At times such as these, remember how reconciliation began at Appomattox

When I recently heard protesters demanding the removal of monuments “to traitors,” I couldn’t help recalling how differently the men who were present in 1865 at Appomattox Courthouse responded to their vanquished countrymen.

 

It’s important, as we discuss – constructively, I hope – how we should respond to the demands to remove all monuments that honor Confederates, to understand the historical context, to cultivate what I call historical empathy.

As the horror of four bloody years of war (620,000 dead from combat and disease, and 275,000 wounded) drew to its end, something very interesting occurred.

Imagine, if you can, that you were present on April 9, 1865, as Lee meets with Grant to discuss terms of surrender. Grant offers generous terms and Lee accepts. As Lee rides away, the Union troops break into cheers. Grant immediately orders them to stop – saying he did not want his men exalting over their recently defeated foes.

 

On April 10, 1865, Lee gives a farewell speech, and formal talks begin to organize a formal surrender ceremony the next day. The armies camped about two miles apart, with a valley between them. Sleep must have eluded all but a few. Exaltation, joy and satisfaction must have filled the Union camp around Appomattox Courthouse.

Across the valley, 27,805 Confederate soldiers must have experienced very different emotions; dejection and a sense of failure, dread and uncertainty must have made sleep impossible. Who knew what tomorrow would bring?

Can you imagine, in your mind’s eye, the emotion tearing at the breast of every Confederate soldier as dawn broke on April 12? What would they face as they marched toward the Union Army one last time: violence, hatred, curses and insults?

Confederate Gen. John B. Gordon, battle-scarred and bone-weary, rode at the head of the remnants of the Army of Northern Virginia as it began the final march. Upon reaching the crest of the hill, Gordon was surprised when Maj. Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain had the remaining soldiers from the Union Army snap to attention and “carry arms” as a sign of respect for their vanquished foes.

Gordon, shaken from his weariness, suddenly realized what Chamberlain intended. He gallantly returned the salute. Throughout the day, this mutual salute – “honor returning honor” – was repeated as weapons and battle flags were stacked and paroles signed.

 

In his memoirs entitled The Passing of the Armies, Chamberlain reflected on what he witnessed:

“The momentous meaning of this occasion impressed me deeply. I resolved to mark it by some token of recognition, which could be no other than a salute of arms. Well aware of the responsibility assumed, and of the criticisms that would follow, as the sequel proved, nothing of that kind could move me in the least. The act could be defended, if needful, by the suggestion that such a salute was not to the cause for which the flag of the Confederacy stood, but to its going down before the flag of the Union.”

 

Getting at the heart of his feelings Chamberlain continues:

“My main reason, however, was one for which I sought no authority nor asked forgiveness. Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood: men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond; was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured?”

This surprising turn of events, unforeseen and unimaginable, became the signal event that veterans talked about for 50 years at reunions. “Do you remember how you felt when they saluted us?” was, according to witnesses, the most discussed topic at every reunion.

That magnanimous act, initiated by Chamberlain, the hero of Little Round Top, Congressional Medal of Honor recipient and former seminary professor, made the sting of defeat bearable and paved the way for national reconciliation.

 

When I was stationed at Fort Gordon many years ago I was struck by the fact that the main street of the fort, named for John B. Gordon, was named Chamberlain Avenue. Once enemies in war, they became friends in peace, and both have been deservedly honored in my adopted hometown.

Chamberlain understood that Gordon and the soldiers he led were not “traitors.” Reconciliation began on the battlefield at Appomattox and progress has been made, however incomplete.

Today, racists in America are an infinitesimally tiny minority. Let’s not let the hysteria of the mob deprive us of the goodwill that truly reflects the progress we’ve made. I’m confident that we will continue to make headway until a day arrives that 99.9% of us will be shocked by any display of prejudice. Let’s avoid name-calling and listen to one another; let’s have civil discussions about issues that divide. Augusta can find a way to pursue justice and reconciliation among all citizens if we emulate the soldiers who bled and died to bring forth a “more perfect union”.

 

The writer lives in Augusta.

 

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