Should we have an Appomattox Holiday?

Wilmer McLean's house, where the surrender was negotiated

Wilmer McLean’s house, where Grant and Lee met

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.

Juneteenth Comes Again

I forgot Juneteenth again this year. Again, Andy Hall reminded me. This is a small reworking of what I wrote last year on the subject.

What’s Juneteenth? Today in 1865, the Union general who had just taken charge of Galveston and assumed the military governorship of Texas, issued an order that “in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” This surprised no one, since the arrival of the Union army had meant freedom in fact since fairly early on the war and in law since the Emancipation Proclamation. But it mattered in that as of that date not a single slave remained in the United States.

If national holidays express something about national values, or at least what the nation wants its values to seem like, why have we not made Juneteenth one of them? I always hear about how the United States is a free country. Americans love their freedom. Doesn’t the literal end of slavery in America count as freedom?

I never heard of the holiday until the internet told me about it a few years back. One would think that a nation so obsessed with freedom would treat it, or maybe the day of the Emancipation Proclamation, as a second Fourth of July. I’m not a patriotic person; most of the flag waving celebrations leave me cold. But even I know when it’s the Fourth. My state recognizes Juneteenth, as do forty-one others, but we can probably all see how much that has done to raise its profile.

I suppose it gets ignored for the same reason we ignore Emancipation Day. To make a national fuss over it would require us to grapple with slavery and own up to freedom as a kind of national project, not a crystallized perfection handed down from men in powdered wigs.

Juneteenth

Today in 1865, the Union general who had just taken charge of Galveston and assumed the military governorship of Texas, issued an order that “in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” This surprised no one, since the arrival of the Union army had meant freedom in fact since fairly early on the war and in law since the Emancipation Proclamation. But it mattered in that as of that date not a single slave remained in the United States.

Andy Hall has much more over at Dead Confederates.

If national holidays express something about national values, or at least what the nation wants its values to seem like, why have we not made Juneteenth one of them? I always hear about how the United States is a free country. Americans love their freedom. Doesn’t the literal end of slavery in America count as freedom?

I think so, but I forgot Juneteenth. I roused myself from bed today with thoughts of the Gadsden Purchase and some shopping I need to do. I never heard of the holiday until the internet told me about it a few years back. One would think that a nation so obsessed with freedom would treat it, or maybe the day of the Emancipation Proclamation, as a second Fourth of July. I’m not a patriotic person. Most of the flag waving celebrations leave me cold, but even I know when it’s the Fourth. Juneteenth is recognized in my state, as in forty-one others, but we can probably all see how much that has done to raise its profile.

I suppose it gets ignored for the same reason we ignore Emancipation Day. To make a national fuss over it would require us to grapple with slavery and own up to freedom as a kind of national project, not a crystallized perfection handed down from men in powdered wigs.

 

Still sick, but here’s something beautiful

I might be a few more days recovering. In the meantime thank you, Gentle Readers, for making yesterday the blog’s highest-traffic day yet. A lot of this writing is a labor of obsession and general exercise in history geekery, but it is very gratifying to know that others find some value in it too.

Enough about me and my ego. Time has faded the Emancipation Proclamation so the National Archives doesn’t haul it out and expose it to the light very often. But it did so for the 150th anniversary, displaying the document for three days. This happened. The men are reenactors for the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.

You can read and write a great deal about the history of the Civil War and not find a black face. I am just as guilty there as anyone. White America did a very good job of casting the war as the struggle between two groups of white men, with four million slaves reduced to passive recipients of white action. Lincoln freed the slaves. The subject Lincoln, acts upon the object slaves.

Lincoln did free the slaves. So did the Union armies. But disruption caused by the war also gave huge numbers of slaves the chance to free themselves. That part of the story forms a lacuna in my knowledge that I hope to fill eventually.

Just as I wrote this, I wondered how many of those men enlisted hoping to literally march home, find, and free loved ones left behind. The 54th might be a bad example there. I understand its recruits came from among free blacks in the North and I don’t know how many of them would have had family they knew of still in the South. Other units had rosters full of men who lived as slaves until shortly before enlistment.

