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Posts Tagged ‘Robert E. Lee’

Spectators and re-enactors gathered at Appomattox Court House to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s surrender. CreditTravis Dove for The New York Times

ON April 9, 1865 — Palm Sunday — Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Gen. Robert E. Lee negotiated their famous “Gentlemen’s Agreement” of surrender. In the ensuing celebration, a relieved Grant told his men, “The war is over.”

But Grant soon discovered he was wrong. Not only did fighting continue in pockets for weeks, but in other ways the United States extended the war for more than five years after Appomattox. Using its war powers to create freedom and civil rights in the South, the federal government fought against a white Southern insurgency that relied on murder and intimidation to undo the gains of the war.

And yet the “Appomattox myth” persisted, and continues today. By severing the war’s conflict from the Reconstruction that followed, it drains meaning from the Civil War and turns it into a family feud, a fight that ended with regional reconciliation. It also fosters a national amnesia about what wars are and how they end, a lacuna that has undermined American postwar efforts ever since.

Appomattox, like the Civil War more broadly, retains its hold on the American imagination. More than 330,000 people visited the site in 2013. In Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” as in many other popular portrayals, the meeting between Lee and Grant suggests that, in the words of one United States general at the surrender, “We are all Americans.”

Although those words were allegedly spoken by Ely Parker, a Tonawanda Seneca Indian, and although hundreds of thousands of African-Americans fought for the nation, the “we” in the Appomattox myth all too often is limited to white Americans. In fanciful stories of Grant’s returning a ceremonial sword to Lee, or of the United States Army’s saluting its defeated foes at the laying-down-of-arms ceremony, white Americans fashioned a story of prodigal sons returning for a happy family portrait.

civil-war-sumter75-popupGrant himself recognized that he had celebrated the war’s end far too soon. Even as he met Lee, Grant rejected the rebel general’s plea for “peace” and insisted that only politicians, not officers, could end the war. Then Grant skipped the fabled laying-down-of-arms ceremony to plan the Army’s occupation of the South.

To enforce its might over a largely rural population, the Army marched across the South after Appomattox, occupying more than 750 towns and proclaiming emancipation by military order. This little-known occupation by tens of thousands of federal troops remade the South in ways that Washington proclamations alone could not.

And yet as late as 1869, President Grant’s attorney general argued that some rebel states remained in the “grasp of war.” When white Georgia politicians expelled every black member of the State Legislature and began a murderous campaign of intimidation, Congress and Grant extended military rule there until 1871.

Meanwhile, Southern soldiers continued to fight as insurgents, terrorizing blacks across the region. One congressman estimated that 50,000 African-Americans were murdered by white Southerners in the first quarter-century after emancipation. “It is a fatal mistake, nay a wicked misery to talk of peace or the institutions of peace,” a federal attorney wrote almost two years after Appomattox. “We are in the very vortex of war.”

Against this insurgency, even President Andrew Johnson, an opponent of Reconstruction, continued the state of war for a year after Appomattox. When Johnson tried to end the war in the summer of 1866, Congress seized control of his war powers; from 1867 to 1870, generals in the South regulated state officials and oversaw voter registration, ensuring that freedmen could claim the franchise they had lobbied for. With the guidance of military overseers, new biracial governments transformed the Constitution itself, passing the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.

The military occupation created pockets of stability and moments of order. Excluded from politics before the war, black men won more than 1,500 offices during Reconstruction. By 1880, 20 percent of black families owned farms.

But the occupation that helped support these gains could not be sustained. Anxious politicians reduced the Army’s size even as they assigned it more tasks. After Grant used the military to put down the Ku Klux Klan in the Carolinas in 1871, Congress and the public lost the will to pay the human and financial costs of Reconstruction.

Once white Southern Democrats overthrew Reconstruction between the 1870s and 1890s, they utilized the Appomattox myth to erase the connection between the popular, neatly concluded Civil War and the continuing battles of Reconstruction. By the 20th century, history textbooks and popular films like “The Birth of a Nation” made the Civil War an honorable conflict among white Americans, and Reconstruction a corrupt racial tyranny of black over white (a judgment since overturned by historians like W. E. B. DuBois and Eric Foner).

