By the fall of 1864, Union commander Ulysses Grant had concluded that the surest way to end the Civil War was to decisively defeat the Confederate army of Robert E. Lee and the surest way to do that was to continue to drive on Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. Grant maneuvered his forces around to the south of Richmond and attempted to seize Petersburg, a key railroad junction that controlled the flow of supplies into the capital. Lee’s forces dug in (something that was done regularly by that point in the Civil War) and the Union began a six month siege that was an unfortunate preview of the devastating trench warfare of World War One.
Finally in April of 1865, Grant broke through at Petersburg, Lee attempted to escape to the west (he was pursued, attacked and surrendered a few days later at Appomattox), and the Confederates abandoned Richmond. Just prior to this final attack, President Abraham Lincoln had travelled to the battlefield to consult with Generals Grant and Sherman on post-war policy and the president remained in the vicinity during the attack. When news came of Richmond’s fall, Lincoln ordered the US Navy ship on which he was embarked to take him to the city. Landing at the dock on the James River, Lincoln walked into the city, accompanied only by his young son and a handful of sailors. Lincoln made his way to the Confederate White House and sat at the desk of Jefferson Davis before returning to his ship.
During April school vacation five or six years ago, my family visited Richmond, Petersburg and Appomattox. The main National Park Service installation in Richmond is known as Tredegar Iron Works, the one place in the Confederacy where cannon could be produced. At Tredegar, we were surprised to find the statue of Abraham Lincoln and his son that’s shown above. Imagine, right in the capital of the Confederacy, a monument to the president who freed the slaves.
Moving on to Petersburg, we met up with a National Park ranger who had formerly been assigned to Lowell and had agreed to give us a personalized tour of that battlefield. Along the way, we remarked how refreshing it had been to see the Lincoln statue in Richmond. A strange look appeared on the face of the Ranger – partly amused, partly troubled. He said “When that statue was unveiled last year, every SWAT team in the region was deployed there to protect us from all the protesters.”
Welcome to the South. The clues were all there; maybe I just didn’t want to see them. Earlier in Richmond, we had stopped at the Museum of the Confederacy. Walking up to the reception desk, I announced that we’d come all the way from Massachusetts. The demeanor of the elderly woman at the desk turned icy. The various exhibits in the museum – artifacts from the war, mostly – were interesting, but the explanatory panels that accompanied the exhibits were fascinating. I felt as though I was in a museum to someone else’s Civil War, because much of what I read was a departure from the history of the American Civil War as I understood it.
Clearly much about the Civil War is open to dispute even now as we approach the 150th anniversary of the start of the conflict. An article in yesterday’s New York Times illustrated just how conflicted we are. The story described the upcoming “Secession Ball” in Charleston, South Carolina which is intended to celebrate that state’s (temporary) departure and its attack on the American soldiers stationed at Fort Sumter. Here’s more from the Times:
“We in the South, who have been kicked around for an awfully long time and are accused of being racist, we would just like the truth to be known,” said Michael Givens, commander-in-chief of the Sons [of Confederate Veterans], explaining the reason for [television ads that explain that all the South wanted was “to be left alone to govern ourselves.”] While there were many causes of the war, he said, “our people were only fighting to protect themselves from an invasion and for their independence.”
Fighting for their independence? I think it’s well settled that they were fighting to preserve the right to own slaves.
To me, historical remembrance is an important part of our culture and of our community. I hope the city of Lowell does much to commemorate the part its citizens played in the Civil War. But I also hope that we and everyone else take great pains to enforce one type of segregation and that the separation of history and myth.