I’m currently reading the biography of Grant by Chernow, and I’ve just gotten to Appomattox. It was kind of distressing reading. Robert E. Lee shows up all stuffy and pompous, and Grant is all charitable and humane, and everyone from Lincoln on down to the press and the Washington establishment, and apparently, Chernow, (all white folks, by the way) are patting each other on the back about how the generous terms given to the traitors will lead to reconciliation and unity, while I’m reading this from the perspective of the 21st century. I can’t help but think, given the century and a half of abuses and oppression, that maybe, rather than a grand gesture of forgiveness, it was all a terrible mistake. Maybe Lee and his generals should have been arrested and imprisoned, maybe even hanged. Maybe the tabled suggestion to restructure the borders and governments of the Confederate states should have been implemented. Maybe the much-praised gentleness of Lincoln and Grant at the end of the war was an overly kind gift to a nation of racists and terrorists that allowed the “original sin” of the United States to fester anew.
I’m finding it disconcerting that the account of the war itself praised Grant’s strategy of total war, and Sherman’s and Sheridan’s ruthless actions to bring an end to the conflict as quickly as possible, yet we abruptly switch to nothing but confidence that the conciliatory approach was the best way to handle the victory. It smacks of hagiography. It has led to a situation where Southern cities maintain celebratory statues of traitors, and name streets and parks and schools after them, and a still divided country where racism is tolerated.
What if, instead of trials, the perpetrators of Nazi atrocities had instead been embraced and forgiven, and even praised for their administrative and military skill, all in the name of smoothing over the transition to peace? Because that’s what we did, and the historians and biographers are still reassuring us that what we did in America was the wisest choice.
I haven’t gotten to Chernow’s discussion of the Grant presidency or Reconstruction yet, so maybe there’ll be a more balanced discussion of the failings of America’s post-war policies to come. Right now it’s all very Whiggish, and I’m feeling less impressed with Chernow.
Imagine a Federal leadership that had Lee sign his surrender at Appomattox, and then slapped irons on his wrists, put him in a wagon with bars, and shipped the racist slave-holding traitor off to trial in Washington. We’d be a better country now, I think, with precedent set.
I think I need to read a black scholar’s perspective on the Civil War, because these pleasant reassurances that our country did the right thing aren’t so reassuring any more.