Beyond the problem of historical accuracy, separating the war and the military from Reconstruction contributes to an enduring American amnesia about the Army’s role in remaking postwar societies. Many of the nation’s wars have followed the trajectory established at Appomattox: Cheers at the end of fighting are replaced by bafflement at the enduring conflict as the military struggles to fill the defeated government’s role, even as the American public moves on. After defeating Spain in the Spanish-American War, the Army undertook bloody campaigns to suppress rebellions and exert control over the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico. After World War II, a state of war endured into the 1950s in the occupation of Japan and Germany. And in the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States military’s work had barely begun when the fighting stopped — and the work continues, in the hands of American-backed locals, today.

While it is tempting to blame the George W. Bush administration for these recent wars without end, the problem lies deep within Americans’ understanding of what wars are. We wish that wars, like sports, had carefully organized rules that would steer them to a satisfying end. But wars are often political efforts to remake international or domestic orders. They create problems of governance that battles alone cannot resolve.

Years after the 1865 surrender, the novelist and veteran Albion Tourgée said that the South “surrendered at Appomattox, and the North has been surrendering ever since.” In so many wars since, the United States won the battlefield fighting but lost ground afterward.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can learn, as Grant did, the dangers of celebrating too soon. Although a nation has a right to decide what conflicts are worth fighting, it does not have the right to forget its history, and in the process to repeat it.

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Could the South Have Won the War?

disunion45By March 1865, it was obvious to all but the most die-hard Confederates that the South was going to lose the war. Whether that loss was inevitable is an unanswerable question, but considering various “what if” scenarios has long been a popular exercise among historians, novelists and Civil War buffs

To explore that question, historians often use a concept known as contingency: During the war, one action led to a particular outcome, but if a different action had been taken it would have led to a different outcome. The problem with each scenario, though, is that although superficially persuasive, it collapses under the weight of contradictory facts.

Perhaps the most common scenario centers on the actions of Gen. Robert E. Lee. Some modern historians have attributed the Confederate defeat to Lee’s aggressiveness, implying that, if he had adopted a more defensive strategy, or even carried out guerrilla warfare after Appomattox, perhaps Lee could have held the North at bay until it tired of the conflict and sought a negotiated settlement.

But was this really possible considering the expectations of the Confederate people? Southerners were convinced they were superior soldiers and expected their armies to defeat the enemy on the battlefield. Politically, Lee could not have adopted a purely defensive strategy because the people would not have stood for it. Nor was guerrilla warfare an option. Events in Missouri, Tennessee and other areas where guerrillas operated during the war clearly showed how such brutal warfare devastated entire regions and broke down morale. There simply would not have been enough popular support to sustain such a strategy for long.

Some argue that the Confederates could have won if they had held Atlanta, Mobile, Ala., and the Shenandoah Valley beyond the 1864 election. Northern voters, dispirited by the stalemate, would have elected George B. McClellan president, and he would have bowed to the Democratic Party’s peace faction and opened negotiations with the Confederates.

Such speculation, however, is not supported by historical fact. In his letter accepting the Democratic nomination, McClellan clearly rejected the peace plank. There seems little doubt McClellan would have continued to fight if he became president, and the Union would still have eventually won. Also, a defeated Lincoln would have had four months left in office to achieve victory by launching winter campaigns. As it turned out, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant forced Lee to surrender just over one month after the inauguration. If a lame-duck Lincoln had adopted a more aggressive policy, Grant probably would have forced an Appomattox-like surrender before McClellan ever took office.

Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendering to Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, April 9, 1865.

Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendering to Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, April 9, 1865.Credit Library of Congress


Confederate defeat has also been blamed on King Cotton diplomacy. If the Confederates had sent as much cotton as possible to Europe before the blockade became effective instead of hording it to create a shortage, they could have established lines of credit to purchase war material. This argument is true, but it misses the point. While the Confederates did suffer severe shortages by mid-war, they never lost a battle because of a lack of guns, ammunition or other supplies. They did lose battles because of a lack of men, and a broken-down railway system made it difficult to move troops and materials to critical points. Cotton diplomacy would not have increased the size of the rebel armies, and an increasingly effective Union blockade would have prevented the importation of railroad iron and other supplies no matter how much credit the Confederates accumulated overseas.

