Throughout the sesquicentennial, I have often found myself wondering what the end of the 150th anniversaries and the surrender at Appomattox would bring to present Civil War memory. What lessons do we take away from that small stuffy room in the McLean House, with the fate of the nation hanging in the balance?
I was fortunate enough to attend the 150th anniversary of the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9. Purposely decked out in all Gettysburg College and Civil War Institute attire, I eagerly awaited the many discussions and debates between me and fellow visitors. I had imagined the historic site to be crawling with Lost Causers and neo-Confederates. But to my surprise, as the crowd began cramming in front of the stage at 1 o’clock, the time when General Lee had arrived exactly 150 years before, the focus shifted to the importance and overall historical context of the ground on which we stood. As Robin Snyder, the Acting Superintendent of Appomattox Courthouse National Historic Site, took the stage, she made the connection between 1865 and 2015 in one word.
It was hope that was born there at Appomattox Courthouse: hope for the newly-emancipated African-Americans, their freedom, and their equality. Hope that a once-divided United States could be reunited and move past the death and destruction brought on by this terrible war.
“Take hope and strength from these people of 150 years ago,” Snyder’s words rang out across the front yard. Many visitors, in silent reverence, nodded their heads in agreement. For my place atop the wooden fence, I scanned the crowd to see any sort of Confederate revival or Lost Cause reaction. Not a single person moved.
Dr. Ed Ayers closed just before the living historians portraying Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant emerged from the house. “Everything was up in the air,” he said about the time after the surrender. This bleak unknown made the postwar results unexpected. African-Americans gaining their rights turned Reconstruction into a revolution. Power plays over control in both the state and federal government turned racial tensions into outright violence with riots in both Memphis and in New Orleans.
Yet on April 9th, 1865 neither Grant nor Lee knew how the memory of their small meeting would impact future generations. Memory of the end of the Civil War and Appomattox Courthouse has not been stable, with the site only becoming a part of the National Park Service in the 1950s. Dr. Ayers specifically pointed out how long it took the country to want to remember the ending of the Civil War. It showed how generations to follow struggled with the definitions of defeat and reunion.
In the present day, the reminder of the foundation on which we stand, of how long the battle for social equality has gone on, should resonate within us. We should bring hope to our future, a future that is at stake.
With Dr. Ayers’ conclusion, a hallowing silence spread through the crowd as the doors of the McLean House slowly opened. Hundreds of cameras captured the final minutes of the war’s sesquicentennial, mine being one of them. There was a quiet sadness, as if the crowd still contemplated the historical significance of this moment. As I stood in the McLeans’ front yard, I found myself questioning more than I had before the event. Does the Lost Cause exist only in the fleeting memory of the Civil War past? Has it been silenced by these moments of moving eulogies on social justice? Can we say, with our current political problems, that we have learned all of our lessons from the Civil War? For these questions, I had no answers, proving that Appomattox was and still is a pivotal point in our nation’s historical memory.