Appomattox

We’ve pretty much already had the requisite discussion of Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox 150 years ago today (here and here), in the context of Brian Beutler’s proposal to make this day a national holiday. That ain’t happening any time soon, but I think it’s safe to say that we’re having a reasonably robust discussion that mocks the Romance in Grey depiction of the event and its significance that for so long constituted its strongest impression, certainly in the South.

That wasn’t much the case fifty years ago at the centennial of Appomattox, as Jay Elias noted yesterday at Daily Kos:

The centennial of the Civil War was also largely avoided and ignored, largely due to the political inconvenience that it posed for the Kennedy administration. Less than a month after the centennial of the Battle of Fort Sumter, the first two buses of Freedom Riders were attacked in Alabama. A week later, the Kennedys were forced to send federal marshals to Birmingham to defend First Baptist Church and 1,500 occupants (including Martin Luther King Jr.) from a rioting mob. President Kennedy, who had been elected with the help of southern segregationist Democrats and who counted Alabama Governor John Patterson among his earliest supporters for President, was in a bind that would plague Democrats for the next decade. The Democrats ruled the South, but their rule was based on white supremacy and the suppression of southern blacks through terrorism and illegal discrimination. Indeed, in 1964, twenty years after discrimination in party primaries was outlawed in Smith v Allwright, President Johnson would call an impromptu press conference to interrupt the broadcast of Fannie Lou Hamer’s testimony to the credentials committee of the Democratic National Convention, challenging the seating of Mississippi’s whites only delegation. In 1965, at the centennial ceremony of the surrender at Appomattox, as Congress contemplated the Voting Rights Act, only 3,000 visitors attended.

Resistance to the civil rights movement, of course, was a powerful impetus for a Neo-Confederate movement that during the 1960s blossomed from a sullenly seditious undercurrent to a rebel yell of defiance. As voting rights for African-Americans were finally established in what many people on both sides of the barricades called a “Second Reconstruction,” the Lost Cause lost again, and Neo-Confederacy retreated into the all-purpose conservatism of an increasingly white-southern-based Republican Party. As the radical core of movement conservatism exploded into public view with the Tea Party phenomenon in 2009 and 2010, so, too, did long-buried but never extinguished Neo-Confederate beliefs like the “right” of nullification and secession, the supposedly anti-democratic nature of the Constitution, and the inferiority of a dependent class of minority citizens. And so in some respects we are battling the Lost Cause all over again.

That we have not yet turned the final corner in acknowledging the malignancy that was crushed (at least temporarily) in Appomattox is made manifest by the neutral manner of the sesquicentennial observances. Here’s what the National Park Service is saying about the bell-ringing commemoration it is encouraging:

The announcement for the event notes, “The end of the Civil War has different meanings to different people. The National Park Service invites churches, temples, schools, city halls, public buildings, historic sites, and others to ring bells across the nation as a gesture to mark the end of the bloody conflict in which more than 750,000 Americans perished.” It’s asked that bells be rung, beginning at precisely at 3:15 pm, for four minutes (each minute symbolic of a year of war).

“Some communities may ring their bells in celebration of freedom or a restored Union, others as an expression of mourning …for the fallen. Sites may ring bells to mark the beginning of reconciliation and reconstruction.”

So even now we cannot look at this event and see the same thing. Perhaps in 2065?

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.