We apologize for this most egregious delay in the publication of Kentucky History Friday. Today, we are temporarily interrupting our Perpetual Disunion series in commemoration of two events: the 29th of March represents the sesquicentennial of the beginning of the Appomattox Campaign; furthermore, the 1st-4th of April shall denote the sesquicentennial of the Fall of Richmond. In light thereof, we are to furnish a work written for the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site via myself which relates to the theme U.S. Grant and the Enduring Legacy of Appomattox. Moreover, the subsequent Friday - the 3rd of April - we will recount Richmond's demise and the sesquicentennial events thereof. Thereafter, on the ensuing Friday, we will properly resume our Perpetual Disunion initiative with Volumes III and IV: Terrible Swift Sword and Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us?
Our aforementioned article today is not a constituent thereof, but is likewise entitled Perpetual Disunion: the American Civil War and its Sociopolitical Implications.
“The Union is Dissolved!” heralds the Charleston Mercury newspaper of the South Carolinian capital amidst the December of 1860; thus was the great experiment of these United States to accost its potential deterioration. A federation – born of immense sectionalism which perpetuated its initial fragility, that which asserted its dominion within the very wordage of its Constitution via the clause of considering 3/5 of all other persons for purposes of numerical legislative representation – whose naïve and erroneous democratic foundations were subject to immense scrutiny was nearing its inevitable collapse. Though such a narrative retains a natural familiarity among its posterity, many elect to cast before it a fallacious shroud of simplicity; well versed are numerous citizens in the annals of emancipation – of Father Abraham the Great Emancipator – as well as its interminably enjoined reunification of a nation. Yet those of the historian’s inclination must note a proper inconsistency therewith; the innumerable complexities of the American Civil War and its perception throughout subsequent centuries are quite oft forgotten. We must therefore seek to rectify this worriment; we must engage in the complex narrative of emancipation, of Reconstruction, of Appomattox.
Let us afford context to this intriguing human account: the American Civil War represents a culmination of the contentious social and political developments of the 19th century. The youthful Union of North American states had long been incapable of unanimity regarding its governance and procedures; the institution of slavery had been inherited – in its African American form – from preceding centuries, with its effectual inauguration upon the earliest embryonic settlements of Jamestown. Due to the vast geographic variety of the continent which instilled varying economic possibilities, as well as prohibited a universal system, the institution had witnessed gradual decline within Northern societies such as Massachusetts and New York wherein its agricultural potential was significantly diminished via poorer soils and differing economic/commercial exploits, i.e. ship construction or fishing; further, the general extensive dispersion of the familial estates of Southern counterparts encouraged a forced labor arrangement as the spacious properties could not yield profits without proper cultivation, whereas the comparatively densely populated Northern townships were not truly conducive to such a practice. One may thus logically advance the notion that the abolition of slavery was perceived as hostile to a majority of Southern states; although abolition had not been a Federal policy unto 1863 (if we are to furnish the earliest date; one could propose the year of 1865 instead,) conflicting opinions predicated their influence throughout the entirety of the Antebellum Period. Indeed, scholars need only examine the eruption of bellicosity circa 1856 which was termed Bleeding Kansas, which foreshadowed the massive subsequent conflict and offered to militant abolitionist John Brown his first massacre at Pottawatomie Creek, in order to uncover the most recent of slavery-centered quarrels prior to 1861.
Abraham Lincoln’s policy of gradual abolition – asserting the geographic containment of the practice, permitting it a natural death – was itself capable of imparting critique, fiery repudiation, and outrage. Southern constituents preferred to grant their electoral ballots for prominent Kentucky statesman John C. Breckinridge during the Presidential campaign of 1860; Breckinridge championed the legality of slavery, promoting Federal intervention to ensure its survival in newly organized US territories. Lincoln’s eventual victory, garnering 39.8% of the popular vote, seemed the greatest inflammation of secessionist sentiment; the banners of secessionism had been hoisted before, notably in the course of the Jacksonian Republic due to disagreeable desiderata regarding what many titled the Tariff of Abominations which seemingly decimated Southern economic abilities, hence the renewed manners thereof were received as mere cries into an empty sea of threats. South Carolina’s ordinance of secession, adopted during the December of the same year, was consequently of considerable shock to some. Immediately prior thereto, attempts at Southern appeasement had been once raised – as they had been during the course of the century, given the social receptions of such adjudications as the Missouri Compromises of 1820 and 1850 or the Kansas-Nebraska Act – via John J. Crittenden, whom was perhaps heir to Henry Clay’s cathedra of the Great Compromiser, and his proposed Crittenden Compromise.
