The McLean House where Lee surrendered to Grant in 1865.
So, surprise, surprise, none of these wars I’m looking at have clear or clean endings. I interviewed the historian Ed Ayers today (Thursday). He’s now the President of the University of Richmond. His name came up when I first started digging around for my how-wars-end project last fall. A couple of people mentioned an essay he’d published in 2005 drawing parallels between Reconstruction in the South after the Civil War and the U.S. adventure in Iraq. The essay, “Exporting Reconstruction” in his collection What Caused the Civil War? was also adapted into a piece for the New York Times Magazine called “The First Occupation.” Anyway, I looked up the essay and the magazine piece and thought, I have to talk to this guy. Today I got my chance. We talked a bit about the ideas in that essay, but more about historical memory. I asked him about Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House and its meaning as the official ending of the Civil War. Here’s a taste of what Ayers had to say:
We love the story of Appomattox, because it’s the closest we come to a clean ending. A gentlemanly handshake between the two great generals, stack the guns and walk home and why don’t you just take your mule or horse with you and put your crops in the ground. We just love that story, not thinking about really, days after that Abraham Lincoln’s assassinated, and then two years after that military reconstruction begins, and then a decade after that reconstruction finally comes to an end. Because in many ways, I think Americans are most uncomfortable with the period of reconstruction of anything else in our history. Because it’s not a story, it doesn’t have any kind of shape to it, it just kind of explodes.
We like (Appomattox) because that’s the story of the soldiers. It’s the soldiers acting the way we like them acting, which is very civilized, and clean, and playing by the rules. It’s almost like the end of a ball game. You know, OK, wrap it up, go home. Hey, good game. It’s dangerous for us to lose sight of what was at stake in the war, really how raggedly brutal the war was, what a waste it was, how uncertainly it came to be about slavery, how tenaciously the white South fought for generations to erase as much as they could of what the war had decided. People may think well that’s being morose or politically correct or whatever but it’s just an analytical fact that if you think of the war as being something other than just the battles on the battlefield, but what caused it, what it was for, what its consequences were, then it took a very long time for the Civil War to come to anything like an end.
Obviously there are other views on this. But you can see why it’s so interesting to me as I explore how the war ended, when exactly it ended, what sort of peace followed…
After the interview I drove down Monument Avenue toward downtown Richmond past the towering statues of Confederate heroes (that’s Robert E. Lee above), and, rather incongruously, tennis star Arthur Ashe.