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Civil War at 150: Appomattox Was Not the End

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"There was a great humorless arrogance about him, for he had never been blessed with a moment of self-doubt. He liked to say that he was in morals, not in politics. From this the logical deduction was that people who opposed him, numerous though they undoubtedly were, must be willfully wrong."

-- from 'This Hallowed Ground'
Bruce Catton, 1956

Confederate General Robert E. Lee's surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant in the little town of Appomattox Court House, Virginia 150 years ago today is generally judged to have been the end of the American Civil War. Yet it wasn't nearly that simple.

And that assumes that the Civil War ever really ended in the first place.

Let's start with the history of 150 years ago before that of the present day.

In retrospect, Grant's Western army, working with naval forces on the Mississippi River, broke the back of the Confederacy the day after Lee's defeat at Gettysburg when they cleared the Mississippi River Valley by taking Vicksburg on July 4th, 1863. Yet the Confederates, aided as always by mostly poor generalship on the Union side, fought on stubbornly.

Lincoln finally made Grant commander of all Union forces, enabling him to take over the Eastern Theater where the plague of poor military leadership -- much of it driven by the phenomenon of politician-generals (Lincoln had an uneasy coalition of ideologues and pragmatists to deal with throughout the war) -- was always the worst.

Grant went into the field with the vaunted but usually snake-bit Army of the Potomac and immediately moved to close with Lee's legendary Army of Northern Virginia in 1864. In a series of brutal, grinding battles, whether he won or not, Grant kept moving forward and a little sideways, always getting closer to the confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia.

At great cost, Grant had pinned Lee, master of maneuver warfare, into a totally defensive posture outside Richmond, then proceeded to to slowly cut off his supplies and tighten the noose. With his protege William Tecumseh Sherman having marched, pillaged, and burned his way through Georgia and South Carolina -- where Union forces were especially vengeful to the cradle of secession and site of the war's beginning -- and the Navy having cut off all Southern seaports, Confederate options were dwindling to only a few.

Lee decided to break out of his position just outside Richmond and link up with the other big remaining Confederate army in North Carolina. But his attempt to push back the Union forces to gain some needed separation for retreat backfired.

The next day, April 3rd, 1865, Lincoln, who was already at a forward base, made a quick trip up the James River by gunboat and walked down the streets of the Confederate capital, stunning onlookers, accompanied only by a small detachment of Navy sailors. There he sat at the desk of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Having reduced Lee's army by attrition and gotten it on the run, Grant didn't bother himself with Richmond and, following Lee instead in close pursuit, raced to cut his forces off.

Finally, cavalry ace Phil Sheridan, another Grant protege from the Western army, whose harrying attacks slowed Lee's army and reduced its strength, managed to get in front of Lee with enough strength to hold him off until the rest of Grant's army caught up. After a brief engagement, Lee at last acceded to the obvious and sent forth an officer on horseback bearing a white flag. He'd already gotten a letter from Grant.

And there, in the front parlor of a little house in the little village of Appomattox Court House, Lee surrendered his army to Grant.

Lincoln had met with Grant and Sherman a few weeks earlier at the Union forward base near Richmond to discuss the war's ending and the peace to follow. They had played a very hard game with the Confederates. But once the war was won, Lincoln wanted a degree of magnanimity to prevail. Grant's terms for Lee's surrender, allowing the defeated soldiers to freely return to their homes, by horseback, reflected this. All weapons and equipment were to be turned over to Union forces, save for the side arms of the officers, including Lee's own sword, which would not become a famous trophy of the United States Army. No one was to be imprisoned; all were free to move into the future as Americans.

But it was not to be so simple.

Nearly 200,000 Confederate troops remains in the field, with the Confederate government still at large.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis, a West Pointer who had served as U.S. secretary of war and U.S. senator from Mississippi, tried to rally the forces. He met with General Joe Johnston in North Carolina, the commander of the army Lee had been trying to link up with before he was overtaken by an Army of the Potomac that at last moved with alacrity. Johnston was at best noncommittal.

Davis, a fanatical ideologue with regard to maintaining the ancien regime of the slaver aristocracy, tried many things to keep it all going.

Then Lincoln was assassinated by actor John Wilkes Booth and a Confederate cabal.

That made it hard on Sherman when, on April 17th, he offered even more magnanimous terms of surrender to Johnston than Grant gave to Lee. News traveled slower in those days; Sherman only learned of Lincoln's death by coded telegram just before meeting with the Confederate general. Lincoln's assassination didn't change Johnston's mind; he considered it an act of madness. But Sherman went too far for a Union Cabinet now vengeful in Lincoln's absence. The notorious scourge of the South was hysterically denounced as a closet pro-Confederate.

More than a month after Lee's surrender, after holding a clandestine meeting of the Confederate Cabinet in Georgia, Davis was finally captured trying to make his way west of the Mississippi to establish a new redoubt of resistance to the Union. In the wake of Davis's capture, remaining Confederate forces surrendered.

After imprisonment, Davis was finally amnestied in 1868 by Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson, who was nearly driven from office by radical Republicans out to punish the South in Reconstruction.

Had Lincoln, a master politician, lived, he might have threaded the needle of returning the South to Union with honor while ensuring that African Americans gained their full measure of rights. In the aftermath of his assassination, neither happened. And hatreds on both sides have festered ever since.

The Deep South, cradle of slavery, remained the principal road block to civil rights for another century, frequently oppressing its black population, mightily resisting the Civil Rights Act proposed by John F. Kennedy and enacted by Lyndon Johnson.

Today most of the old Confederacy stands as the core of reactionary politics in America, and of course is the principle base of opposition to America's first black President, Barack Obama.

And the quote at the top of this column, regarding Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner in 1856, could apply to any number of hyper-partisan politicians and commentators today.

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