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Thursday, April 9, 2015

Why Everyone Should Remember this Day - April 9th, and Why it Matters

Special to the Acoustic Americana Music Guide, commemorating the end of the Civil War and major events 150 years ago today, April 9th.

Great and Shocking History: April 9th-April 15th, and How it's Still with Us

By Larry Wines

We're in a seven-day span of crucial times from a century and a half past. Few anniversaries in history mark events that shaped our world by bringing culmination and finality while telescoping sublime and terrible events in close proximity. That was the week of April 9 to April 15, 1865.

One hundred fifty years, on April 9, 1865, the Army of Northern Virginia under the command of Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to the Army of the Potomac under the command of Union General Ulyssess S. Grant.

It marked the end of the dream - and the threat - of two separate American nations.

Let's step back, and see how that day - and that week - still speak to us in our time.

First, the incongruity of a starving army in tattered rags whose commander, Lee, still had  an immaculate dress uniform. He arrived wearing it and riding his famous horse, Traveller. (USC's mascot horse, Traveller, ridden at football games by Tommy Trojan, is named for General Lee's steed.)

Grant arrived in his field uniform, spattered with mud from his hard ride to get there. His attire, routinely, was the least pretentious of any general officer of the time. It was a standard private's uniform with his general's stars affixed to the shoulders. (It would serve as the model for General Omar Bradley in World War II.)

Lee and Grant met near the village of Appomattox Court House, Virginia. It has a name that sounds like a single building because the town was the county seat, and therefore the location of the county courthouse.

Specifically, Lee and Grant met in the living room of the farm house of the McLean family. And therein is an amazing tale that's a fascinating part of all this.

The McLean family's farm of four years earlier had been 142 miles away, nearer to Washington, D.C., just outside the town of Manassas, Virginia. The creek that ran through their farm was called Bull Run. And that's where the opening battle of the Civil War was fought between moving armies in April, 1861.

Like the vast majority of all the battles in the long, bloody war that was to follow, the Battle of First Bull Run (as it was called by the Union) / First Manassas (as it was called by the South) was a Confederate victory. In fact, it was a rout, and the Union troops - who were dressed in a confusing array of colors and not yet all clad in blue - didn't stop running until they crossed the Potomac River, out of Confederate Virginia and back into D.C. Meanwhile, the Confederate troops that day wore such a multiplicity of colors - militia uniforms and more - that some Northerners mistook them for Union troops. It could have been a comedy, but it was a bloody, confusing melee.

Near Manassas and the creek called Bull Run, where that battle had been fought, wasthe a farm. It was the family farm of Wilmer McLean, whose land was left pocked with shell craters, strewn with bodies of men and horses, and terrifyingly damaged by a Union cannonball that had crashed through his chimney while Confederate General Bureauregard had sat at McLean's dining table.

One battle, the war's first battle, and already, Wilmer McLean had enough. He resolved to move his family safely downstate "where the war could never find us again."

And the war didn't find them - for four years, to the month. Until a series of skirmishes in April, 1865, wherein Grant's army, at last, decisively outmaneuvered Lee's.

It had been a long war. Union blockades of the Southern coast had kept-out supplies from Europe and stopped cotton exports needed to support the Confederate economy. In Southern cities by 1865, civilians ate dogs, cats, then rats. Lee's army in the field had hunted game until nothing was left and stripped agricultural lands bare. With no food and almost no ammunition, then finally cut off from all hope of even meager relief or resupply, it brought a choice: either take to the woods in small guerilla bands, or surrender.

General Lee could not contemplate the first. He knew, at last, that he could not continue to fight.

Somehow, Wilmer McLean, that refugee who had relocated from the war's opening battle, was encountered by members of Lee's staff and asked for a meeting place. He offered a building with no furniture. Unacceptable. That led to McLean's own attractive farmhouse where General Lee would meet General Grant.

And, so, Wilmer McClain, who had uprooted his home and family four years earlier to avoid the conflict, made available his home, his refuge from the war. Following which he is supposed to have said, "The war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor."

The small table on which Grant wrote the surrender terms was immediately seen as historic. But then, there was something of a mad effort by the Union officer corps to take all the McLeans' furniture over the man's protests, and money was simply shoved into his hands as the contents of his house disappeared. Union Cavalry General Phil Sheridan "bought" the little table for $20 as a gift for Mrs. George Armstrong Custer, wife of the "boy general" whom Sheridan declared "Did more to win the war than anyone else!"

Of far greater substance, Grant arranged for his army to share its food with the surrendering Confederates, who had not eaten anything in days.

Union General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was given formal responsibility to accept the surrender of the 27,800+ Confederate troops. Chamberlain, the professor of rhetoric from Bowdoin College who had engaged in collusion to get away from school and into the army, had miraculously held his 20th Maine Infantry against dogged Confederate assaults - and with it - saved the Union line at Gettysburg.  Now, at Appomattox, he called the Union army to attention to salute the defeated Southerners as they arrived to stack their arms, roll-up their battle flags, and receive food. Enabling the defeated enemy to retain dignity was seen as brilliant in preventing later violence.

With Lee's army gone and its troops pacified, the end of the Confederate States of America was a foregone conclusion. What remained to be determined, with other Confederate armies still in the field, was whether there would be rancor and guerilla activities or an acceptance by who had been adversaries that they were, as Grant proclaimed, fellow countrymen once again.

Still to be fulfilled was Lincoln's pledge to welcome back the seceeded Southern states, "With malice toward none, with charity for all... to bind up the nation's wounds," and his promise to veterans, "To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan."