Areas where Lincoln’s signature immediately freed the slaves

Kevin Levin over at Civil War Memory dug up a map from several years ago that marks out the area. I don’t own it, or even the magazine it originates from, but you can see it all through the wonders of this finely-crafted link. Or if my prose suffices: a thin slice of northern Virginia along the Maryland border, sections of northern Mississippi and Alabama adjoining Tennessee, a wide swath of northern Arkansas, the northern half of the North Carolina coast near the Great Dismal Swamp, and small enclaves around Beaufort, SC (the Sea Islands), and Jacksonville, FL.

You can also view the very faded document at the National Archives and read a transcript.

That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

Never before in American history had the federal government freed anyone from slavery. Even the graduated emancipation at the state level ultimately freed fairly few slaves. Pennsylvania’s final emancipation act freed less than a hundred born too early to fall under its graduated emancipation law and still in the state in the 1840s. But Lincoln began by freeing more than ten thousand and he came back for another new birth of freedom: near to four million more  in 1865.

Why isn’t today Emancipation Day?

One hundred and fifty years ago today, the same man who stood up before the unfinished Capitol dome speaking about mystic chords of memory in hopes of reconciling the slave states to his election finally gave them what they had so deeply feared: Lincoln freed the slaves.

Rarely does the Emancipation Proclamation come up without someone misunderstanding it. No, Lincoln did not with the stroke of a pen free all four million slaves. Working from his war powers, Lincoln did not have the ability to free slaves in Delaware, Kentucky, or Missouri. He likewise exempted some areas under Union control from the proclamation’s effect.  Most slaves lived in areas beyond Union lines where Lincoln’s proclamation carried no force at all. But, as Eric Foner observes in Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction:

It is not true, however, as is sometimes stated, that the proclamation freed no slave on the day it was issued. Lincoln decided not to exempt the Sea Islands of South Carolina, occupied since late 1861 by Union forces, from the proclamation’s purview. Here, more than ten thousand slaves did gain their freedom with the stroke of Lincoln’s pen. As to the slave population behind Confederate lines – more than three million men, women, and children, they, declared the proclamation, “are and henceforth shall be free.”

(Foner also has a great op-ed in today’s New York Times on Lincoln and Emancipation.)

Never before had the government of the United States freed a single slave. It did not even do a particularly good job of enforcing its restrictions on slavery during the antebellum period. Nor had it lifted a finger, thanks to Southern objections, to help states that did emancipate their slaves before 1863.

But now the government firmly set itself between the slave and the slaveowner. If most slaves lived beyond the practical reach of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, they would not stay there. Everywhere Union armies advanced thereafter, they brought freedom with them. The revolution had come.

We have a holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr. It came over the objections of the slave power’s descendants and fellow travelers. In my lily-white school district, we never had it off. Instead we had a day that coincided with the start of deer hunting season. A woman once told me that hunting meant more to us than Martin Luther King, Jr. She said more than she knew with those words. But if MLK deserves a holiday to remember him and celebrate his work, how do we ignore the first day of the great emancipation? The calendar surely has room for two civil rights holidays. Yet I know no national emancipation holiday.

I never thought much about the first not being Emancipation Day until I read Kevin Levin’s post on it today, but he’s right. For a nation so rhetorically obsessed with freedom, simply ignoring one of the most revolutionary advances in freedom in our history is just bizarre.

But I do have an explanation. Freedom, in American rhetoric, refers to the state of white people, most especially white men. It has often meant freeing white men to do what they will to any minority within reach and their freedom from criticism or even questioning about what they choose to do. We grow up with that silent assumption. If the nation had four million slaves, that just doesn’t matter. They don’t count. If the nation didn’t let half the population, the female half, vote for most of its history, that also doesn’t matter. They also don’t count.  We no longer say that with words, but still say it with actions.

I don’t know how we get over that. I don’t deny we’ve made some progress, but like personal improvement cultural improvement involves ascending many steep slopes. Long after we see something askew, long after we know it intellectually and feel it emotionally, the same habits persist. I grew up thinking it unremarkable that we have no national emancipation holiday. Every day of my life before this one I carried on that habit of thought. I know I have plenty of company and I know any movement to make an Emancipation Day would receive bitter opposition from the expected quarters.

But how can an American even ask if freedom deserves celebrating? We call the place the land of the free. The time for clinging, unwittingly or otherwise, to the patriarchal, whites-only definition of freedom passed long ago. In the twenty-first century can’t we finally celebrate one of the greatest advances of the nineteenth?