Sunday, April 19, 2015

Appomattox at 150

I spent three days last week at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park as part of a group of volunteers demonstrating Civil War drill and discussing army life with visitors. Since getting back to the twenty-first-century, I've been thinking a lot about what drew so many people to an out-of-the-way corner of Virginia for the anniversary of the surrender of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee.

Entertaining some young visitors to Appomattox, April 2015.

The anniversary of the surrender, April 9th, was a rainy Thursday, but the park still received thousands of visitors. For some, the attraction was genetic. They had an ancestor "in the war," as they inevitably put it, maybe even one who was there at Appomattox 150 years ago. There were descendants of Ulysses S. Grant and of A.P. Hill, a Confederate general killed only a few days before the surrender. Many more visitors traced their lineage to common soldiers, North and South.

One older visitor stopped me in the street in front of the McLean house, where the surrender took place. "Are you a federal officer?" he asked. "Yes," I said, "I'm portraying a second lieutenant." "Well," he paused, "I'd like you to fill out my parole." With shaking hands, he held out a slip of paper, one of the reproduction parole sheets the Park Service had been printing and distributing all day. I asked him to spell his name and wrote it in the blank space. The form also asked for a company and regiment affiliation. He didn't hesitate when I asked him, so deeply did he feel a connection with a particular historical unit. "Company K," he said, "47th Virginia Infantry."

Many people came not because of any particular ancestor, but because the war has exerted some longstanding hold on their psyches. One middle-aged man remembered growing up around the 100th anniversary of the war. "I've been waiting fifty years for this!" he said. I met people from Connecticut and Tennessee who had spent countless hours on the road to be at Appomattox on April 9th. I spoke with one man from Maine, where he is a docent at a museum built by Civil War veterans. For all their different reasons, people came to stand on this particular, unremarkable patch of ground on an unremarkable Thursday in 2015. And they came in far greater numbers than I expected. Thousands watched as the actor portraying Lee exited the McLean house in midafternoon.

Lee. Win McNamee/Getty Images from here.

As the Lee actor mounted his horse and rode slowly down the lane, between rows of visitors, an older woman behind me leaned forward to stare. She grabbed her husband's arm and spoke with hushed reverence. "Isn't he magnificent?"

And, as humorous as this seemed at the time, I have to admit that it was true. He was magnificent. He was everything we imagine of Lee, stately and serene, even in defeat.

It is my experience that there are two types of Civil War enthusiasts: Lee people and Grant people. Which man we find more compelling says at least as much about us as about them. The two heroes are so different, and perhaps that's what makes their meeting at Appomattox so compelling. The Southern patrician, poised and inscrutable, meets the Northern victor, mud-spattered and casual. Here we have the two great American heroic archetypes: the honorable knight and the self-made cowboy.

Grant and Lee. Autumn Parry, from here.

The reality is more complicated and wonderfully ambiguous. Was Lee such a marble man, or a base hypocrite? Was Grant a salt-of-the-earth military genius, or merely a lucky drunk?

That is, I think, why so many people find the Civil War so fascinating. Nostalgic minds can find all the honor, nobility, and grace they want. They can find stories of good and evil, the triumph of righteousness and the tragedy of the Lost Cause. And those of us more inclined to skepticism can find equally compelling complexities and contradictions at the heart of the story. The real Lee and Grant, after all, are at least as interesting as their mythological versions.

The day after the surrender anniversary, a ceremony recreated the final act of the Army of Northern Virginia, the stacking of arms. As the Confederate reenactors slowly arranged their muskets in pyramidal stacks and piled up their cartridge boxes and bayonets in heaps below, their color-bearers passed ragged banners over the ranks so that each man could grasp the flags one last time before the final surrender. As they marched away, I noticed that many had real tears streaming down their faces.

A Confederate color-bearer passes a flag over a line of troops at Appomattox. Autumn Parry, from here.

This was not melodramatic acting. I've worked with reenactors for years. Deep down and despite the name, most are terrible actors. No, these were genuine emotions, felt by men of 2015 reliving the bittersweet final moments of the war.

The Civil War is at the core of our national creation myth. But we can each make our own myth. When Americans imagine the stately Lee meeting the disheveled Grant in the McLean house, they can see it as a moment of loss or of victory. It was both, after all. And either way, it was a fork in our national road. We struggled mightily over the basic ideas of our society. Appomattox was where we finally settled, or at least began to answer, questions about democracy and slavery, merit and aristocracy, and the shape of our society and nation.

That's why this place matters to so many people.

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