History, History Column

”Secession is Nothing But Revolution” – Lee Surrenders

by ©2022 Sarah Becker

On April 1, 1865, Union General Philip H. Sheridan, in the last important battle of the Civil War, crushed a Confederate assault at Five Forks, Virginia. The Confederate army withdrew from Petersburg the next day. On April 3 Union troops entered Petersburg and Richmond—the Confederate capital—and the South’s War of Northern Aggression, America’s Civil War came to an end. President Abraham Lincoln [R-IL] arrived in Richmond on April 5 and settled into Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ chair.

“The South, in my opinion, has been aggrieved by the acts of the North,” Confederate General Robert E. Lee told Confederate General A.L. King in his Memoirs of Robert E. Lee. “I feel the aggression and am willing to take every proper step for redress. It is the principle I contend for, not individual or private benefit. As an American citizen I take great pride in my country, her prosperity, and her institutions, and would defend any State if her rights were invaded. But I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union. It would be an accumulation of all the evils we complained of, and I am willing to sacrifice everything but honor for its preservation. I hope, therefore, that all constitutional means will be exhausted before there is resort to force.”

“Secession is nothing but revolution,” Lee continued. “The framers of our Constitution never exhausted so much labor, wisdom and forbearance in its formation, and surrounded it with so many guards and securities, if it was intended to be broken by every member of the Confederacy at will. It is intended for ‘perpetual union,’ so expressed in the preamble.” Lee was the son of Revolutionary War hero Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee.

Union General Ulysses S. Grant called for Lee’s surrender on April 7. Pined Lee just prior to the army’s surrender, “I know they will say hard things of us: they will not understand how we were overwhelmed by numbers. But that is not the question: The question is, is it right to surrender this army?” Lee surrendered to Grant on April 9, 1865—at Appomattox Court House in Virginia.

Less than a week later—on April 14, 1865—President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by Southern patriot John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre. Vice President Andrew Johnson [D-TN], described as a “hard-drinking, racist, self-made man from Tennessee,” succeeded him.

“‘The sovereignty of the States’ is the language of the Confederacy, not the language of the Constitution,” President Johnson stressed in his First Annual Address on December 4, 1865.

Reconstruction, as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary: “the period 1865 and 1877 during which the states of the Confederacy were controlled by the federal government before being readmitted to the Union.” Segregated Virginia was readmitted to the Union on January 26, 1870—after accepting the 15th Amendment. The last of the three Reconstruction amendments, Amendment 15 was ratified on March 30, 1870.

Amendment 15: Section 1. “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Voting rights remain a hot topic especially when discussing Black Codes and Jim Crow, Jim Crow and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The latter enabled the Federal government to suspend all literacy, knowledge or character tests for voting in areas where less than 50% of the voting age population is registered.

Robert E. Lee—former Confederate General, Virginia loyalist, and college president—died as a result of a stroke on October 12, 1870. Thirteen years later, in 1883, the United States Supreme Court ruled the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional.

The Civil Rights Act of 1875: “Be it enacted…That all persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall be entitled to the full and equal and enjoyment of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement; subject only to the conditions and limitations established by law, and applicable alike to citizens of every race and color, regardless of any previous condition of servitude. And…That no citizen possessing all other qualifications which are or may be prescribed by law shall be disqualified for service as grand or petit juror in any court of the United States, or of any State, on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

According to the Virginia Museum of History & Culture, “White Virginia legislators had ‘restored white supremacy through segregation’ in 1890. The ‘Lost Cause’ narrative was developed by former Confederates, who claimed that states’ rights, not slavery, caused the war; that enslaved blacks remained faithful to their masters; and that the South was defeated only by overwhelming numerical and industrial strength.” Confederates made their case the same year two rival women’s organizations—the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association—united and became the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

The South’s racial segregation strategy, its Jim Crow strategy began in 1887. Blacks largely disappeared from juries, and soon after “White Only” became the sign of the times. It was in this year that a time capsule, a box of Civil War artifacts was placed in the cornerstone of Richmond’s 1890 statue of deceased Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The box was found in December 2021 when the controversial bronze statue was removed from Richmond’s Monument Avenue.

“We are our own trumpeters,” Lt. Colonel Lee wrote in 1847, “and it is so much more easy to make heroes on paper than in the field.”

“Our controversy is not one of the past, it is of the present,” Presidential candidate Benjamin Harrison [R-IN] explained in February 1888. “What is it that we ask? Simply that the South live up to the terms of the surrender at Appomattox…We ask nothing more of the South than that they shall cease to use this recovered citizenship, which they had forfeited by rebellion, to oppress and disenfranchise those who equally with themselves under the Constitution are entitled to vote….”

Harrison, grandson of Virginia’s Benjamin Harrison a signer of the 1776 Declaration of Independence was elected President in 1888. “How long will those who rejoice that slavery no longer exists cherish or tolerate the incapacities it put upon their communities?” President Harrison asked in his March 4, 1889, Inaugural Address. “I look hopefully to the continuance of our protective system and to the consequent development of manufacturing and mining enterprises in the States hitherto wholly given to agriculture as a potent influence in the perfect unification of our people.”

