On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to General Ulysses S. Grant of the United States Army at Appomattox Court House in Virginia.
Lee’s surrender did not end the war, there were still two major armies in the field, but everyone knew the surrender signaled that the American Civil War was coming to a close.
Soldiers and sailors of the United States had defeated the armies and the navy of the Confederate States of America across the country and the seas, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives and almost $6 billion. To the northerners celebrating in the streets, it certainly looked like the South’s ideology had been thoroughly discredited.
Southern politicians had led their poorer neighbors to war to advance the idea that some people were better than others and had the right — and the duty — to rule. The Founders of the United States had made a terrible mistake when they declared, “All men are created equal,” southern leaders said. In place of that “fundamentally wrong” idea, they proposed “the great truth” that White men were a “superior race.” And within that superior race, some men were better than others.
Those leaders were the ones who should rule the majority, southern leaders explained. “We do not agree with the authors of the Declaration of Independence, that governments ‘derive their just powers from the consent of the governed,’” enslaver George Fitzhugh of Virginia wrote in 1857. “All governments must originate in force, and be continued by force.”
There were 18,000 people in his county and only 1,200 could vote, he said, “But we twelve hundred … never asked and never intend to ask the consent of the sixteen thousand eight hundred whom we govern.”
But the majority of Americans recognized that if it were permitted to take hold, this ideology would destroy democracy. They fought to defeat the enslavers’ radical new definition of the United States. By the end of 1863, President Abraham Lincoln dated the birth of the nation not to the Constitution, whose protection of property underpinned southern enslavers’ insistence that enslavement was a foundational principle, but to the Declaration of Independence.
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”
The events of April 9 reassured Americans that they had, in fact, saved “the last best hope of earth”: democracy. Writing from Washington DC, poet Walt Whitman mused that the very heavens were rejoicing at the triumph of the U.S. military and the return to peace its victory heralded.
“Nor earth nor sky ever knew spectacles of superber beauty than some of the nights lately here,” he wrote in Specimen Days. “The western star, Venus, in the earlier hours of evening, has never been so large, so clear; it seems as if it told something, as if it held rapport indulgent with humanity, with us Americans.”
So confident was General Grant in the justice of his people’s cause that he asked only that Lee and his men give their word that they would never again fight against the United States and that they turn over their military arms and artillery. The men could keep their sidearms and their horses because Grant wanted them “to be able to put in a crop to carry themselves and their families through the next winter.”
Their victory on the battlefields made northerners think they had made sure that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
But their conviction that generosity would bring White southerners around to accepting the equality promised in the Declaration of Independence backfired. After Lincoln’s assassination, Andrew Johnson of Tennessee took over the presidency and worked hard to restore White Supremacy without the old legal structure of enslavement, while White settlers in the West brought their hierarchical ideas with them and imposed them on Indigenous Americans, on Mexicans and Mexican Americans, and on Asians and Pacific Islanders.
With no penalty for their attempt to overthrow democracy, those who thought that White men were better than others began to insist that their cause was just and that they had lost the war only because they had been overpowered. They continued to work to make their ideology the law of the land. That idea inspired the Jim Crow and Juan Crow laws of the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as well as the policies that crowded Indigenous Americans onto reservations where disease and malnutrition killed many of them and lack of opportunity pushed the rest into poverty.
In the 1930s, Nazi leaders, lawyers, and judges turned to America’s Jim Crow laws and Indian reservations for inspiration on how to create legal hierarchies that would, at the very least, wall certain populations off from White society. More Americans than we like to believe embraced fascism here, too: in February 1939, more than 20,000 people showed up for a “true Americanism” rally held by Nazis at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. The event featured a huge portrait of George Washington in his Continental Army uniform flanked by swastikas.
The decision of government officials 158 years ago to trust in the goodwill of former Confederates rather than focus on justice for everyone else seemed at the time to be the honorable and best course for healing the divided nation. But it ended up protecting the Confederates’ ideology and disheartening those who had fought for the United States.
“When the Union men of those States who have suffered every kind of outrage, who have been fined, mobbed, imprisoned, and have seen their Union neighbors hunted and tortured and hung for their fidelity to the Government, see … a conspicuous, leading traitor hastily pardoned by the President that he may become Governor,” wrote Harper’s Weekly a little more than a year after Lee surrendered,
“When they see members of the Cabinet deliberately annulling the law of the land in order to appoint late rebels to national offices, while the most noted and tried Union men in the insurgent States ask in vain for such recognition of their fidelity, how can such men help bitterly feeling the contemptuous scorn with which the triumphant rebels regard them? How can they help asking why they might not as well have been rebels? How can they help the conviction that the policy of the Executive is conciliation of rebels and not recognition of Union men, or avoid asking with intense incredulity whether this is the way in which treason is to be made odious?”