End, Beginning, and Transition: April 1865

(This post first appeared in Civil Warriors, April 10, 2006)

As several Civil War bloggers noted yesterday, April 9 marks the day when Robert E. Lee agreed to Ulysses S. Grant’s terms for the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Wilmer McLean’s home in Appomattox Court House, Virginia. I want to spend some time reflecting on the events of that month, because I think that to do so challenges us to confront the traditional bifurcation of war and peace, or civil war and reconstruction, as well as to highlight the gulf between some students of the Civil War and some students of Reconstruction. Mark and I coedited a volume addressing some of these very questions when we examined war termination in The Collapse of the Confederacy (University of Nebraska Press, 2001); it’s interesting to wrap together the essays Mark, Steve, and I did in that volume and see how they play off each other.

Among the reflections I came across yesterday, one particularly moved me to respond. In “Rantings of a Civil War Historian,” Eric Wittenberg writes:

“Abraham Lincoln had intended to let the South up easy, and had Lincoln not been assassinated, the face of Reconstruction would have been very different indeed. The fact that Lincoln was assassinated by a Confederate sympathizer gave the Radical Republicans an excuse to impose harsh terms upon the South instead of following Lincoln’s plan.”

I often agree with Eric, and there are other parts of his posts where I am in vigorous agreement, including his assessment of Jay Winik’s April 1865, which offers little new that had not been argued before and omits much that could be of some help. Here I dissent.

First, what did Lincoln intend to do? We don’t know. Oh, sure, he liked the terms Grant issued at Appomattox, and in fact had set the table for those terms during his conference with Grant and Sherman aboard the River Queen in late March 1865. But on April 11, in his last public address, Lincoln openly broached the notion of limited suffrage from African Americans in the South . . . and most former Confederates would not have seen such a step as letting them up easy. To be sure, Lincoln did not want treason trials and the like, but he intended that white Southerners would have to end slavery as well as surrender their dreams of independence, terms Confederate representatives had rejected only months before. Lincoln himself admitted that with the ending of the war (with Lee’s surrender that was now plainly in sight) that he would have to reconsider his wartime reconstruction proposals: such was the key issue in the April 14 cabinet meeting, which proved to be Lincoln’s last. We can speculate on what Lincoln was going to do, but other than offering well-considered guesses, we can’t go too far, because Lincoln himself was not sure what he was going to do. I’ve argued that the people who confidently predict what Lincoln would have done tell us at least as much about themselves as about Lincoln.

Second, the most important impact of Lincoln’s assassination was that Andrew Johnson became president. One can indeed argue that Reconstruction might have been very different under Lincoln than under Johnson, largely because the two men were so different. Would Abraham Lincoln have called Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner traitors? Would Lincoln have treated Frederick Douglass like dirt? Would Lincoln have “swung around the circle,”during the 1866 off-year election campaign, comparing himself to Jesus Christ? Would Lincoln have vetoed the Civil Rights Bill of 1866 and the Freedmen’s Bureau Act of early 1866? Would Lincoln have tolerated anti-black white supremacist terrorism? Would Lincoln have issued race-baiting veto messages? Would Lincoln have shamed black veterans upon their return from the front? Just to raise these questions is to remind us of the sort of fellow Andrew Johnson was. And yet Eric focuses on the Radical Republicans, and says that Lincoln’s death allowed them to impose a harsh peace upon the South.

I disagree. First, the programs Johnson opposed in 1866 were framed by moderate Republicans. Radicals saw the Civil Rights Act, the first Freedmen’s Bureau Bill of 1866, and the Fourteenth Amendment as half-way measures, not coming close to the plans offered by Stevens and Sumner. Johnson (and the white South) opposed those measures. What made “radical” Reconstruction possible was how many white Southerners and Johnson himself acted in the years 1865-1867; there would have been no “military” Reconstruction had white Southerners followed the policy set forth in 1866. Indeed, many white Southerners complained under Johnson’s lenient policy of 1865, and sought to circumvent it when possible. To blame the Radical Republicans for this is simply wrong. Second, the Radicals only reluctantly accepted the premises of the Reconstruction Acts of 1867, which called for the fairly rapid restoration of civil government in ten former Confederate states (by ratifying the Fourteenth Amendment, Tennessee won exclusion from that legislation). Radicals did not want the rapid restoration of civil government because they believed that the resulting regimes would rest upon shaky foundations, and, as it turned out, they were right. Whatever one wants to make of the Radicals’ motives, the policies of 1866 and 1867 were but tepid versions of what they wanted.

The events of April 1865 did not end the Civil War: they marked a point of transition in a larger struggle that one could argue stretched back to the 1850s and even 1840s, and that continued on into the 1870s and perhaps even longer. Kevin Levin’s on the right track here in his comment on the events of April 1865. I’d make the point even stronger, in that Lee’s famed General Order No. 9, issued on this date in 1865, is one of the first expressions of the Lost Cause Myth: although the men of the Army of Northern Virginia had displayed “unsurpassed courage and fortitude,” they had been “compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources.” The romance of the meeting at the McLean home and the events at Surrender Triangle need revisiting, for not all was settled.

The events of Reconstruction offer us something to reflect upon in today’s world; for that to happen, however, we must first understand them on their own terms, and it has been a signal failing of Reconstruction scholarship that it has failed to make a significant dent in mainstream understandings of that contested era. Nor is that something that we historians of the Civil War ought to leave to other historians (and thereby embrace this false dichotomy): for Reconstruction had much to do with determining what the Civil War achieved and what it means.