Another diplomatic “what if” concerns European intervention. In the fall of 1862, Britain and France were prepared to extend diplomatic recognition to the Confederacy and offer to mediate a peace, but they backed away when the Union won the Battle of Antietam. In this scenario, if Lee had won the battle, Britain and France would have recognized the Confederacy and secured a peace ensuring Southern independence.

In reality, there is little likelihood the Europeans would have become involved in the war. They had already extended belligerent status to the Confederacy, which allowed it to purchase supplies and use European ports. Diplomatic recognition would have enhanced the Southerners’ prestige — but it would not have materially affected their ability to wage war.

And if the British had offered to mediate a peace, Lincoln certainly would have rebuffed them. Then what? It’s unlikely Britain would have rushed to the Confederates’ aid by breaking the blockade and provoking a war with the Union. By late 1862, emancipation had become a Union goal, and the abolitionist British people would never have supported their government becoming militarily involved to defend slavery. British officials also had not forgotten that American privateers devastated their merchant fleet in the War of 1812. And there was no economic incentive for Britain to become a Confederate ally, because the cotton shortage created by the blockade was soon alleviated by cotton from Egypt and India — and the trade Britain conducted with the Union far outweighed the value of Southern cotton.

Some historians have blamed the Confederate defeat on its strict adherence to states’ rights and a failure to develop a strong sense of nationalism. If the Southern people had been more successful in forming a national identity, Jefferson Davis could have nationalized the railroads and industry, and the governors would have cooperated more with Richmond. A powerful central government and a stronger sense of national identity would also have helped sustain morale when the war began to go badly. Instead, the Southerners’ belief in states’ rights kept the governors at odds with the central government, and the breakdown in civilian morale weakened the army by causing more soldiers to desert.

But that assessment underestimates what the South managed to accomplish. Rather than blaming the Confederates’ defeat on a lack of nationalism, one should marvel that they maintained their government as long as they did. From scratch, Southerners created a functioning constitutional government and a formidable military that included 80 percent of the eligible white males. The Confederates quickly developed a sense of nationalism in the first year of war because they believed they had no choice but either to form a separate nation or to face complete ruin. The string of victories in Virginia in 1861 and 1862 only increased this national pride. Even when the war began to go badly and the enemy occupied large sections of the Confederacy, most Southern whites were determined to fight on because they knew their homes would be the next to feel the invaders’ wrath if they did not.

civil-war-sumter75-popupSlavery and racial views also played an important role in Confederate nationalism. When the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, Southern whites’ resolve strengthened because they realized if they lost the war, the very cornerstone of their society would be destroyed. The sight of black soldiers deep in the Confederate heartland outraged Southern whites, but in the war’s last year those same Southerners were willing to enlist slaves to fight on their side. Confederate emancipation would have been unthinkable earlier in the conflict, but by 1865 many Southerners supported recruiting slaves as a way to strengthen the army and win European recognition. To achieve independence, they were willing to sacrifice the very thing they went to war to protect

There are notable examples in history where a weaker people defeated a stronger one. The American Revolution and the Vietnam War immediately come to mind, but the Americans and North Vietnamese had the military backing of the superpowers France and the Soviet Union, respectively. In virtually all cases where a weaker people have prevailed, they had a greater determination to win and were willing to fight for years and suffer horrendous casualties to wear down the enemy.

The Confederacy had no such backing, and a credible argument can be made that its defeat was inevitable from the beginning. What many fail to recognize is that Northerners were just as committed to winning as the Southerners. Some saw it as a war to free the slaves, while others fought to ensure that their republican form of government survived. Northerners believed that America was the world’s last great hope for democracy, and if the South destroyed the Union by force, that light of liberty might be extinguished forever. Lincoln once said the North must prove “that popular government is not an absurdity. We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose. If we fail it will go far to prove the incapability of the people to govern themselves.”

