Thursday, April 9, 2009

The ending that still haunts

One-hundred and forty-four years ago on this day (April 9, 1865), General Robert E. Lee offered the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia--and, essentially, the Confederacy--to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. They met at the McLean House in Appomattox, Virginia, an area that had seen some of the earliest fighting of the American Civil War as well.

It was a joyous occasion for some, and a time of deep sadness and regret for many. Upon hearing that Lee had officially surrendered, the Union soldiers assembled near the house began to cheer and fire their guns in celebration, but Grant ordered them to stop out of respect. Some years later, as he reflected upon that momentous historical event, Grant wrote the following:
What General Lee's feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassable face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result, and was too manly to show it. Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter [proposing negotiations], were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.
Grant's terms of surrender were generous, and his order to mute any celebrations in the face of the defeated army were considerably kind. It is remarkable to note the downright quiet and almost familial atmosphere that marked the end of such a long and bloody conflict. But it was, I think, all-together appropriate. The war had been a terrible means to reach the end of having a more just and equitable country.

The situation in the US should never have allowed for the institution of slavery in the first place, and had that not been existent and therefor a major wedge issue leading up to the war, we might have avoided the conflict all together.

We might also have avoided, or at least significantly lessened, the deep racial divisions and tensions that still, unfortunately, exist to this day. It took 142 hard years from Emancipation to the election of our first black president. And even still, we have a long way to go.

There are citizens of this country who, all these years later, still find themselves embittered by the defeat of the Confederacy. Head south of the Mason-Dixon, and the topic becomes all the more charged. To some, they are the conquered people, mistreated and dismissed by the conquerors. It would be easy to write this off as misplaced anger over the embarrassment of being the side that upheld slavery--and in some cases, it is absolutely that. But for some, the feeling has nothing to do with the so-called "peculiar institution." It has everything to do, instead, with deeply seeded divisions of class and culture that have been pervasive since even antebellum times.

These divisions can be seen, even now, in the voting trends and demographics of different regions of the country. And they cannot be easily summed up or dismissed by saying they're simply the result of racism, or any other 'ism. Though that is sometimes at least part of the case, the situation is usually a bit more complex.

What's important for all sides of the debate to recognize is that we are all products of our culture, all prone to various prejudices and misunderstandings. And we must all work hard, everyday, to open our minds and get passed these stumbling blocks, so that future generations can continue to become less and less susceptible to those outmoded and detrimental attitudes.

Grant saw that when he, a man so cold and calculating in battle that he'd been nicknamed "The Butcher," allowed the defeated Southern soldiers to be fed, to retain their horses and sidearms, and to go home unharmed.

It's important to hold accountable those who are truly responsible for crimes and atrocities--and to call people out when they display bigotry and bias--but it's just as important to recognize when it's time to simply put your foot down and do what you can to end the cycle of violence. We should all take that lesson to heart.

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