At the encouragement of the National Park Service, yesterday churches, temples, schools, courthouses and other public buildings took part in “Bells Across the Land,” ringing their bells in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the surrender of Robert E. Lee to Ulysses Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia, an event usually remembered as signaling the end of the American Civil War.
My institution, Wheaton College, had planned to participate up until the last minute, when a tornado watch convinced the administration that it probably wasn’t wise to send someone up into the bell tower of Blanchard Hall, which was erected just before the Civil War began. Even so, the event got me to thinking about how we remember the end of the war.
I’ve been teaching on the Civil War to college students for more than a quarter of a century now, and one of the things I always stress is that it’s utterly unhistorical to end any history course in 1865. The reason for this is simple. Although northern victory in that conflict had guaranteed the preservation of the Union, it was not at all clear what kind of union had been preserved. Two crucial and closely related questions had not been resolved and would not be resolved for years to come.
The first was the question of what northern victory would mean for white southerners. How would the place and power of the South in national affairs be affected? What would become of the prewar planter class? Would there be a fundamental alteration in the structure of southern society? Would the relation between whites and blacks in the former slave states change appreciably, and if so, how?
The second question, inextricably related to the first, concerned the meaning of northern victory for the former slaves. By the time that Lee and Grant sat down in Wilmer McLean’s parlor to discuss terms of surrender, slavery’s imminent demise was obvious to almost everyone. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 had already effectively liberated at least a third of the Confederacy’s slave population. Then in January 1865 the U. S. Congress had followed Lincoln’s decree with the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. When that measure was ratified, and it almost inevitably would be, the institution of slavery would be constitutionally prohibited throughout the land. And yet what would “freedom” mean for southern blacks? Would the federal government act to protect the former slaves from the white majority? Would the “freedmen,” as they came to be called, have a recognized right to choose their own employers and be paid fairly for their labors? Would “freedom” include a modicum of civil equality–equal access to education and the courts, for example? Might “freedom” possibly include the right to vote, at least for black males?
Not one of these questions had been determined by the time that the weary veterans of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia stacked their arms and headed for home. We tend to forget that fact–if we were ever aware of it–or maybe we just don’t care. At any rate, it is unlikely that Americans will lavish nearly as much attention on the sesquicentennial of Reconstruction, a point nicely made by Columbia historian Eric Foner in this New York Times editorial.
All of this brings to mind one of my most favorite books about the Civil War, and I’ll close by recommending it enthusiastically to anyone at all interested in what happened after the shooting stopped. The book I have in mind is A Year in the South, by Stephen V. Ash. A Year in the South is one of those rare books that works on numerous levels. It is a meticulously researched monograph by a first-rate academic historian that simultaneously reads like a novel and commands a broad audience.
Ash subtitles his book “Four Lives in 1865,” and his goal is to recreate the experiences of “four ordinary people in an extraordinary time,” the twelve months in 1865 that witnessed the death of the Old South and the gradual dawning of a new order. The author follows the lives of four very different civilians who left detailed memoirs or, in one case, a wartime diary. Samuel Agnew was a minister and son of a wealthy Mississippi slaveholder; Yankee troops raided his community countless times and a pitched battle was fought on the family plantation. Louis Hughes began the year laboring as a slave in the Alabama state salt works and ended it as a free man in Ontario, Canada, having determined that he could never truly be free on American soil. Cornelia McDonald was a middle-aged war widow living as a refugee in the upper Shenandoah Valley; the war had destroyed her comfortable, middle-class existence, and by 1865 she and her seven children lived on the brink of starvation. John Robertson was a teenager from East Tennessee, a Confederate sympathizer in a staunchly Unionist region. Early in the war Robertson had served in a secessionist home guard unit that terrorized local loyalists, and by 1865 he had become a target of revenge-minded Unionists and feared for his life.
The late eminent historian David Potter once observed that hindsight is both the historians “chief asset” and “main liability.” Because we know what came afterward, it is almost impossible for us to regain the sense of uncertainty and contingency that historical figures experience as they live their lives one day at a time. In A Year in the South, Stephen Ash masterfully recaptures that sense of uncertainty. None of these figures has the slightest idea what Confederate defeat will mean for their lives. In driving this point home, Ash powerfully conveys the ubiquitous sense of upheaval and uncertainty prompted by the collapse of the Old South and the gradual, chaotic emergence of a new social order. Above all, he conveys the extremes of emotion unleashed by this ambiguous transformation: exultation, indignation, anxiety, hope.
A Year in the South engages the heart as well as the mind. Readers will feel as well as think along with these four southerners, vicariously exploring a crucial historical period from the perspective of human beings who lived through it.