The thunderous bellows of war – the fateful lightning or terrible swift sword, if you will – which ravaged the United States thereafter were seldom of insignificance. Its proportions are most finely beheld in the prophetic musings of Lincoln’s Antebellum House Divided speech, “In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed. A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved – I do not expect the house to fall – but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.”
Appomattox Courthouse shall forever be enshrined as the wondrous epicenter of the termination of the great conflict; whilst the war continued unto June of 1865, the surrender of Appomattox is certainly the de facto closure of major hostilities. Inquiry understandably abounds when Appomattox is introduced: what is its legacy? Upon the succumbing of the Army of Northern Virginia, a mutual disheartening had keenly arisen; Ulysses S. Grant extended quite amiable terms of surrender to his opponent Robert E. Lee. Thereby Lee’s officers may retain custody of their horses and side arms, and were guaranteed non-disturbance by United States authorities so long as they return home and do not violate their paroles. Grant’s formal stipulations embody the bilateral semblance of utter sorrow; though the stirring rally cries of the Battle Cry of Freedom and the ardent call for Southern rights of the Bonnie Blue Flag had impressed, to posterity, a perception of great romanticism, the citizenry were of a heavy weariness engendered by circa four years of frightful toil, horrid clashes, and the atrocious slaughter of circa 650,000 individuals.
Successive generations are then assured a legacy of lionized peace on behalf of Appomattox, are they not? Regrettably to the dismay of the afore’s heinous doctrine, the heritage of Appomattox Courthouse mustn’t enjoy such a stature. Rather, it is symbolic of the ignition of Reconstruction, in which Grant would serve another pivotal position; as the American Civil War had been battered into a de facto closure by Grant, the government and its constituency must hence formulate their response to numerous complications which had been established by the conflict.
Foremost of our political affairs was the very seed from which a century of fervent sectionalism had been derived: the slavery narrative. Mr. Lincoln’s War – as it was so branded by many who bestowed fault upon its namesake – realized the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 as well as the incorporation of African Americans into the armies of the Union via regiments entitled the United States Colored Troops. Easily a scholar could learn of this and enact the presumption that these individuals were henceforward and forever free as the Marching Song of the 1st Arkansas boastfully reaffirms to the melody of John Brown’s Body:
We have done with hoeing cotton,
We have done with hoeing corn;
We’re colored Yankee soldiers now
As sure as you are born!
When the masters hear us yelling,
They will think it’s Gabriel’s horn
As we go marching on!
Although the Emancipation Proclamation was undoubtedly a tremendous achievement for the eventual abolition of the institution, it proclaimed the liberty of those slaves who resided only in states that were in rebellion; given the questionable constitutionality thereof, Lincoln – utilizing his legal acumen acquired in New Salem and Springfield – recognized that he wielded no valid pathway whereby those in states which had retained their Unionist loyalties could be emancipated by the executive order, as the order itself was granted legality as a war measure. An end to the persistent warfare, Lincoln feared, would thus invalidate the document and reinstitute compulsory labor. The only suitable alternative is a Constitutional amendment, the true probability of which appeared unfavorable; Unionists cannot be equated to abolitionists, as they were separate appellations, just as Confederates cannot be immediately equated to racial bigots or slave owners. Many citizens of Northern society perpetuated racial inequality; furthermore were Southern states to be reinstated to their prior positions within the Union as Lincoln advocated, they would reserve the right to non-ratification.
Despite potential hindrances, Lincoln sought to persevere therewith. We of a contemporary society are inherently well acquainted with the knowledge of the passage of the 13th Amendment; however it was far from assured during its conception and proposition. Our war has now been laid to rest, and we are free to explore the annals of Reconstruction; yet we shall soon discover that the Civil War’s vestiges remain as the primary sociopolitical worriment.
Slavery shall not exist in the United States or territories subject to their authority is the foundational assertion contained in the 13th Amendment. These African Americans were now constituents of a nation; not a nation born of 1776, nor of 1787, but rather of 1865 with the closure of a magnificently terrible societal revolution and the death of its Captain. Dirges swarm the cemeteries of this newly formed nation, as its commonalty laments that we will meet but we will miss him; there will be one Vacant Chair. We shall linger to caress him, as we breathe our evening prayer. Should this people then celebrate the irrevocable emancipation of circa four million enslaved persons? Or must it grieve its circa 650,000 fallen and its martyred Chieftain?
