It’s human nature to believe that we are living in the most consequential of times. However, if you were to dial back Marty McFly’s Delorean 20 years earlier than Marty ever did — to April 1865 in America, 150 years ago this month — you might notice that people wouldn’t pay your Delorean much attention. You probably wouldn’t even make the Top Ten of most astonishing things they’d seen in the last few weeks. On the sesquicentennial of that staggering month, let’s remember them, their achievements, and their sense of possibility.
Sometimes it’s hard to imagine how “ordinary Americans” – farmers, textile workers, millers – experienced life 150 years ago. So much of history focuses on the Great Men and not the great unwashed. Ordinary Americans in the 1850s might well have been fed up with Great Men; they probably wanted to live their lives unperturbed. As for the Senators and Presidents whom we DO study, they had good reason to feel that their society would never seem as consequential as the time of the Revolution. Even as a few elitists occasionally cited conversations they’d had with Founding Fathers like Adams, Jefferson, and Madison, the last few people born in “the cradle of the revolution” were dying off. America had gone on with the business of trying to be a normal country, yet how could it be normal, as the world’s largest democracy? Furthermore, the somewhat-revolutionary idea persisted amongst all classes and people, from Henry Clay to Frederick Douglass, from Susan B. Anthony to Harriet Beecher Stowe, that instead of being controlled by events, one can control events, that instead of accepting the status quo, one can strike out for liberty and freedom…these ideas were foundational to the American Dream.
By April 1865, it was hard to deny that ideas had power and that actions had consequences. Freedom wasn’t free – whether your definition of freedom was abolitionist or states-rights-ist, you couldn’t say freedom was without cost. In 2015, you can ignore a lot of what comes out of Washington. 150 years ago, if you had tried that, you might have wondered why your brother or son or friend had joined the hundreds of thousands of dead soldiers lying strewn over battlefields throughout the South. So if the President chose to finish his second inaugural speech, delivered on March 4, 1865, with…
If God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.
…by now, you’re listening well, knowing that words have genuine ramifications, and ideas could kill you or yours.
Yet even by the standards of shock and awe that had come to define the decade, April 1865 was stunning. After years of predictions of swift victory (for one side or the other), no one quite knew how, or when, the war would end. No American President had ever been shot, much less killed; the astonished reaction to the conspiracy that nearly “decapitated” the Northern leaders was recently compared, in the Times’ “Disunion” section, to the reaction to 9/11. And after centuries of slavery, despite the Emancipation Proclamation, many smart people predicted that the slave trade was no more extinguishable than, say, tree leaves – and some slavers doubled down on that, buying and selling slaves well into 1865 at sums comparable to prices during the antebellum period.
On April 2, after four years of close calls that gave Richmond the air of an impregnable fortress, Confederate President Jefferson Davis surrendered the capital of both Virginia and the Confederacy. Slave-traders were taken aback; one of them, seeing the fleeing Rebs, gathered 50 slaves in chains and marched them to the railroad station, hoping to sell them in some Confederate holdout, somewhere. According to historian Charles Coffin, “there was no room for them on the train which whirled the Confederate Government from the capital. Soldiers with fixed bayonets forced them back. It was the last slave gang seen in this Western world.” The trader cursed them as he set them free. The Rebels burned the city as they fled it. After centuries of unthinkable cruelty, the detritus of bondage became refuse: manacles, auction hammers, whips, advertisements, “slave auction” signs, bills of sale — all fodder for a fire with considerable metaphorical value.
The blazing buildings did not deter President Lincoln, who leapt to his feet on April 3 when his telegraph operator announced the first message from Richmond in four years. Lincoln entered a smoldering Richmond on April 4 and was mobbed by happy, grateful citizens, including not a few African Americans. (Imagine an American president walking into, say, Baghdad the day after his/her soldiers captured it!) Lincoln sat briefly in Davis’ chair in the Confederate headquarters. Five years before, the smartest professors and economists and elected representatives predicted that the end of slavery would require a decades-long transition, or shipment off to Africa (especially Liberia), or extensive renumeration of slave-owners. But no. Four years of human relentlessness and human sacrifice was enough to end what seemed to some as natural as birds.
