This year marks the 140th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, the single most significant event in all of American history. In effect, the war redefined us as a people, and in so doing it served to refine the purpose of our national mission, which, with much difficulty, has always been to try to translate into reality the idealist rhetoric of the introduction of the Declaration of Independence, which is often viewed as the “birth certificate” of the American Dream.
The war lasted four tumultuous years to the day. It began with the firing on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor on April 12, 1861, and ended with the Army of Northern Virginia’s stacking of arms at Appomattox Courthouse on April 12, 1865. In all, nearly 700,000 soldiers and civilians lost their lives, and so much of the South, especially Virginia (where 60 percent of all the battles were fought), was destroyed beyond recognition, leaving bitter remembrance and resentment that remain very much alive today.
After many years of reading, writing and teaching on the subject, I am convinced that the best way to understand the complicated and convoluted conflict is to examine and evaluate it through the eyes of its three most formidable figures: Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and Robert E. Lee.
Simply stated, for Lincoln, the Union was quite literally a “marriage,” and secession, for whatever the reason, was an unacceptable “divorce.” Thus, he was determined to exhaust all the political and military resources at his disposal in order to hold the country together.
Although personally opposed to slavery, Lincoln was not an abolitionist and was willing to let the “peculiar institution” remain as and where it prevailed if such a policy would save the country from the dire consequences of sectional severance. In his own way, Lincoln was effectively saying for all to hear, “Let no man tear asunder what God has brought together.”
For Douglass, the runaway slave who taught himself how to read and write and who became one of the 19th century’s foremost authors and orators, the Union was certainly worthy of preservation but not in its imperfect state. It had to be cleansed, in the blood of civil war if necessary, of the stain of slavery. And so Douglass, the ardent abolitionist, and too old to fight himself, offered two of his three sons to wage war with President Lincoln by serving in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the black infantry unit immortalized in the 1989 movie “Glory.”
Among the Civil War “trinity,” Lee is the most enigmatic personality. Born in 1807 into a notable Virginia family, he was exceedingly proud of the prominence of his state and its many honored leaders who made the American Revolution and the founding of the young republic possible. And although they never met, Lee was 19 years old when fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson died in 1826.
Lee was educated at West Point (he graduated in 1829 and later served as superintendent of the academy from 1852 to 1855) and was considered by most of his superiors and his peers to be the finest soldier the nation had produced since George Washington.
Although two of Lee’s ancestors had signed the Declaration of Independence, for him the Union was dissolvable. As far as he was concerned, the states voluntarily entered the Union as sovereign political entities and therefore reserved for themselves a “sacred” right to voluntarily exit from the Union. They should not be forced, especially by armed force, to remain in an alliance that compromised their sense of self-determination, Lee believed.
Given Lee’s sentiments, it appears as the irony of ironies that Lincoln would offer to him the command of the Northern army (of 75,000 volunteers) he was raising to suppress the Southern rebellion. Clearly, the president naively thought that it would be a brief war since the soldiers were only expected to serve for 90 days.
Much to Lincoln’s surprise and deep disappointment, Lee rejected the president’s offer and chose instead to follow the fate of his state. Soon after Lee’s resignation from nearly 35 years of military service, Virginia joined the rebellion, and its state capital, Richmond, became the capital of a new nation, the Confederate States of America.
From the White House, Lincoln could easily see the northernmost shoreline of the enemy nation across the Potomac River, and nearby stood (and still stands) the majestic former family home of Lee, which today, in a shrine-like manner, presides over America’s most hallowed ground, Arlington National Cemetery, where thousands of Civil War soldiers, including Confederates, are buried.
Throughout this anniversary year, there will be many solemn events designed to commemorate the death of a divided America and the simultaneous birth of “a more perfect union” first envisioned in the preamble of the U.S. Constitution.
However, one event that will most certainly not be remembered or honored, because it is either long forgotten, or more likely never known, is the refusal of Gen. Lee to obey his commander in chief, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, to futilely continue to fight on when the attainment of Confederate victory and Southern independence had become completely hopeless. Such an act of insubordination on Lee’s part was an example of him being governed by the honorable impulse of sparing the country further, needless suffering.
After a distant siege (the Petersburg, Va., campaign) of nearly a year, Richmond finally capitulated on April 3, 1865. President Lincoln entered the captured capital the following day, not to humiliate the vanquished foe, but to remind it that he truly meant what he said exactly a month earlier in his Second Inaugural when he stated, “With malice toward none, charity for all.” He had chosen to come to Richmond to pardon, not to punish.
That very same April 4, President Davis, while in “exile” in Danville, Va., pleaded for his followers to remember this:
“The hopes and confidence of the enemy have been constantly excited by the belief, that their possession of Richmond would be the signal for our submission to their rule, and relieve them from the burden of a war which, as their failing resources admonish them, must be abandoned if not speedily brought to a successful close.”
“It is for us; my countryman, to show by our bearing under reverses, how wretched has been the self-deception of those who have believed us less able to endure misfortune with fortitude, than to encounter danger with courage.”
And lastly he urged the faithful:
“Let us meet the foe with fresh defiance, with unconquered and unconquerable hearts.”
Of course, it was virtually impossible for Lee not to have known of Davis’ die-hard declaration. And after his desperate defeat on April 7 at the Battle of Sayler’s Creek, Lee entered into correspondence with Gen. Ulysses S. Grant (entirely without Davis’ knowledge), which was to culminate with the two commanders’ fateful meeting - and Lee’s subsequent surrender - at Appomattox Courthouse.
During the next five years, three amendments were added to the Constitution: the 13th in 1865, which abolished slavery forever; the 14th in 1868, which stated that blacks were American citizens (no longer “subjects”); and the 15th in 1870, which awarded black males the right to vote. So rarely are amendments enacted, that the last time the Constitution had been amended was in 1806, and after 1870 it would not be amended again until 1913.
Unlike most Southerners, Lee intuitively understood that the overwhelming Union victory had established of a whole new social order between the races that he fully accepted and encouraged others to do the same. Lee died in 1870, having witnessed first-hand what Lincoln predicted would happen in his Gettysburg Address, in which he prophesized that the war was destined to bring about “a new birth of freedom.”
Lee’s final five years were spent as the president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University, where he and his family are buried) in Lexington, Va. During that time he frequently said, “Before the war between the states I was a Virginian, afterwards I became an American.”
Sadly, Lee’s wisdom was not shared by most former Confederates, who instead resisted the new racial order and were determined that the “old” South would one day rise again. To sustain this misguided belief, terrorist organizations, like the Klu Klux Klan and numerous others, were formed, spreading hate and horror among blacks (and their few white allies) throughout the South for decades to follow.
Indeed, it was not until the 1960s (the apogee of the long-suffering civil rights movement), and the passing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 in particular, that it can be realistically said that the Civil War finally ended, a century after it was thought to have “ended” in 1865. Thus, when America is tempted to pass unfavorable judgments on other nations for their inability to engineer rapid social reform, we need only to reflect on the awesome challenges we had to overcome in order to become the culturally diverse and opportunity-oriented country that we proudly are today.
Professor Edward C. Smith is the co-director of The Civil War Institute at American University.