Making Appomattox a National Holiday

Later this week we will observe the sesquicentennial of Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House, which effectively ended the Civil War. I’m not sure how many Yankees can grasp the extent to which this event was romanticized in the Neo-Confederate heyday of my own youth as a sort of Victory-in-Defeat, wherein the shabby Union General accepted the sword of the immaculately dressed and obviously superior Confederate with a degree of respect bordering on envy. This was an essential prerequisite to the Neo-Confederate history of Reconstruction, in which a proud region ruined by the defeat of an honorable but doomed Cause was tormented and insulted by an unjust and corrupt military occupation, eventually thrown off by Confederate veterans and their sons.

In any event, the deliberate misremembering of Appomattox by Neo-Confederates has been compounded by sheer forgetfulness. That’s why a few years ago I semi-seriously countered Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s proposal for a Confederate History Month with the idea of a Neo-Confederate History Month that would expose all the distorted rememberances of slavery, the Lost Cause and Reconstruction.

Now, at the same publication (TNR), Brian Beutler more seriously suggests that we make April 9, the date of the surrender at Appomattox, a national holiday, in conjunction with a purge of taxpayers support for Confederate memorials (including the naming of federal facilities after Confederate military and civilian leaders). In Beutler’s view, this is a natural follow-on to the Selma centennial commemoration, in which we were reminded that the bridge crossed by voting rights demonstrators in 1965 was named after a Confederate general and post-war white supremacist.

I’m all for any measures that improve our memories of the racial history of the South, 200 years ago, 150 years ago, 100 years ago and last week. The most important reason for doing so is that the same horrific ideas—the inferiority of people of color, the power of states to nullify and secede, the unconstitutional nature of democracy–keep coming back over and over again. I’m probably less inclined than Beutler to extend an anathema to the plain white non-slaveholding folk of the Confederacy, those in uniform or left semi-starving at home, who had little control over their participation in the Rebellion, and were often notably un-enthusiastic about the Lost Cause. But on the other hand, there’s considerable value in reminding us all that armed rebellion against the United States was an act of treason, not of “honor” or some sort of higher patriotism. Certainly the blood of all those killed or maimed in the years before Appomattox, and the grinding poverty to which southerners of both races were consigned for a century afterwards, are squarely on the heads of those who decided they could not tolerate even the possibility of slavery being restricted or prohibited in the country’s new western territories. The defeat of these people was indeed a huge turning point for the United States, and the fact that it was not made more permanent is one of our enduring tragedies.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.