In the previous week, following the withdrawal of Lee's army to prevent its annihilation, Richmond, the Confederate capital, quickly fell, on April 3. President Lincoln immediately made the trip to Richmond on April 4, finally achieving the symbolic political end of the rebellion.

It was an inctedible sight: Abraham Lincoln in whatbeen had been the heart of Dixie. There, quietly, he sat at the desk of Jefferson Davis in the Confederate White House, and he walked the ruined city where he was greeted by freed slaves as "Father Abraham!"

Somewhere, Lincoln picked up some Confederate currency.

A huge sense of relief was felt by those responsible for the president's safety when he returned to D.C.

But it wasn't all over. On April 12th, the important Gulf coast port of Mobile, Alabama surrendered to the Union.

On April 13th, soldiers of the two armies fought a skirmish at Raleigh, North Carolina.

April 14, the U.S. flag was raised again over Fort Sumter, South Carolina, for the first time since the fort fell to the Confederacy.

Just five days after Appomatox, with the daily stress of the war finally passed, the First Lady would succeed in getting her husband to accompany her to the closing night performance, April 14, 1865, of "Our American Cousin." Starring renowned actress Miss Laura Keene, it was a delightful comedy, ending its run at a theatre a few blocks from the White House.

Arriving late and taking their places in a box at Ford's Theatre bedecked with flags and prominently visible to all above stage left, the theatre band briefly interrupted the play to perform a few bars of "Hail to the Chief" and accomodate brief, polite applause. The president removed his famous stovepipe hat and settled back in his chair to - at long last - relax and lose himself to light, joyous art.

Abraham Lincoln had preserved the Union against all odds, been more ridiculed and villified than any president in our history, ended slavery when that seemed politically impossible, been greeted for the evening with only quiet applause - at last, was able to relax.

And there, President Lincoln became the first American president to be assassinated. He was shot the evening of April 14th. The nation would learn of it in their morning papers on April 15th, as Lincoln died.

Among the few possessions he had with him that night? His little souvenir, the Confederate currency.

Another note on disaster striking April 14th and death coming from it early on April 15th. Forty-seven years later to the day in 1912, RMS Titanic struck an iceberg on the evening of April 14th and sank on the morning of the 15th, with terrible loss of life.

But there's more to tell about those who were at McLean's Farm at Appomottax on that April 9th, 1865, 150 years ago. What became of them:

•  Robert E. Lee, who remains the only person ever to graduate from West Point with no demerits and a perfect, spotless record, would become president of Washington College. The institution would go on to be renamed Washington & Lee University. He is buried there in a crypt worthy of Caesar. "Marse Robert," as his troops called him to one another but never to his face, is still the most respected battlefield commander in American history.

•  U.S. Grant would be elected U.S. President in 1868, in time to celebrate the driving of the Golden Spike in May, 1869, marking the completion of the first transcontinental railway begun by Lincoln. It was the great feat of the age. But what of Grant himself? While he was wholly honest, his administration would be plagued with scandals of insiders on the take and his inability to see them coming. These included crooks who robbed Native American tribes they were paid to supply onthe the reservations, but who they instead starved while getting rich. Grant's presidency concluded with the Centennial of the United States in 1876, having overcome Southern secession. Grant, dying of throat cancer from his addiction to cigars, took great satisfaction in seeing the nation achieve its centennial free from the slavery of its founding. (It would be nearer the nation's bicentennial before America would be free from the hypocrisy that professed its devotion to "self-evident" truths, "that all men are created equal.")

•  Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, despite enduring painful war wounds for the rest of his life, would be elected to five terms as Governor of Maine, then become president of Bowdoin College. He proudly took part in the reunions of the armies at Gettysburg. He lived until 1914, to age 85, a very old age for the time. The 1990s movie, "Gettysburg," took him from obscurity to hero. Watch a scene showing Jeff Daniels as Chamberlain demonstrating his inspiring rhetorical prowess:

•  General Phil Sheridan, who bought the surrender table for Libby Custer, fought in later years in the Indian Wars of the Great Plains. Today, he is more happily remembered, both as soldier and private citizen, for his key role in the development and protection of Yellowstone National Park.

•  George Armstrong Custer was a lousy student at West Point who, in contrast with Lee's perfect record at the Military Academy, accumulated more demerits there than anyone, ever.  It shocked everyone that Custer became the cavalry genius of the war. He would culminate that by famously and dashingly galloping down Pennsylvania Avenue during the great parade of the returning Union armies to the Nation's Capitol. He is remembered, far more, for a battle in Montana in 1876, where he was to meet the largest force of Sioux (Lakota) and Cheyenne ever to take to a battleground. With every member of his command, Custer would perish there on a ridgetop above the Little Bighorn River in the much romanticized "Custer's Last Stand."

And what of the little table, upon which Grant wrote the surrender terms, given to Custer's wife as a gift from General Sheridan? It was kept in the Custer family for years, and it eventually went to the Smithsonian Museum of American History where it can be seen today.

Libby Custer, the table's owner, would devote her life to building her husband's legend - which she did in her time with great effect.  Through all the subsequent reinterpretations, even those who seek to make him appear inept or insane, Custer shares something with others who were above his pay grade that day at Appomottax: legend. Like Robert Edward Lee and Ulysesses Simpson Grant, every American who knows any history still knows the name of George Armstrong Custer.

Much later, a famous actress would say, "I don't care what they say about me, as long as they spell my name right in the papers."

That's offered as an observation. It seems history can also offer some advice:

Never underestimate the value of being there. Or having a spouse who is your champion.

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