Appomattox signaled the proper timing for the passage of the 13th Amendment; however should the former represent a mighty triumph to these slaves? If one is to consider only their legal emancipation, the answer is unquestionably yes. Appomattox did not bind up the nation’s wounds though. Grant surely made a paramount contribution thereto via Appomattox on the 9th of April, 1865 yet he did not resurrect the Union thereupon. Whilst the Union had been legally renewed, it remained in a state of perpetual disunion; prior to his untimely demise, Lincoln had expressed his Reconstruction sentiments in the 2nd Inaugural Address within the careful wordage with malice toward none, with charity for all; the sociopolitical atmosphere created by the Civil War ensured a differing result, with malice toward some. Let us recall that the 13th Amendment emancipates all enslaved individuals, while simultaneously offering no provision for their societal incorporation or their citizenship. Initial Reconstruction efforts fixated on this fault; the Presidency of Andrew Johnson saw his considerable incompetence in successfully confronting Radical Republicans, who endeavored to trample Southern governments as an authoritarian retribution for their unlawful secession. Johnson enacted the 10% Plan which provided that states may reenter the Union at the status quo antebellum upon the oaths of allegiance of 10% of the respective populations, with the added provision that they must ratify the 14th Amendment (the nearly fruitless attempt of rectification to ensure the birth-right citizenship of former enslaved persons, as well as the defense of their civil liberties;) his ideology, in such aspect, aligns partially with that of Lincoln’s therefore.
Regardless of the passage of three amendments – the 13th, 14th, and 15th – social customs, prejudices, and the internal disparity of North and South – that which still silently encroaches on our contemporary society via the eternal distinction of one North, one South – culminated in the continuation of the struggle for equality; a majority of African Americans remained the melancholy class of, as Harriett Beecher Stowe had years prior entitled it, life among the lowly. These are the distressing factors which plague a new nation that exists in years of yore; that has bequeathed to its people a new birth of freedom whilst also depriving its citizens of such freedom; that boasts although they may be poor, not a man shall be a slave as it grows ever hostile to those it emancipated; that is inherited by Ulysses S. Grant in 1869 upon his ascension to the Presidency.
None would deny the leadership of Grant; he was, assuredly, a leader of some form. His victory at Appomattox had secured his romanticized heroism amongst masses. Whereas we may well bestow upon Grant the laurels of a military doyen, we must likewise acknowledge that a statesman he was not. Grant too found animosity with the Lincolnian Reconstruction policies of Johnson, instead aligning politically with Radical Republicans. Though an honest fellow, his political acumen, or rather the lack thereof, appeared disastrous. Often Grant was dependent on Congressional policy in order to determine his action; the Reconstruction strategies of the Radical Republican Congress were detrimental to the reconciliation of North and South, albeit somewhat conducive to the promotion of civil liberties. We then approach a treacherous path: shall we further alienate Southern governments yet enforce the incorporation of the 14th and 15th Amendments, or shall we allow the Southern governments to restore their statures yet degrade their citizens?
Our perpetual disunion is evident in its manifestation of the failed New South seeking to acquire commercial opportunities for the regeneration of a depleted Southern economy, as well as forge an image of the dissolution of Southern prejudices. Equality of citizenship – the equality of universal suffrage and civil liberties – would not be realized unto nearly one century thereafter via the outcry for civil rights during the late 20th century. Rather, our newly born nation would uphold Jim Crow laws which deprived citizens of suffrage; it would retain restrictive legislative adjudications which instigated a de facto forced labor system; and its highest judicial entity would endorse all thereof in Plessy v. Ferguson.
The narrative of these United States is one of torrential complexities; it cannot be justifiably condensed into a sampler of simplicities. Nor can the constituent legacies of Appomattox and Ulysses S. Grant: though Grant would retire the Presidency riddled with his contemporaries’ scandalous misfortunes, to bequest the reigns of a shattered Union to his successor, we may interpret Grant in a positive manner; his is the annals of ardent leadership, determination, and honesty. Most notably, his success at Appomattox is representative of the initiation of those questions and issues which continually haunt the governments of men. As we reflect thereupon, let us yield recognition that the comprehension of the events of April 9th, 1865 at Appomattox Courthouse is essential to very comprehension of ourselves.
We hope you have enjoyed this article; return next Friday for the Fall of Richmond, and the Friday thereafter for Volume III.
- Austin R. Justice, History of Kentucky Group
McLean residence, Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia
Depiction of the Surrender at Appomattox
Emancipation Proclamation of 1863
The 13th Amendment
The 14th Amendment
The 15th Amendment
United States Colored Troops
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Austin R. Justice
PMC of River Cities Chapter and Lincoln Forum & Colloquium Student Scholar.
Spencer M. Dayton