The South may have been fighting to preserve a way of life and to protect its perceived constitutional rights, but so was the North. If the Southern people kept fighting even after the devastating defeats at Gettysburg, Vicksburg and Chattanooga, why should we not believe the North would have kept on fighting even if the Confederates had won Gettysburg, Vicksburg and Chattanooga? The fact is that both sides were equally brave and equally dedicated to their cause. Commitment and morale being the same, the stronger side prevailed.


Sources: Terry L. Jones, “The American Civil War.”

 Terry L. Jones

Terry L. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Louisiana, Monroe and the author of several books on the Civil War

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The Political War

Allen C. Guelzo

The New York Times  June 5, 2014

A Union artillery battery at Cold Harbor. Library of <Congress

A Union artillery battery at Cold Harbor. Library of <Congress

Pity Abraham Lincoln. Everything that should have gone right for the Union cause in the spring of 1864 had, in just a few weeks, gone defiantly and disastrously wrong.

For two years, the 16th president had toiled uphill against the secession of the Confederate states, against the incompetence of his luckless generals and against his howling critics from both sides of the congressional aisle. Finally, in the summer and fall of 1863, the course of the war had begun to turn his way. Two great victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg staggered the Confederates, and those were followed by a knockdown blow delivered at Chattanooga by the man who was fast becoming Lincoln’s favorite general, Ulysses S. Grant. “The signs look better,” Lincoln rejoiced, “Peace does not appear so distant as it did.”

Peace was not the only thing that would be brought closer by victory. The presidential election of 1864 was looming, and if Lincoln had any desire for a second term, a victorious end to the war was the surest way to secure it. He had never seriously considered taking what appeared to some people as an obvious shortcut to remaining in office – declaring the war to be a national emergency and suspending elections for the duration, though two Union governors, in Indiana and Illinois, had done what amounted to that on the state level. That only made the need for military victory all the more urgent, and so Lincoln installed Grant as general in chief of all the Union armies in March 1864, and Grant obliged him with a comprehensive strategic plan that united Union assaults in Georgia, Alabama and, under his own direct command, in Virginia.

None of it worked, and the place where it seemed to work the least was under Grant’s own nose. Crossing the Rapidan River on May 4, 1864, Grant’s army entered at once into a series of head-to-head contests with Robert E. Lee’s fabled Army of Northern Virginia. Fighting three pitched battles – at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House and the North Anna River – and enduring numerous smaller collisions, Grant worked his way down toward the Confederate capital at Richmond, which he got within 10 miles of by the end of the month. But the fighting had cost a colossal total of 40,000 dead, wounded and missing, and Lincoln gloomily understood that the Northern public “hold me responsible.”

They weren’t the only ones. Radicals within Lincoln’s own Republican Party in Congress had long been convinced that Lincoln’s preference for a soft postwar Reconstruction was dis-heartening the Republican base. They were further angered when the Republican national committee, headed by Lincoln’s ally Edwin D. Morgan, met in late February 1864 and announced that the party would hold its presidential nominating convention in Baltimore in June, not as “Republicans,” but as the “National Union Convention.” As Grant’s campaign in Virginia ground agonizingly forward, the most vehement of the Radicals – led by Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips and Horace Greeley – staged a protest convention in Cleveland’s Cosmopolitan Hall, and on June 4 nominated the Radical darling, John Charles Fremont.

If ever there was a moment when Lincoln needed good news from the battlefield, it was now, and Grant wanted to deliver it. The staggering blows he had dealt the rebels convinced him a little too easily that the Confederates were “really whipped,” that “our men feel they have gained morale over the enemy and attack with confidence,” and that with one more blow, “success over Lee’s army is already assured.” On June 1, Grant launched a hasty strike at Cold Harbor, before the bulk of his army could get into action. Even so, the attack cracked the Confederate defenses on the Cold Harbor road and forced them to fall back. With another good push, Grant might just be able “crush Lee’s army on the north side of the James, with the prospect in case of success of driving him into Richmond, capturing the city perhaps without a siege, and putting the Confederate government to flight” – not to mention providing a rousing military endorsement for Lincoln’s renomination.

