Part 8: Wars End & Reconstruction
From the onset of the Civil War the major battles fought were primarily won by the Confederates, with a few scattered wins for the Union. The momentum was in favor of the South until Gettysburg. Although the total losses suffered by both sides were almost equal, Lee lost a third of his general officers which was a blow that may have played a role in the tide turning towards the Union. Whatever the case may be, things did not go well for the Confederacy after Gettysburg and on April 19, 1865, with his forces surrounded and outnumbered, Lee chose to surrender instead of waste any more lives fighting battles he knew he could not win.
Prior to researching for this I had already known most of that. What I did not know is that prior to the actual surrender Lee and Grant had exchanged a series of letters, with Grant explaining the hopelessness of Lee’s situation, and Lee asking Grant the terms of any surrender. Lee himself may have realized that they were outnumbered and faced total annihilation, but he still had some fighting spirit left in him.
On April 7, 1865 Grant sent Lee a short letter stating, “The results of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia in this struggle. I feel that it is so, and regard it as my duty to shift from myself the responsibility of any further effusion of blood by asking of you the surrender of that portion of the Confederate States army known as the Army of Northern Virginia.”
Lee responded by saying, “I have received your note of this date. Though not entertaining the opinion you express of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia, I reciprocate your desire to avoid useless effusion of blood, and therefore, before considering your proposition, ask the terms you will offer on condition of its surrender.”
General Grant read Lee’s response and sent the following to Lee in return, “Your note of last evening in reply to mine of the same date, asking the conditions on which I will accept the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, is just received. In reply I would say that, peace being my great desire, there is but one condition I would insist upon,–namely, that the men and officers surrendered shall be disqualified for taking up arms against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged. I will meet you, or will designate officers to meet any officers you may name for the same purpose, at any point agreeable to you, for the purpose of arranging definitely the terms upon which the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia will be received.”
As these series of letters were being sent back and forth between Grant and Lee fighting was still going on. No one knows whether that weighed heavily upon Lee and influenced his decision to meet with Grant formally for terms of surrender. It is questionable that Lee, at that moment, considered surrendering because his next letter to Grant stated, “I received at a late hour your note of to-day. In mine of yesterday I did not intend to propose the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, but to ask the terms of your proposition. To be frank, I do not think the emergency has arisen to call for the surrender of this army, but, as the restoration of peace should be the sole object of all, I desired to know whether your proposals would lead to that end. I cannot, therefore, meet you with a view to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia; but as far as your proposal may affect the Confederate States forces under my command, and tend to the restoration of peace, I should be pleased to meet you at 10 A.M. to-morrow on the old state road to Richmond, between the picket-lines of the two armies.”
Lee finally agreed to meet and arrived at Appomattox Court House before Grant. The two generals chit chatted about having met once prior to the onset of current hostilities when Lee asked Grant to put the terms of surrender down on paper. Grant did so and Lee, seeing that they were acceptable, agreed to them.
The terms were as follows, “In accordance with the substance of my letter to you of the 8th instant, I propose to receive the surrender of the army of Northern Virginia on the following terms, to wit: Rolls of all the officers and men to be made in duplicate, one copy to be given to an officer to be designated by me, the other to be retained by such officer or officers as you may designate. The officers to give their individual paroles not to take up arms against the government of the United States until properly exchanged; and each company or regimental commander to sign a like parole for the men of their commands. The arms, artillery, and public property to be parked and stacked, and turned over to the officers appointed by me to receive them. This will not embrace the side-arms of the officers nor their private horses or baggage. This done, each officer and man will be allowed to return to his home, not to be disturbed by United States authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.”
Lee’s answer was short and to the point, “I received your letter of this date containing the terms of the surrender of the army of Northern Virginia, as proposed by you. As they are substantially the same as those expressed in your letter of the 8th instant, they are accepted. I will proceed to designate the proper officers to carry the stipulations into effect.” With those exchanges of paper the war had ended, nearly four years to the day that it had begun, and at a cost of over half a million lives and unimaginable damage to property and they psyche of the people.
