Thursday, April 9, 2015

150th Anniversary of the End of the Civil War? Not Necessarily.

We know precisely when and where the American Civil War started: April 12, 1861, in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, at 4:30 in the morning. That was when the Confederate artillery batteries under the command of General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauegard opened fire on Union-held Fort Sumter. It inaugurated the beginning of four years of bloody conflict that would preserve the Union, destroy slavery, and fundamentally change everything about America.

Pinning down the location and date of the end of the war, however, is a much more problematic exercise. Around the country, people are marking today as the 150th anniversary of the end of the war, because of an event that happened on April 9, 1865, at a place called Appomattox Court House, Virginia. It was there and then that the Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by General Robert E. Lee, surrendered to overwhelming Union forces under the command of General Ulysses S. Grant. If you believe the average 8th grade social studies textbook and popular interpretations such as the Ken Burns miniseries The Civil War, the loss of the Confederacy's most famous army and its most brilliant commander marked the end of the war.

Yet history is never neat and tidy. If you ask me, saying that the war ended at Appomattox is a murky proposition at best. After all, the South's other major field force, the Army of Tennessee, was still in the field with more than 20,000 men under arms. Under General Joseph Johnston (a major character in my novel Shattered Nation), it had recently given the Union army a bloody nose at the Battle of Bentonville before superior numbers had forced it to retreat.

It was not until April 26, two-and-a-half weeks after Lee's men had capitulated, that the men of the Army of Tennessee stacked their arms and accepted their paroles (incidentally, Johnston was assisted in the surrender negotiations by John C. Breckinridge, the major character of my novella Blessed are the Peacemakers and one of the major characters of my upcoming novel House of the Proud). The terms agreed upon at Bennett Place included not just Johnston's field army, but all Confederate troops in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida, a total of nearly 90,000 men. Much more than the surrender at Appomattox, the surrender at Bennett Place deserves to be considered the event that marked the end of the Civil War.

But there are other contenders than Appomattox or Bennett Place. General Richard Taylor, one of the South's most underrated generals, didn't surrender the troops of the Department of Alabama and Mississippi until May 8, nearly two weeks after Johnston's capitulation. General Kirby Smith didn't surrender the Department of the Trans-Mississippi until May 26. In Oklahoma, a lonely force of Confederate-allied Indians under General Stand Watie didn't throw in the towel until nearly a month after that, on June 23. Any one of these events has as much right to be considered as the end of the war as does Appomattox.

Amazingly, even though this series of surrenders marked the end of the Confederate army, there was still a little bit of the American Civil War going on in a highly unlikely place. For while Lee, Johnston and the other generals were yielding to the overwhelming might of the Union, the commerce raider CSS Shenandoah was busy destroying the United States whaling fleet in the Pacific and Arctic Oceans. As strange as it sounds, the last shot of the American Civil War was a warning shot from one of the Shenandoah's cannons on June 28, 1865, when it ordered its final prize to heave to. It's hard to think of a place more unlike the pleasant fields of Appomattox than the icy wastes of the Arctic Circle, yet that was where the last spark of gunpowder of the American Civil War was actually lit.

Now, if you really want to stretch things out, you could argue that the Civil War didn't fully come to an end until the Shenandoah sailed into the harbor of Liverpool, having sailed around the world to surrender to English authorities out of fear that the United States would treat them as pirates. Captain James Waddell, commanding officer of the Shenandoah, oversaw the last official lowering of the Confederate flag. This was on November 6, 1865, nearly seven months after Lee had surrendered at Appomattox.

For what it's worth, my opinion is that the Civil War ended on May 10, 1865, at Irwinville, Georgia. It was then and there that President Jefferson Davis, who personified the Confederacy more than any other single individual, was finally run to ground and captured by Union cavalry. Having fled Richmond on April 2, he was heading westward with the vain hope of continuing the fight against the Yankees in the Trans-Mississippi. By then, he had been deserted by all but his loyal wife and a handful of escorting cavalrymen. With the capture of Davis, the last flame flickering on behalf of Southern independence was well and truly snuffed out.

So, when the war end? April 9? May 10? November 6? Take your pick. Unlike the reigns of kings or the tenures of presidents, wars rarely have clear and definitive ending points. Then again, considering the unfinished struggle for racial equality and the continuing conflict between state and federal power, it might be a better question to ask whether the Civil War ended in 1865 at all.

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