Remembering Appomattox

“Robert E. Lee leaving the McLean House following his surrender to Ulysses S. Grant,” by Alfred R. Waud, April 9, 1865, pencil on yellow tracing paper, Library of Congress.

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Remembering Appomattox

by Edward L. Ayers
Southern Cultures, Vol. 21, No. 4: Winter 2015

“People see in the events at Appomattox what they want to see: testimony to Americans’ shared greatness or testimony to promises unfulfilled. Both of those things are real.”

The meaning of the events at the McLean House on April 9, 1865, seem firmly embedded in our national story. In our country’s understanding, Appomattox is America at its best. The gentlemanly drama on this landscape showed Americans to be principled, generous, and fundamentally decent. The shaking of hands, the refusal of the sword, the unpretentious setting, the role of the Seneca Eli Parker, the humility of General Grant—all those things tell us that the bloodletting of the previous four years had been an anomaly. The paired stories of Confederate soldiers permitted to keep their horses and guns and of them melting away, suddenly civilians, back to their homes, has reassured generations of Americans that Americans are different from other nations. We are fundamentally unwarlike, fundamentally unified.