April 2015 Archives


(April may not always be "the cruelest month" for historians, but with the wind-down of the Civil War Sesquicentennial observance, this surely has been one of the busiest on record.  What follows is a modified version of a piece that the Ol' Bloviator did for TIME.COM on April 9, the 150th anniversary of Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox.)

Confederate leaders may have believed they had built a unified nation when they framed a new government and sent their troops off to war with hearty assurances of a quick and glorious victory in 1861. Amid the centennial observance of these events, however, Robert Penn Warren would suggest that a sense of common southern identity had actually been "born" only on April 9, 1865, when "Lee handed Grant his sword" at Appomattox. Indeed, even in the wake of Fort Sumter, many enlistees had vowed to fight only "in defense of Virginia" or "my home state," and some even restricted their allegiances to "the loved ones who call upon me to defend their homes from pillage."

            The challenge of instilling new national loyalties in a population whose regional loyalties were in many cases still suspect loomed even more daunting because Confederate identity would have to be constructed on the fly. The delegates gathered in Montgomery in early February 1861  managed to draw up the constitutional and governing framework of the Confederate States of America in only five weeks, but in scarcely five more weeks, their brand new nation-state would be plunged into a war that many of them had persuaded their constituents--and perhaps even themselves--would never come.

Reluctant to acknowledge the hard truth of their own Vice-President Alexander Stephens's declaration that slavery was the fundamental "cornerstone" of their new nation's existence, Confederate propagandists were reduced to the none-too-compelling rationale that they were not actually repudiating the Union but seeking simply to restore what they saw as its founding principles of state sovereignty and federal restraint.  The Confederacy's identity and persona would thus be assembled from recycled components, largely appropriated from the nation its people had just abandoned and would soon be fighting. Not the least of these was a constitution that, save for a wrinkle or two, was basically a replica of the one that, until recently, Confederates had been swearing to honor and protect since 1789. Having co-opted the founding document of the nation they were leaving, they also seized on its founding father by placing a likeness of George Washington on the Great Seal of the Confederacy as well as on its currency, bonds, and postage stamps. Finally, in the "Stars and Bars," with its circle of white stars on a blue field surrounded by bands of red and white, the Confederates adopted a national flag whose pronounced resemblance to "the Stars and Stripes" quickly proved it unsuitable for the battlefield.  In view of all this symbolic copycatting, the number of southerners who actually continued to celebrate July 4th well into the hostilities seems a bit less surprising.

Although secessionist firebrands like Henry Lewis Benning had led their fellow southerners out of the Union under the banner of "state rights," their new government was actually no more a "confederacy"(and perhaps even less so) than their old one, but rather the "consolidated Republic" dominated by slaveholders that Benning had envisioned from the start. Even early on, when the military effort was going well, the exigencies of wartime demanded centralized control of production and distribution, leading quickly to complaints over shortages, inefficiency, and corruption.  Further inflamed by obstructionist politicians like Georgia's Joseph E. Brown, Confederate critics would grow exponentially more strident and intemperate as the tide of war turned.

            One enduring constant, however, was widespread public affection for the outmanned, under-supplied Confederate fighting men whose valor and resilience quickly commanded the enduring loyalty on the home front that the Confederacy as a political entity had failed to elicit. This shift in allegiance came through in the popular habit of displaying, not the national flag, but the starred St. Andrews Cross that had supplanted it on the battlefield, where, General P. G. T. Beauregard noted, it had been "consecrated by the best blood of our country." For all its inspirational value, however, the battle flag itself conveyed little sense of attachment, either to an unpopular government or to any cause other than military success.

Within days of Lee's surrender, poet-priest Father Abram Ryan immortalized that now "Conquered Banner," which, though furled at Appomattox, was "wreathed around with glory" and destined to "live on in song and story." Like General John B. Gordon's equally sentimental first-hand account of the striking of the colors that day and, for that matter, like the colors themselves, Ryan's weepy ode would be pressed into service repeatedly in the years to come in order to rally white southerners yet again to the defense of their racial institutions. This time, however, instead of the decidedly parochial, localist constituency that had confronted them in 1861, postbellum southern nationalists could draw on the experience and legacy of men who had not only fought shoulder to shoulder with comrades drawn from distant states but in many cases traversed a vast region inhabited by people whose lives and values seemed strikingly similar to their own. As a consequence, these men and their descendants, noted W. J. Cash in his 1941 classic, Mind of the South, were now more likely to respond to the word "southern" with an emotion once reserved solely for "Virginia, or Carolina, or Georgia." If strickly speaking, the birth of the South as what Cash called "an object of patriotism" had actually come somewhere in the course of a fierce, four-year "conflict with the Yankee," Warren would surely have been justified nonetheless in dating its confirmation to the ceremonial acknowledgement of the Confederacy's bitterly painful but ultimately unifying failure that, 150 years ago, marked this month at Appomattox.

Five days later , of course, Grant's commander-in-chief would be dead, a fact that further boosts the historic import of this particular April because it  seemingly impinges  so  heavily on the long- and short-term meaning and consequences of what happened at Appomattox, though not nearly so much, the OB submits, as the counterfactual scenario offered by James Thurber in "If Grant Had Been  Drinking at Appomattox:"

The soft thudding sound of horses' hooves came through the open window. Shultz hurriedly walked over and looked out. "Hoof steps," said Grant, with a curious chortle. "It is General Lee and his staff," said Shultz. "Show him in," said the General, taking another drink. "And see what the boys in the back room will have." Shultz walked smartly over to the door, opened it, saluted, and stood aside.

General Lee, dignified against the blue of the April sky, magnificent in his dress uniform, stood for a moment framed in the doorway. He walked in, followed by his staff. They bowed, and stood silent. General Grant stared at them. He only had one boot on and his jacket was unbuttoned.

"I know who you are," said Grant. "You're Robert Browning, the poet." "This is General Robert E. Lee," said one of his staff, coldly. "Oh," said Grant. "I thought he was Robert Browning. He certainly looks like Robert Browning. There was a poet for you. Lee: Browning. Did ya ever read 'How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix'? 'Up Derek, to saddle, up Derek, away; up Dunder, up Blitzen, up, Prancer, up Dancer, up Bouncer, up Vixen, up -'".

"Shall we proceed at once to the matter in hand?" asked General Lee, his eyes disdainfully taking in the disordered room. "Some of the boys was wrassling here last night," explained Grant. "I threw Sherman, or some general a whole lot like Sherman. It was pretty dark." He handed a bottle of Scotch to the commanding officer of the Southern armies, who stood holding it, in amazement and discomfiture. "Get a glass, somebody," said Grant, .looking straight at General Longstreet. "Didn't I meet you at Cold Harbor?" he asked. General Longstreet did not answer.

"I should like to have this over with as soon as possible," said Lee. Grant looked vaguely at Shultz, who walked up close to him, frowning. "The surrender, sir, the surrender," said Corporal Shultz in a whisper. "Oh sure, sure," said Grant. He took another drink. "All right," he said. "Here we go." Slowly, sadly, he unbuckled his sword. Then he handed it to the astonished Lee. "There you are. General," said Grant. "We dam' near licked you. If I'd been feeling better we would of licked you."

NB: John Wilkes Booth was not exactly a tee-totaler, himself, as befits the only presidential assassin whose name adorns a cocktail. Makes you wonder what might have happened had he knocked back a few extra before proceeding to Ford's Theater the fateful evening of April 14, 1865.

Monthly Archives

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from April 2015 listed from newest to oldest.

March 2015 is the previous archive.

June 2015 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.