The war did not end in Wilmer MacLean’s parlor, one hundred fifty years and one day ago today, but the surrender of the Confederacy’s premier field army on top of the loss of its capital and flight of its government made for something close to a final victory. The Americans on the winning side noted it as such. Some today think we should have a holiday to celebrate the anniversary of Lee’s surrender. I regret that I can’t recommend Brian Beutler’s two pieces on the subject. He appears to think that the white South today remains largely unchanged from that of 1865 or 1954. Kevin Levin has justly taken him to task for it.
But let’s take the question on its own. The holidays we recognize, the names we put on buildings, and all the rest constitute statements about ourselves. In having such a holiday, we would declare that we find the Confederacy’s defeat worthy of celebrating. Americans, with some exceptions, don’t normally celebrate the ends of wars. Few of us mark VE Day or VJ Day, though they occasioned great celebration at the time. We even turned Armistice Day, which in Europe carries a strong element of mourning and relief at the end of a great and terrible war, into the Veteran’s Day celebration of all former members of the military.
An Appomattox Day could be an American Armistice Day. A great many Americans died in the war, as people die in all wars. But we already have Memorial Day for remembering them. I suspect further that we have quite enough holidays dedicated in one way or another to the appreciation of the military. Another would neither say much more nor much new about Americans. It would quickly fall into the background noise of the numerous other patriotic observances. This might do for some other war, but Americans have only had the one Civil War. For such a sui generis event to vanish into the flag-waving haze misses the point entirely.
Should we then have a holiday that amounts to taking a victory lap around Lee’s house? Maybe at the end we could have a couple of professional wrestlers dressed up as Grant and Lee. Skullcrusher Ulysses could put the hurt on Lousy Lee while the crowd cheered. I suppose that I wouldn’t mind that, absurdity aside, but while Lee’s surrender constitutes a military victory I don’t see it as important just in light of that. Lee’s surrender signaled that the principle struggle of the Civil War had ended, but unmoored from why Lee’s army fought and what Grant’s helped achieve in defeating him we just have another one of those infamous dates to memorize from the history books. Appomattox matters because it serves as possibly the best place to mark where the Confederacy lost. With it died the dream of a new nation, conceived in slavery, and dedicated to the proposition that black lives belonged on white ledgers and the fruit of black labor belonged in white pockets. Most white Union soldiers did not fight for the freedom of black Americans. Nor did they all welcome the presence of black Americans, either as contraband laborers or fellow soldiers. But the presence of Union armies in the South resulted in the de facto freedom of countless slaves from the day Benjamin Butler invented the classification.
That deserves remembering and I think that it both differs sufficiently from Juneteenth or the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation to warrant its own day. If those days could serve to celebrate the end of slavery, we could have Appomattox Day to remember how the nation achieved that end, the prices paid for it, and the Americans who had to lose so the slaves could win. I think that the last of those, however vindictive it might sound, deserves more remembering than it gets.
In the happy ending often given to the war, Grant gives Lee generous terms and Lee in turn doesn’t encourage any kind of guerrilla resistance to the Union’s victory. Whether Lee encouraged it or not that resistance, guerrilla and otherwise, appeared in depressingly short order. The defeated states promptly reelected their old politicians to go to Washington, some of whom had worn Confederate military uniforms. They embarked on turning the clock back as thoroughly as they could. On the ground, terrorist bands did the violent work of suppressing black agency. For a brief few years, despite all that, the American South had an interracial political movement. Then the rest of the nation turned its back on the freedpeople and left them to the mercies of white terror for another century before we had another brief moment of interracial politics in the South. We’ve made some gains since then, but white Americans and black Americans still live in very different worlds. We vote accordingly. Those coalitions, like the partnership of whites and blacks during Reconstruction, did not confine their operations to the former Confederacy.
Maybe that’s the best argument for an Appomattox Day. We too eagerly congratulate ourselves for winning battles and pretend that each one ended the conflict that brought the armies, real or rhetorical, to the field. That day in Virginia brings with it all the continued, frequently vicious, complexities of life in America: the work done, the work ahead, the work left unfinished, and those who lost their war but won the next century’s peace, those who let them, and those sacrificed along the way.