Unify, as defined by the American Heritage dictionary: “to make into or become a unit; consolidate.”

“I do not doubt that if those men in the South who now accept the tariff views of [Henry] Clay and the constitutional expositions of [Daniel] Webster would courageously avow and defend their real convictions they would not find it difficult, by friendly instruction and cooperation, to make the black man their efficient and safe ally,” Harrison continued, “not only in establishing correct principles in our national administration, but in preserving for their local communities the benefits of social order and economical and honest government. At least until the good offices of kindness and education have been fairly tried.” Harrison, a former Colonel in the Union army, favored “National aid to education” for Negroes especially and “a free and unmolested exercise of suffrage.”

Virginians, for the most part, rejected Harrison’s message. The city of Alexandria’s Confederate Statue—Appomattox—was dedicated on May 24, 1889 [Confederate Memorial Day]. “The statue, a beautiful figure which ornaments the streets of historic Alexandria, is [fated] to become a beacon-light in the work of reconciliation between the North and South,” The Washington Post reported the next day. Former Confederate President Jefferson Davis declined his invitation to attend.

In 1890 Virginia declared Robert E. Lee’s January birthday an emblematic holiday. The Commonwealth also confirmed Appomattox’s permanence: “Whereas it is the desire of the said Robert E. Lee Camp of Confederate Veterans and also the citizens and inhabitants of said City of Alexandria that such monument shall remain in its present position as a perpetual and lasting testimonial to the courage, fidelity and patriotism of the heroes whose memory it was erected…the permission so given by the said City Council of Alexandria for its erection shall not be repealed, revoked, altered, modified, or changed by any future Council or other municipal power or authority.”

The Robert E. Lee Camp copyrighted The Confederate Statue in 1892. Why, because it was the copycats meow. The soldier, a private, embodied “the complete history of the lost cause graphically presented to posterity.”

The bronze Confederate Statue is the creation of Confederate veteran and Fredericksburg, Virginia, artist John A. Elder. It is born of a “clay model of the figure in his painting Appomattox.” Elder’s oil painting, the property of the State of Virginia, includes a Confederate soldier pensively perusing the battlefield.

The Confederate soldier—Appomattox—carries no weapon; wears a hat, shoulder bag and canteen. His arms are folded, his eyes cast downward. He reflects on the past—and the surrender. Said Lee when asked about sadness, “I’m thinking of the men who were lost after I knew it was too late.”

“We must expect reverses, even defeats,” General Lee wrote President Davis in 1863. “They are sent to teach us wisdom and prudence, to call forth greater energies, and to prevent our falling into greater disasters.”

Defeat is “to win victory over; to prevent the success of.” What does the Confederacy’s defeat teach us? That defeat is not the end; it is the beginning of something new. The extent of the defeat is determined by how well the defeated and the victor adjust. On May 1, 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant [R-IL] invited Washington College President Robert E. Lee to the White House. He accepted.

“The march of Providence is so slow and our desires so impatient; the work of progress so immense and our means of aiding it so feeble; the life of humanity is so long, that of the individual so brief, that we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave and are thus discouraged,” Lee thought. “It is history that teaches us to hope.”

If hope inspires change, then to what extent have America and the South: Virginia and the city of Alexandria really changed? With regard to: voting rights, elections, and campaign finance reform; districts, gerrymandering, and sway; the literal of woman’s equal rights; schools, elemental education, and the story of the Lost Cause. In January 2022 the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th [2021] Attack on the United States Capitol announced that it is considering changes to the 1887 Electoral Count Act.

In 1861 the Union army’s Col. Elmer Ellsworth was shot dead attempting to remove a Confederate flag from atop an Alexandria hotel. Alexandria’s first ever “flying of the Confederate flag policy” was approved in 1970; reviewed in 1991. Alexandria’s Appomattox Statue was separated from its pedestal in 2020 and the Boyhood Home of Robert E. Lee now trades as the Potts-Fitzhugh House. General A.P. Hill’s bronze statue, the last of Richmond’s “major Confederate Statues” is in the process of removal.

Of greater interest perhaps, on January 5, 2022, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards [D-LA] pardoned Homer Plessy posthumously. Plessy, a mixed race shoemaker, violated Louisiana’s Separate Car Act in 1892.  [Plessy v. Ferguson 163U.S.537 (1896)]  The Governor’s “ambitious aim: confronting a painful and shameful history that Plessy’s case came to represent.”

Turnaround, as defined by the American Heritage dictionary: “turnabout, a shift or reversal in allegiance or direction.”

“Madam, don’t bring up your sons to detest the United States Government,” Lee wrote a complaining mother soon after surrender. “Recollect that we form but one country, now. Abandon all these local animosities and make your sons American.”

About the Author: Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007.

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