Grants terms were relatively simple, put down your guns, stop fighting, obey the laws of the Union and you can go home, live your lives, and we won’t bother you anymore. Unfortunately, that is not how things went. It has been said by some historians that later in life Lee was to say, “Governor, if I had foreseen the use those people designed to make of their victory, there would have been no surrender at Appomattox Courthouse; no sir, not by me. Had I foreseen these results of subjugation, I would have preferred to die at Appomattox with my brave men, my sword in my right hand.” Some claim Lee never said that, while others claim he did. If he didn’t, he may as well had said it, because the way the South was treated after the war was almost as bad as the horrors it suffered from during the war.
In closing I would like to leave you with a few final thoughts. This first quote is something I did not realize, but now makes much sense after much study about the causes given by both the North, and the South for this terrible conflict. I found it on page 440 of my friend Jeff Bennett’s book What God Has Joined, and it states, “The differences in Union verses Confederate principles can be seen in their choice of mottos, Manifest Destiny for the Union and Divine Providence of Almighty God for the Confederacy. Additionally on the United States Great Seal is the motto: E Pluribus Unum, Out of many one, and on the Confederate States Great Seal the motto: Deo Vindice, God will Vindicate. The former being secular and denotes a virtual right to rule, whereas the latter derives from the Confederate People’s belief that God rules in the affairs of men, and we aught to submit to His will in all things.”
Furthermore, Robert E. Lee said something once that I believe to be true, “We did not fight to perpetuate human slavery, but for our rights and privileges under a government established over us by our fathers and in defense of our homes.”
And, in a speech given on April 29, 1861, Confederate President Jefferson Davis said, “We feel that our cause is just and holy; we protest solemnly in the face of mankind that we desire peace at any sacrifice save that of honor and independence; we ask no conquest, no aggrandizement, no concession of any kind from the States with which we were lately confederated; all we ask is to be let alone’ that those who never held power over us shall not now attempt our subjugation by arms.”
It is said that history is written by the victors. If that is true it is hard to find the real story as to what happened during the years that constituted Reconstruction. History also changes over time. Sometimes, directly after an event the historical records are incomplete, and one-sided. But then, as time passes by, more information is found which paints a clearer picture as to what really happened. Such is the case with Reconstruction.
Most people believe Reconstruction was merely the North’s efforts to get the South back on its feet again after the war. While that may seem honorable and fair, it is not exactly the whole truth. As the Civil War had not been fought to end slavery, and that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had been a wartime measure, when the war ended slavery was still intact as an institution in the South. That all changed in 1865 with the passage and the ratification of the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery. Among those who fought hard to end slavery is one Thaddeus Stevens, a member of the House of Representatives from Pennsylvania. Stevens was a part of the radical-Republican Party and a staunch abolitionist.
In December of the year that the war ended Stevens delivered the following speech. I include it in its entirety because it is worth your understanding what many in the North felt about the South. So read what Stevens said, and then I will continue with my thoughts.
“The President assumes, what no one doubts, that the late rebel States have lost their constitutional relations to the Union, and are incapable of representation in Congress, except by permission of the Government. It matters but little, with this admission, whether you call them States out of the Union, and now conquered territories, or assert that because the Constitution forbids them to do what they did do, that they are therefore only dead as to all national and political action, and will remain so until the Government shall breathe into them the breath of life anew and permit them to occupy their former position. In other words, that they are not out of the Union, but are only dead carcasses lying within the Union. In either case, it is very plain that it requires the action of Congress to enable them to form a State government and send representatives to Congress. Nobody, I believe, pretends that with their old constitutions and frames of government they can be permitted to claim their old rights under the Constitution. They have torn their constitutional States into atoms, and built on their foundations fabrics of a totally different character. Dead men cannot raise themselves. Dead States cannot restore their existence “as it was.”
Whose especial duty is it to do it? In whom does the Constitution place the power? Not in the judicial branch of Government, for it only adjudicates and does not prescribe laws. Not in the Executive, for he only executes and cannot make laws. Not in the Commander-in-Chief of the armies, for he can only hold them under military rule until the sovereign legislative power of the conqueror shall give them law. Unless the law of nations is a dead letter, the late war between two acknowledged belligerents severed their original compacts and broke all the ties that bound them together. The future condition of the conquered power depends on the will of the conqueror. They must come in as new states or remain as conquered provinces. Congress . . . is the only power that can act in the matter.
