“There is nothing left for me to do,” said Robert E. Lee in the early morning of April 9, 1865, “but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths." A few hours later, Lee rode to Appomattox courthouse, where Ulysses S. Grant accepted the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, effectively ending the most murderous war in American history. It is an article of American exceptionalism’s faith that what happened at Appomattox 150 years ago yesterday was steeped in honor and mutual respect, Grant generous in victory, Lee noble in defeat. The war was over, the union preserved, the nation ready to heal. Except, writes, Elizabeth Varon in Appomattox, “The two men represented competing visions of the peace. For Grant, the Union victory was one of right over wrong.” For Lee it “was one of might over right,” won by massive firepower and human slaughter. Grant foresaw a better future; Lee sought the restoration of a mythic past.
Grant won the war. Lee won the peace. Grant became the brutal “butcher,” despite a casualty rate half that of the gentlemanly Lee. “The Lost Cause” exemplified the South’s pastoral alternative to the North’s soulless factories and urban slums. And Tara, Gone With the Wind’s dreamy plantation, captured America's popular imagination as the "slave camps" that, Edward Baptist writes, “inflicted torture far more often than in almost any human society that ever existed,” never could.
It’s time, I think, to change our narrative and accept our past.