When I arrived at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park for my summer 2016 internship orientation, I introduced myself as being from Yorktown, VA. The ranger quipped “you must have a thing for surrender towns.” I hadn’t really thought about it, but I suppose I do. I’ve lived in and around historic towns my entire life. I was born in Richmond, graduated high school in Yorktown, attended college in Gettysburg, and completed internships in New Market, Appomattox, and in the Hampton Roads area. I never seem to be far from a battlefield or a battle town, physically or emotionally. I love these towns and the stories of the ordinary people who fought within them. I have some relatives who fought for the Union and others who fought for the Confederacy, and although not a family relation, I feel a special connection to James Greenleaf of Pennsylvania.
Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the prominent speakers scheduled to speak at the 2016 CWI Summer Conference about their upcoming talks and their thoughts about Reconstruction and its legacies. Today, we’re speaking with Dr. Gregory Downs, Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Davis. Dr. Downs is the author of Declarations of Dependence: The Long Reconstruction of Popular Politics in the South, 1861-1908 (University of North Carolina Press, 2011) and most recently, After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War (Harvard University Press, 2015), which uses the lens of occupation to examine the immediate period after Confederate surrender as an extension of wartime.
CWI: It is popular perception that the Civil War definitively and “neatly” ended at Appomattox, and so most media outlets declared the commemorations of the Civil War Sesquicentennial over in the summer of 2015. In what ways have such understandings of the war inhibited a fuller understanding of the enduring challenges and unanswered questions that Americans faced in the postwar period? Continue reading “An Interview with Dr. Gregory Downs”
On April 9, 1865, Palm Sunday, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant met in the front parlor of Wilmer McLean’s house in the little village of Appomattox Court House to discuss the status of their two armies. After swapping stories of the days of their Mexican War service, the two men finally penned their names on terms of surrender, effectively ending the American Civil War. Grant, magnanimous towards the now defeated Confederates, and Lee, humble in his loss, ushered in the era of reconciliation that would bandage up the past four bloody years and push the reunited country forward together as one.
Most Americans are familiar with this depiction of the way the Civil War’s end happened, basking in the intense moment of genuine reconciliation and healing, all feelings of animosity and politics pushed aside. The meaning of the Civil War, we’ve been told, was decided upon that day when Grant and Lee met. Appomattox has become interchangeable with peace, progress, and reunion in the American consciousness. Continue reading “A Take on Appomattox”