Congress alone can do it. . . . Congress must create States and declare when they are entitled to be represented. Then each House must judge whether the members presenting themselves from a recognized State possess the requisite qualifications of age, residence, and citizenship; and whether the election and returns are according to law. …
It is obvious from all this that the first duty of Congress is to pass a law declaring the condition of these outside or defunct States, and providing proper civil governments for them. Since the conquest they have been governed by martial law. Military rule is necessarily despotic, and ought not to exist longer than is absolutely necessary. As there are no symptoms that the people of these provinces will be prepared to participate in constitutional government for some years, I know of no arrangement so proper for them as territorial governments. There they can learn the principles of freedom and eat the fruit of foul rebellion. Under such governments, while electing members to the territorial Legislatures, they will necessarily mingle with those to whom Congress shall extend the right of suffrage. In Territories Congress fixes the qualifications of electors; and I know of no better place nor better occasion for the conquered rebels and the conqueror to practice justice to all men, and accustom themselves to make and obey equal laws. .
They ought never to be recognized as capable of acting in the Union, or of being counted as valid States, until the Constitution shall have been so amended as to make it what its framers intended; and so as to secure perpetual ascendency to the party of the Union; and so as to render our republican Government firm and stable forever. The first of those amendments is to change the basis of representation among the States from Federal numbers to actual voters. . . . With the basis unchanged the 83 South ern members, with the Democrats that will in the best times be elected from the North, will always give a majority in Congress and in the Electoral college. . . . I need not depict the ruin that would follow. . .
But this is not all that we ought to do before inveterate rebels are invited to participate in our legislation. We have turned, or are about to turn, loose four million slaves without a hut to shelter them or a cent in their pockets. The infernal laws of slavery have prevented them from acquiring an education, understanding the common laws of contract, or of managing the ordinary business of life. This Congress is bound to provide for them until they can take care of themselves. If we do not furnish them with homesteads, and hedge them around with protective laws; if we leave them to the legislation of their late masters, we had better have left them in bondage.
If we fail in this great duty now, when we have the power, we shall deserve and receive the execration of history and of all future ages.”
At points during that speech I could almost sense the animosity felt towards the South. The feeling was probably mutual in most instances. Both sides probably blamed the other for bringing that war upon them and neither wanted to accept responsibility for their sides mistakes.
But something Robert E. Lee said bears mentioning. It seems that one day Lee witnessed a woman who was speaking harshly about the North. Lee chastised her by saying, “Madam, don’t bring up your sons to detest the United States Government. Recollect that we form one country now. Abandon all these local animosities, and make your sons Americans.” Lee, it seems, wanted to put the war behind them and return to how things were before it ever started.
Much of what happened during the years following the end of the war was the same thing that led the South to leave the Union in the first place. But now with a Republican majority in the Congress, there was little they could do to oppose it. Heavy taxes were once again levied upon the South, placing an even heavier burden upon their crippled economy. Add to that the fact that almost a quarter of all Southern males died during the war, and the destruction of the homes and infrastructure, the South was at the mercy of the North, and from the viewpoint of some historians, the North showed no mercy.
One of the first things Congress did upon the end of the war was to hold sessions and revoke the Articles of Secession issued by the Confederate States, declaring secession to be illegal. Later, in 1869 the Supreme Court would state, as part of its ruling in Texas v White, that secession was, in fact, illegal. With these moves the federal government, an entity created by the people, trampled upon the very principle that led to this nation’s creation back in 1776, that a people have the right to sever ties with a government that becomes destructive of the end for which it was established. The government had become all powerful, almost completely doing away with any state power and authority in the affairs of the federal government. The states had basically become federal territories, much like the original 13 states had once been British colonies, subject to the absolute will of the King.
The North also blackmailed the South by threatening that if they did not ratify the 14th Amendment, they would not be allowed representation in Congress.
