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The Battle They Fought to End the War
And we still fight it.
They had come a long way, these young men in blue and butternut, many of whom were still young. In the fifth April of this civil war they felt both tired and energized: weary of a long winter of raids and bombardments, sharpshooters and endless mud, but energized because spring was coming, and the armies around Richmond were moving again.
Union troops occupied Wilmington, North Carolina, the Confederacy’s last deep-water port with rail links in February.
There would be no more help from abroad. At Five Forks on 1 April 1865, a part of the Army of Northern Virginia under George Pickett tried to protect the Southside Railroad junction from the concerted attacks of Philip Sheridan. Overwhelmed and badly placed, the Federals forced the Confederates to abandon Richmond. Using the Richmond and Danville line, Jefferson Davis and his government ran south while Robert E. Lee took the Army of Northern Virginia south and west, under close attack from the Army of the Potomac under George G. Meade.
As Meade chased Lee…
William T. Sherman’s army group was somewhere to their south, where Joseph P. Johnson was trying to get away from Sherman and join Lee. All the while, Federal cavalrymen were closing off the major roads. After nine days of moving and fighting, and after the Federal cavalry captured his last ration train, Lee saw little choice but to give up the fight.
So the patrician Lee and the plebeian Ulysses S. Grant, who commanded all the Union armies, met on 9 April 1865 to work something out.
They sat in the parlor of Wilmer McLean, a sugar broker whose house at Manassas Junction was the center of the first major battle of the war. Now, at a wide spot in the road known as Appomattox Court house, McLean’s parlor would see the end of the largest theater of what had become a global war. Photographs of the time show Lee resplendent in an immaculate, new, custom-made uniform, and Grant in a mud-spattered private’s coat with lieutenant general’s shoulder straps. There was a little small talk: Grant recalled their only other meeting in Mexico, which Lee could not remember.
They talked about horses, weapons, rations, terms.
Grant wanted the return of what property the Federal government owned before the war. They quickly realized it would be impossible to separate the government property from the rest, so Grant did not press the issue. Lee said his officers owned their animals and their sidearms, and Grant decided he would not confiscate them. Grant knew this 28,000 man Confederate army had lost much, and with nearly a hundred thousand men in arms under his command in the area, he could afford to be generous. After Ely Parker wrote out the final terms, Lee signed the surrender.
Then the real battle began and continues to this day.
The “battle of the books” has been the most consistently acrimonious and contentious action of the American Civil War, and this scholar contends that while it is far from over, it needs to end sooner than later.
There are two major battlefields of this fight: the cause and The Cause.
The first centers on the reasons for the fighting to begin with, where tariffs, slavery, secession, state’s rights, firing on the flag, and other issues are the most often discussed. The second is by far the noisiest. Diehards have perceived, remembered, and recorded the entire conflict through a single lens. Many scholars embody this argument in Lost Cause Mythology, or LCM, a position that holds that the Confederacy was always going to be the loser, but was the nobler of the two factions fighting the war—hence the Lost Cause. For others, LCM is part and parcel a product of Union/Yankee imagination. But for a few, including this one, both factions are cooperating in the management of Civil War Inc., the robust and thriving enterprise where a reasonable and compromising explanation for the conflict is out of the question simply because there’s so much advantage (profit and reputation) in keeping the contending factions going.
Unlike other civil conflicts, the American Civil War holds a global audience.
One can search far and wide to find a thousand re-enactors of all other civil conflicts in history in the United States, but nearly every nation on the globe has at least one group of dedicated souls who dress up in wool serge to replay Gettysburg. American Civil War books outsell all other American history titles worldwide in every language. Civil war scholars, nearly all of them Americans, are always welcomed to speak at conferences and seminars on 19th Century topics.
But the battle that they fight, unlike the battle that their subjects fought, will never end.
And, in the interest of scholarship and sanity, it needs to.
At the end of Sergeant’s Business is “McLean House,” a side story of the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia. It’s one of a dozen tales I wrote over twenty years ago.
The Sergeant’s Business stories are tales of heros and heroism, horror and honor, and about cleaning up after the fighting makes the mess. Frome time to time I think I might write more short stories…maybe soon, maybe not. But ask and ye shall receive, autographed, of course, for a modest fee…
Taxation in America: A Pedestrian History
As If You Wanted To Know
On 8 April:
1864: The US Senate passed Amendment XIII to the Constitution. This amendment then went to the House and, when ratified, abolished chattel slavery in the United States.
1946: The League of Nations’ last meeting began in Geneva, Switzerland. By then, the League was an artifact of the failure of the Versailles Treaty that Woodrow Wilson meant to ensure the 1914-18 nightmare was the War to End All Wars.
And today is NATIONAL ALL IS OURS DAY. It’s a day set aside for the appreciation of the things of beauty and nature that are all around us…or something.