defeat graciously, stacked their arms, and returned to peaceful civilian lives. One of the remarkable things about what Downs calls the “myth of Appomattox” is how quickly it took hold. See, for example, this medal issued by Quint and Sons of Philadelphia for Grant’s 1868 presidential campaign.

ANS, 0000.999.38670
ANS, 0000.999.38670

The medal burnished Grant’s image as a magnanimous victor, and someone focused on peace and reconciliation rather than continued conflict. Grant was clearly aware of the problems posed by recalcitrant Southerners and made some aggressive but ultimately ineffectual moves to see Reconstruction through. These efforts were in part undermined by the growing legend of Appomattox and peaceful rapprochement. Indeed, this was something that the reverse of the medal articulated explicitly with the redolent symbolism of stacked arms:

ANS, 0000.999.38670
ANS, 0000.999.38670

The plowing horse image and quote referred to Grant’s decision to allow Confederate troops who owned their own horses to take them with them after the surrender. The idea, related by Grant in his memoirs, was that this would make it easier for the soldiers-cum-farmers to “put in a crop to carry themselves and their families through the next winter.” This conciliatory gesture became part of the myth of Appomattox. The myth exerted a hold on both those who wanted to simply move on from the war and those that used it as a cover to continue to resist its consequences, neither of which boded well for the postwar effort to establish racial equality in the United States. And while how big of a role it played in the near-term failure of Reconstruction is of course debatable, I agree with Downs about the pernicious influence it has on our collective memory of the Civil War and its legacy.

Matthew Wittmann