The United States of America has never been more imperiled than it was in the 1860s, when its countrymen went to war against one another, laying the nation to ruin in a bloody conflict that stretched more than four years and touched every corner of the country and every American family.
Yet even as the years of bitterness and bloodshed were drawing to an end, the seeds were being sewn that would lead to reconciliation and unity, allowing America to become truly the world’s greatest nation.
On April 9, 1865, when Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Grant didn’t order the Confederate soldiers — who had taken up arms against their own government and spilled a lot of blood as a result — to be arrested and tried for treason. Rather, he said that Confederate officers could keep their sidearms and their personal possessions. And any soldier who owned his own horse could keep it, too. After all, it was planting season, and the men would need their horses when they returned to their farms. Finally, he asked Gen. Lee if his men were hungry, and offered 25,000 meals to the defeated Rebel army.
Outside the house where the surrender took place, as Union soldiers began to cheer as Lee rode away on his horse, Traveler, Grant ordered them to silence. “We do not want to exhaust over their downfall,” he said of the Confederates. “The war is over. The rebels are our countrymen again.”
In 2021, when we jeer and mock each other over trivialities and minor differences of opinion, one can’t help but wonder what it would have been like if Twitter had been around in 1865. Don’t cheer the downfall of your opponent? Welcome him back with open arms?
In this 21st century, after generations of “enlightenment,” we have convinced ourselves that to show humility and grace is to show weakness. We’ve forgotten the lessons of Lincoln and his fellow countrymen.
If anyone had cause to resent the rebels, it was President Abraham Lincoln. The Civil War dominated his presidency. It started one month after he took office, and ended just five days before his death. Along the way, more than 600,000 Americans were killed.
Yet, as a huge crowd gathered outside the White House upon news of Lee’s surrender, and as fireworks filled the sky, an exhausted Lincoln asked the band to play Dixie, the Confederate fight song. “I have always thought it one of the best tunes I have ever heard,” he said. “It is good to show the rebels that with us they will be free to hear it again.”
The grace! The humility! The rebels spent four years engaging the country in war, and many would’ve gladly shot Lincoln if given a chance. And here is the president, freshly victorious, asking the band to play their fight song instead of his own, the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
At University of Tennessee football games, the Pride of the Southland Band faces the visitor section before each home game at Neyland Stadium and plays the opponent’s fight song. It’s a tradition that exemplifies grace and humility more than almost any other in college football. And many of those in attendance respond by booing.
Over an opponent’s fight song at a football game.
It’s hard to imagine any of the crowd on the White House lawn in April 1865 booing as Dixie was played by the band, at the close of a war that had been much more real than a game.
Lincoln had a true vision for reconciliation. He had begun to lay it out weeks before the war ended, at his second inaugural address. It was then that he spoke the words that would be enshrined forever on the Lincoln Memorial: “With malice towards none; with charity for all.” In that address, Lincoln urged his fellow countrymen to “bind up our wounds — not just the wounds of war, but the wounds to our national character.”
The Lincoln plan wasn’t to lord over the defeated Confederate states that had attempted to break away and form their own nation, but to welcome them back into the Union with open arms, restoring all of their rights and privileges as Americans as they had existed before secession.
Where have we gone wrong? America today is more divided than it has been at any point since the Civil War. Our very democracy is being threatened. But our differences pale in comparison to the divide that separated us in 1865. So why could we come together in unity then, but not now? President Barack Obama pledged unity upon his election, and failed to deliver. So did President Joe Biden. President Donald Trump didn’t even make an attempt at unity. None of the three showed any of the Lincolnesque spirit for compromise and reconciliation. Ruling parties use their congressional majorities in an attempt to ram through divisive policies and legislation, they use their platforms for divisive speech, and our separation is accelerated.
In modern America, legislators who dare to side with the opposition are condemned as RINOs or DINOs — Republicans or Democrats “In Name Only.” In many cases, we’re successful in ousting them from office so they don’t dare try to compromise for the sake of national unity ever again. That wasn’t the way of Lincoln. In his last address to the nation, Lincoln was focusing on the proposal to readmit Louisiana to the Union. He urged those listening not to focus on the imperfections of Louisiana’s plan for unity, but to instead focus on how Louisiana’s drafted government could serve as a foundation that could be built upon.
Lincoln had a great vision. Had it not been for his assassination, Reconstruction would likely have looked much different under Lincoln than it did under President Andrew Johnson. As it was, Lincoln laid the foundation for welcoming the South back into the fold. He came into office appealing to the better angels of our nature, and he died still appealing to our better angels.
But it wasn’t just Lincoln. It was all Americans.
Three days after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, as his army gathered to forfeit their arms and make the surrender official, Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was in command of the Union forces present. Chamberlain had been shot six times by the rebels; had nearly died on the battlefield. Yet, that day, he stood in awe and respect of the way the defeated Confederate soldiers carried themselves.
“Was not such manhood to be welcomed back into the Union, so tested and assured?” Chamberlain wrote.
Then the general ordered his men to line up and did something that would likely be considered strange by today’s standards. He didn’t have them “stomp on the logo” of their vanquished foe, to use another football analogy. Nor did he have them mock and scorn the rebels as they walked away slump-shouldered. Instead, he had them salute the defeated and now disarmed Confederate soldiers as a show of respect — “from Americans to Americans,” Gen. John B. Gordon wrote of the scene.
Whatever happened to America, it didn’t happen overnight. More than a generation after Appomattox, as the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg was observed, former Union soldiers and former Confederate soldiers — now old men — gathered on the battlefield, shook hands and laughed together. The video that exists of the event is truly remarkable. We hold grudges that will last a lifetime because of something someone said on Facebook. But these men who had in their youth shot at one another, tried desperately to kill one another, are laughing and fellowshipping and shaking hands.
If Americans could get along after the Civil War, we have no excuses in 2021. But it’s going to take a little effort on all our parts, just as it did in 1865.