The Appomattox surrender of April 9, 1865 marks the symbolic end of the Civil War and the beginning of a new future for the United States. The generous terms laid out by General Grant and the calls by General Lee to all Confederates to peacefully accept those terms created the foundation for a political reunion between sections (although not necessarily sectional reconciliation) that would be mostly bloodless and free of future warfare and guerrilla attacks. As Mark Snell argued in a blog post that has since been deleted, Appomattox saw the end of the killing and chaos of war. We might add that it also spared the lives of countless younger Americans who would have put their lives in danger had the war continued for months, years, or decades. Appomattox created a path towards the emancipation of four million enslaved people, the establishment of birthright American citizenship no longer determined by skin color, condition of servitude, or the whims of the Supreme Court, and the expansion of voting rights to all male citizens regardless of color (and later all women). It also paved the way for a new conception of freedom that ensures that all people will be protected equally under the law regardless of their background, even though this county has often and continues to fail at meeting that ideal.
The American Civil War was a sad four-year event in our nation’s history that saw the deaths of roughly 750,000 soldiers on both sides. Lives and property were destroyed, fortunes were ruined, and ways of life were drastically altered. But it’s worth asking how this war came about in the first place and why a country dedicated to the principles of republicanism and popular government came to engage in war with itself. The answer can be explained in large part through the lens of slavery and freedom in prewar America, and how the former gave meaning to the latter in the formation of this country. From Jedidiah Purdy’s A Tolerable Anarchy:
Why did American slaveholders call so loudly for freedom? . . . The slaveholders’ special passion for freedom was not despite owning their slaves but exactly because they were masters in a slave society. Slavery gave shape and power to the American idea of freedom. Wherever slavery was widespread, [Edmund] Burke insisted, “those who are free are by far the most proud and jealous of rank and privilege.” For the freemen of a slaveholding country, freedom was the root of identity and dignity. Freedom gave men’s lives value in their own eyes and honor in others’ . . . Slavery made masters uniquely sensitive to any invasion of their independence (9).
Slavery’s opponents understood this tension and came around to believe the institution was antithetical to American values and a threat to everyone’s freedoms. When the Republican party formed in the 1850s with the explicit goal of taking steps to limit slavery’s growth westward, war became inevitable. The tragedy of slavery–the “freedom” to buy, sell, and own black people as chattel property–died a severe death at Appomattox that was later cemented by a constitutional amendment in December 1865. That anyone could lament that day as a “sad” one speaks to how many Americans still choose to romanticize the Civil War as a noble experiment in Confederate Nationhood or a Brother’s War where “both sides fought for what they believed in” while the legacy of slavery is casually ignored, deflected, and dismissed as a factor in shaping the conditions for war in the 1860s. I want nothing to do with a nostalgic view of the Civil War that portrays the Appomattox Surrender as the saddest day of the war and/or Southern history more generally. In reality, it was one of its greatest days.