ON April 9, 1865 — Palm Sunday — Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Gen. Robert E. Lee negotiated their famous “Gentlemen’s Agreement” of surrender. In the ensuing celebration, a relieved Grant told his men, “The war is over.”
But Grant soon discovered he was wrong. Not only did fighting continue in pockets for weeks, but in other ways the United States extended the war for more than five years after Appomattox. Using its war powers to create freedom and civil rights in the South, the federal government fought against a white Southern insurgency that relied on murder and intimidation to undo the gains of the war.
And yet the “Appomattox myth” persisted, and continues today. By severing the war’s conflict from the Reconstruction that followed, it drains meaning from the Civil War and turns it into a family feud, a fight that ended with regional reconciliation. It also fosters a national amnesia about what wars are and how they end, a lacuna that has undermined American postwar efforts ever since.
Appomattox, like the Civil War more broadly, retains its hold on the American imagination. More than 330,000 people visited the site in 2013. In Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” as in many other popular portrayals, the meeting between Lee and Grant suggests that, in the words of one United States general at the surrender, “We are all Americans.”
Although those words were allegedly spoken by Ely Parker, a Tonawanda Seneca Indian, and although hundreds of thousands of African-Americans fought for the nation, the “we” in the Appomattox myth all too often is limited to white Americans. In fanciful stories of Grant’s returning a ceremonial sword to Lee, or of the United States Army’s saluting its defeated foes at the laying-down-of-arms ceremony, white Americans fashioned a story of prodigal sons returning for a happy family portrait.
Grant himself recognized that he had celebrated the war’s end far too soon. Even as he met Lee, Grant rejected the rebel general’s plea for “peace” and insisted that only politicians, not officers, could end the war. Then Grant skipped the fabled laying-down-of-arms ceremony to plan the Army’s occupation of the South.
To enforce its might over a largely rural population, the Army marched across the South after Appomattox, occupying more than 750 towns and proclaiming emancipation by military order. This little-known occupation by tens of thousands of federal troops remade the South in ways that Washington proclamations alone could not.
And yet as late as 1869, President Grant’s attorney general argued that some rebel states remained in the “grasp of war.” When white Georgia politicians expelled every black member of the State Legislature and began a murderous campaign of intimidation, Congress and Grant extended military rule there until 1871.
Meanwhile, Southern soldiers continued to fight as insurgents, terrorizing blacks across the region. One congressman estimated that 50,000 African-Americans were murdered by white Southerners in the first quarter-century after emancipation. “It is a fatal mistake, nay a wicked misery to talk of peace or the institutions of peace,” a federal attorney wrote almost two years after Appomattox. “We are in the very vortex of war.”
Against this insurgency, even President Andrew Johnson, an opponent of Reconstruction, continued the state of war for a year after Appomattox. When Johnson tried to end the war in the summer of 1866, Congress seized control of his war powers; from 1867 to 1870, generals in the South regulated state officials and oversaw voter registration, ensuring that freedmen could claim the franchise they had lobbied for. With the guidance of military overseers, new biracial governments transformed the Constitution itself, passing the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.
The military occupation created pockets of stability and moments of order. Excluded from politics before the war, black men won more than 1,500 offices during Reconstruction. By 1880, 20 percent of black families owned farms.
But the occupation that helped support these gains could not be sustained. Anxious politicians reduced the Army’s size even as they assigned it more tasks. After Grant used the military to put down the Ku Klux Klan in the Carolinas in 1871, Congress and the public lost the will to pay the human and financial costs of Reconstruction.
Once white Southern Democrats overthrew Reconstruction between the 1870s and 1890s, they utilized the Appomattox myth to erase the connection between the popular, neatly concluded Civil War and the continuing battles of Reconstruction. By the 20th century, history textbooks and popular films like “The Birth of a Nation” made the Civil War an honorable conflict among white Americans, and Reconstruction a corrupt racial tyranny of black over white (a judgment since overturned by historians like W. E. B. DuBois and Eric Foner).
Beyond the problem of historical accuracy, separating the war and the military from Reconstruction contributes to an enduring American amnesia about the Army’s role in remaking postwar societies. Many of the nation’s wars have followed the trajectory established at Appomattox: Cheers at the end of fighting are replaced by bafflement at the enduring conflict as the military struggles to fill the defeated government’s role, even as the American public moves on. After defeating Spain in the Spanish-American War, the Army undertook bloody campaigns to suppress rebellions and exert control over the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico. After World War II, a state of war endured into the 1950s in the occupation of Japan and Germany. And in the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States military’s work had barely begun when the fighting stopped — and the work continues, in the hands of American-backed locals, today.
While it is tempting to blame the George W. Bush administration for these recent wars without end, the problem lies deep within Americans’ understanding of what wars are. We wish that wars, like sports, had carefully organized rules that would steer them to a satisfying end. But wars are often political efforts to remake international or domestic orders. They create problems of governance that battles alone cannot resolve.
Years after the 1865 surrender, the novelist and veteran Albion Tourgée said that the South “surrendered at Appomattox, and the North has been surrendering ever since.” In so many wars since, the United States won the battlefield fighting but lost ground afterward.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can learn, as Grant did, the dangers of celebrating too soon. Although a nation has a right to decide what conflicts are worth fighting, it does not have the right to forget its history, and in the process to repeat it.