But Grant, in his eagerness, had badly misread the Confederates, and when he launched a full-dress attack at Cold Harbor on June 3, it resembled (as one Confederate general put it) “not war but murder.” Well-prepared Confederate infantrymen mowed down federal at-tackers. Grant’s army sustained 3,500 casualties in the main attack and another 2,500 in related actions that day, and the armies settled into a miserable standoff.

Yet Grant carefully limited his report of the Cold Harbor debacle to four terse sentences, including the claim that “our loss was not severe.” And in the official report of the campaign he filed after the war, Cold Harbor consumed just three sentences in 51 pages. For years afterward, Grant’s doubters wondered whether he had deliberately soft-pedaled the failure at Cold Harbor in order to limit political damage to Lincoln on the eve of the Baltimore convention. There is no direct evidence of such collusion; still, Grant’s dismissal of his losses as “not severe” is peculiar.

Even more peculiar, newspaper reporting from the field was shut down by the War Department because of “a violent storm.” The New York Times (whose editor, Henry Raymond, was the new chairman of the National Union Party’s national Committee) did not publish an ac-count of the June 3 attack for three more days, and even then, merely observed that “losses were inconsiderable.”

Strangest of all, however, was Grant’s refusal to propose a truce to recover the wounded from the battlefield until June 7. Military tradition dictated that only the loser of an engagement asked for such a truce. Even though there could not have been much debate about who had won and who had lost at Cold Harbor, Grant delayed the truce agreement (and any public admission of defeat) for four days, while men suffered and died from thirst, blood loss and exposure.

By June 7, however, any anxiety that bad news from Cold Harbor would endanger Lincoln’s nomination was past. That same day, the Union National Convention opened at the Front Street Theater in Baltimore, with Robert J. Breckinridge asking triumphantly, “Does any one doubt that this convention intends to say that Abraham Lincoln shall be the nominee?” They did not, and the next day, undisturbed by any news of Cold Harbor, Lincoln – described by one state delegation as “the second savior of the world” – was unanimously renominated by the convention.

Given how diligently the National Union Party’s staff had worked to ensure Lincoln’s renomination in the months before the Baltimore assembly, even the freshest news from Cold Harbor might not have made much difference. But keeping the ill wind at bay certainly did not hurt. Nor was it uncommon in this war for the impact of bad military news to be blunted by creative hesitation. One of Grant’s corps commanders was overheard telling a staffer not to report actual casualty figures: “It will never do, Locke, to make a showing of such heavy losses.” After that, wrote the officer who overheard him, “I always doubted reports of casualties.” It irked one Philadelphia newspaper on June 9 to admit that “we can scarcely find out that there was fought one of the bloodiest battles of the war, yet, until yesterday, no one knew its result.” This was, in the end, a highly political war, in which military decisions frequently turned before the winds of politics. And in the coming months, Lincoln would find far greater political challenges in the path of re-election than the ones presented by Cold Harbor.

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Sources: R.P. Basler, ed., “Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln”; Larry T. Balsamo, “’We Cannot Have Free Government without Elections’: Abraham Lincoln and the Election of 1864,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 94 (Summer 2001); Gordon C. Rhea, “Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26-June 3, 1864”; Ralph Morris Goldman, “The National Party Chairmen and Committees: Factionalism at the Top”; Andrew F. Rolle, “John Charles Fremont: Character As Destiny”; The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series One, 37 (pt 1); Gordon C. Rhea, “The Overland Campaign,” Hallowed Ground 15 (Spring 2014); The New York Times, June 6 and 8, 1864; Ernest B. Furgurson, “Not War But Murder: Cold Harbor, 1864”; D.F. Murphy, “Proceedings of the National Union Convention Held in Baltimore, Md., June 7th and 8th, 1864”; Morris Schaff, “The Battle of the Wilderness”; David E. Long, “Cover-up at Cold Harbor,” Civil War Times Illustrated 36 (June 1997).


Allen C. Guelzo, professor of the Civil War era at Gettysburg College, is the author, most recently, of “Gettysburg: The Last Invasion.”

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