As the country wrapped its head around that, General Robert E. Lee readies a rearguard stand at Appomattox, only to realize that General Ulysses Grant had far more soldiers than Lee had anticipated; not wanting his soldiers slaughtered, Lee surrendered to Grant at the Appomattox Court House on April 9. Historian Jay Winik considers the magnanimous terms set down on that day to be the most significant words put on American paper after the Constitution. Lee and his soldiers would not be charged with treason, could keep their weapons and horses (for spring harvest), and could return home in peace. Winik believes that were it not for these terms, other Southern generals would have obeyed Jefferson Davis’ order to wage a hillbound guerrilla warfare campaign. Though Davis’ war continued in a few sporadic locations, within weeks of hearing of Appomattox, the other Confederate generals accepted surrender on Grant and Lee’s terms. The crucial point is that the majority (the North) would accept the “honor” of even a treasonous minority (the South), setting the terms of debate for the next century-and-a-half, and beyond.
That would have been enough for any other year of American history, maybe even any other decade. As Americans contemplated the logistical realities of reunification along with four million newly freed citizens, on April 14, President Abraham Lincoln was histrionically assassinated even as two other Union leaders narrowly escaped the same fate. (Lincoln died the next morning, on Easter Sunday, April 15, causing some to invoke the Holy Ghost.) Would the South try to take advantage of the North, or find new reasons for solidarity? Would the North fall into dictatorship, or levy newly punitive terms against the Rebels? The killing of Lincoln has been discussed from 1000 different angles, and can be usefully seen as a sort of blood-for-blood sanctification of the war’s end, allowing both sides to feel they’d sacrificed enough to maintain a peace…and/or a unparalleled tragedy for both North and South, the latter having lost the leader who would have treated them the most generously, the former having lost the greatest leader they would ever have. 1.5 million people would view his funeral train in the following week.
In the event, blood still had to pay for blood: the first person to kill an American president was hardly going to go unpunished; nor would his fellow so-called “Southern conspirators.” Historians generally describe the days after Lincoln’s death as “frenzied” and “panic-stricken” – think New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The government worked out its succession plan (accedeing ultimate power to a man many considered a drunk Confederate sympathizer, Andrew Johnson), while soldiers and vigilantes embarked on a mob hunt, in many ways terrorizing the citizenry who thought the war was over. On April 26, John Wilkes Booth was found in a barn in Northern Virginia. When he refused to surrender, soldiers burned down the barn, and one of them shot Booth dead.
Last week, I criticized aspects of Steve Fraser’s book “The Age of Acquiescence,” but there’s something appealing about his thesis that Americans who could recall the Civil War had something that our current populace lacks. They saw that words and ideas could change the country, that you could fight for what seemed impossible and sometimes make it come true. Some people know that now, but not as many as did then. In many ways, the fires of American populism were born in the ashes of the Civil War. Back then, a log-cabin-born rail-splitter (the press never tired of that term) with no proper education was elevated to the saint over which the nation might bind its wounds. Are we still listening to today’s rail-splitters? We should be.
We’re still catching up with the war’s other lessons. Slavery still exists all over the world. Civil rights don’t just happen, not without direct action. Women are still disenfranchised; even after they helped the black man unshackle his chains, they remain in line behind him (cough*Hillary*cough). The North and the South remain bitter, uh, frenemies. And in the coastal town that was the Deep South’s historical slave trade hub, according to Joshua D. Rothman,
On March 21, 1865, black Charlestonians reveled in their freedom in a parade that began before more than 10,000 people on the Citadel green and stretched for nearly two and a half miles. Mounted marshals led a band, the 21st Regiment of the United States Colored Troops, and clergymen from numerous denominations. Behind them walked an assembly of women, more than 1,800 newly enrolled public school children and a variety of black tradesmen, from fishermen and carpenters to barbers and blacksmiths, who carried banners that read, among other things, “We Know No Master But Ourselves,” “Free Homes, Free Schools, One Country and One Flag” and “Our Reply to Slavery — Colored Volunteers.”
Exactly 150 years and two weeks later, a white policeman in Charleston shot a fleeing, unarmed black man in the back, planted evidence on him, lied about what happened, and convinced other police to join his lie. Despite the parade, power-mad, racist Southern conspiracies apparently continue to exist.
But today, we simply marvel at a period where blood drawn by the lash was paid by the sword, where people had very hard evidence in front of them that good ideas could win, and bad ideas could lose. In April 1865, a Kentuckian born into deprivation, along with enough human persistence, proved able to move a nation, and a world, toward greater democracy and freedom. In a post-modern April 2015 where every idea is considered just another maybe-good-maybe-bad concept within capitalism, we need to remember April 1865 more than ever.