April 8-9, 1865: A Legacy that still haunts us

On April 8, 1865, General Ulysses S. Grant was having a hard night.

His army had been harrying the treasonous “Confederate General” Lee’s rabble for days, and Grant knew it was only a question of time before Lee had to surrender. The people in the Virginia countryside were starving, and Lee’s army was melting away. Just that morning a Confederate colonel had thrown himself on Grant’s mercy after realizing that he was the only man in his entire regiment who had not already abandoned the cause. But while Grant had twice asked Lee to surrender, Lee still insisted his men could fight on.

So, on the night of April 8, Grant retired to bed in a Virginia farmhouse, dirty, tired, and miserable with a migraine. He spent the night “bathing my feet in hot water and mustard and putting mustard plasters on my wrists and the back part of my neck, hoping to be cured by morning.” It didn’t work. When morning came, Grant pulled on his clothes from the day before and rode out to the head of his column with his head throbbing.

As he rode, an escort arrived with a note from Lee requesting an interview for the purpose of surrendering his so-called “Army of Northern Virginia.”

“When the officer reached me, I was still suffering with the sick headache,” Grant recalled, “but the instant I saw the contents of the note I was cured.”

The two men met in the home of Wilmer McLean in the village of Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Lee had dressed grandly for the occasion in a brand-new general’s uniform carrying a dress sword; Grant wore simply the “rough garb” of a private with the shoulder straps of a lieutenant general.

But the images of the wealthy, noble South and the humble North hid a very different reality. As soon as the papers were signed, Lee told Grant his men were starving and asked if the Union general could provide the “Confederates” with rations. Grant didn’t hesitate. “Certainly,” he responded, before asking how many men needed food. He took Lee’s answer—”about twenty-five thousand”—in stride, telling the general that “he could have…all the provisions wanted.”

By spring 1865, the white supremacist treasonous “Confederates” who had ridden off to war four years before boasting that their wealthy aristocrats would beat the North’s moneygrubbing shopkeepers in a single battle were broken and starving, while, backed by a booming industrial economy, the Union army could provide rations for twenty-five thousand men on a moment’s notice.

The Civil War was won not by the dashing sons of wealthy planters, but by men like Grant, who dragged himself out of his blankets and pulled a dirty soldier’s uniform over his pounding head on an April morning because he knew he had to get up and get to work.

Soldiers and sailors of the United States had defeated the armies and the navy of the treasonous “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 and to enslave “those people.”  Southern politicians claimed the Founders had made a terrible mistake when they declared, “All men are created equal.” 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.

They 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.

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.   Led by the treasonous “United Daughters of the Confederacy” and “Sons of Confederate Veterans” they generated the myth of “The Lost Cause”; in the late 19th Century they started erecting statues to the traitors who led the rebellion against the nation as well as putting in place the “Black Codes” and “Jim Crow” laws that essentially restored slavery.

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 execut3e or jail the traitors, and, 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” 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?”

Meanwhile, for 150 years following their defeat, the sons of the traitors who formed the “Confederate States of America” voted unanimously for the Democratic Party and continued to press to idea of white supremacy. . . until July 1948 when Democratic President Harry Truman ordered the de-segregation of the US armed forces. 

After Roosevelt died, the new president Harry S. Truman established a highly visible President’s Committee on Civil Rights and issued Executive Order 9981 to end discrimination in the military in 1948. A group of Southern governors, including Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Fielding L. Wright of Mississippi, met to consider the place of Southerners within the Democratic Party. After a tense meeting with Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairman and Truman confidant J. Howard McGrath, the Southern governors agreed to convene their own convention in Birmingham, Alabama, if Truman and civil rights supporters emerged victorious at the 1948 Democratic National Convention.  In July, the convention nominated Truman to run for a full term and adopted a plank proposed by Northern liberals led by Hubert Humphrey calling for civil rights; 35 Southern delegates walked out. The move was on to remove Truman’s name from the ballot in the southern United States. This political maneuvering required the organization of a new and distinct political party, which the Southern defectors from the Democratic Party chose to brand as the States’ Rights Democratic Party – the “Dixiecrats” for short.  (Thurmond, later a Representative then Senator, himself had fathered a mixed-race child with a Black maid in his family’s home.)

Following President Lyndon Johnson’s passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, the solidly Democratic old “Confederacy” began to crumble, spurred on by Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” aimed at attracting Southern whites who were viscerally angry at the Democratic Party’s embrace of equal justice and equal rights, especially voting rights.  Nixon and later Reagan completed the transition of the white supremacist South from solidly Democratic to solidly Democratic Republican.

Today’s Republican South still holds to many of the myths that led to treason and rebellion in the furtherance of the claim that one “race” of people should have the right to control, own, and enslave another “race.”  And that, folks, is the legacy of April 8-9, 1865.