During Reconstruction those Southerners who held office, and had been firm proponents of secession, where, for the most part, removed from office by Union military forces who had remained in the South after the war. It is said that to the victor go the spoils, and in this case the North took advantage of that adage. Outnumbered in Congress the South was forced to carry the brunt of subsidies for Northern Railroad interests, amassing $132 million worth of debt. With their crippled economy, which would take almost a century to fully recover, that was adding insult to injury.
Heavy burdens were placed upon an already defeated, and battered South by corrupt politicians who sought to plunder via taxation and land acquisition, what remained of the South’s wealth. One can only imagine how they must have felt, seeing their lands ruined by war, then having the burden of funding the expansion of Northern interests. Is it any wonder that there are still deep seated animosities towards ‘Yankees’, and the federal government among many in the South?
Reconstruction may have gotten the South back on its feet again, but it did so at the profit of those in the North, and would probably had been accomplished much quicker had the North not plundered the South after the war.
The Civil War was a war that did more than kill 620,000 people, it also killed off a belief system and set the stage for an all powerful federal government that believed it had to answer to no one for its actions. Robert E. Lee once stated, “We did not fight to perpetuate human slavery, but for our rights and privileges under a government established over us by our fathers and in defense of our homes.” Those rights and privileges where the real losers of the Civil War, and things have only gotten worse since.
Part 9: Conclusion
Throughout American history there have been certain pivotal points that have set, or altered the course our nation took. The War for Independence was one of them. When our Founders stated that a people had a right to sever the ties that bound them to another and establish a system of government that best suited the needs of the people it was a turning point in history. Never before had a people had that opportunity. Then came the Civil War, where the South wished to exercise what was a commonly held belief, that the right to secede was still a fundamental principle. The federal government, (notice I did not say the North), disagreed. The federal government is an entity created by consent of the states. In some cases it’s authority is superior to that of the states, in others it isn’t. The Constitution makes no mention of the Union being perpetual therefore the states believed, as do I, that they had the right to secede if the they felt the federal government was no longer serving their best interests.
When the federal government decided to go to war against the South it did more than kill over half a million people and ruin the economy of the South, it fatally injured the concept of state’s rights. When the 17th Amendment was passed years later the states lost all say in what laws the federal government could enact. In effect, the states became subjects to an all powerful entity that viewed them as being beholden to the greater power and authority in Washington D.C.
History can be a dry subject if you look at it from the wrong perspective. If all you care about is dates, events, and names, then yes, history can be boring. But if you look at it from the perspective of seeing how and why a country got from point A to point B, then history can be fascinating. Way back in 1788 Thomas Jefferson wrote that ” Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.”
Can you honestly believe that a group of men, who had just fought a war to gain their independence from a tyrant, would establish a system of government when they knew that, in time, it might also become tyrannical, and not leave the people a way out?
The perspective one must view the Civil War from is not from the issue of whether slavery was wrong, that it was fought to end the practice. No, the perspective must be to ask whether or not a single state, or group of states, held the right to separate from the Union. Our Founders felt they did, as did many in the North who had considered it prior to the Civil War. Another point one must consider is that the Constitution created the government with limited powers and for the most part it was a servant to the people and the states. If this body could then assume the authority to dictate to the states that they be required to adhere to the Union, was the federal government still a limited one, or had it become one of limitless power?
The Civil War settled, not by negotiation, not by legal proceedings, but by force, the belief that the federal government was superior to the states and that it could demand adherence to its will, whether that will be constitutional or not. The Civil War was another pivotal moment in our nation’s history and is worthy of your focused consideration. It was our nation’s second war for independence, and this time freedom and independence lost. Since then our government has grown exponentially. How do you think, I wonder, we might fare in the future should the people grow weary of it and decide it is time to rid themselves of its intrusion into their lives and infringements upon their liberty?
I have no idea how such a decision might turn out, but after having studied the Civil War extensively, I can tell you how the federal government would react.
These are all things I hope I have caused you to think about. I hope that I have presented the material in as impartial and unbiased manner as possible. I feel strongly that the South was in the right and the North, nay, the federal government way overstepped its authority. Still, I hope I have kept my feelings to myself as best I could and caused you to revise your opinions on what led to the Civil War and who was in the right.