Echos of April 9th
In the early 70s in central North Carolina, the scars from the Civil War were still apparent. Not so much in the landscape, which had escaped the worst of the fighting, but in the generational poverty that had come over the South. The war had taken the healthiest, most ambitious, and spirited young men off to fight in dreadful battles. Their blood soaked the ground of places like Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Richmond, and Manassas. By most estimates, North Carolina sent more men to fight for the Confederacy than any other state, some figures have it at over 2 million, and many of them never returned. When a generation of a region's best men are taken over the span of a few exceptionally deadly, violent years, it leaves damage far deeper than the initial heartache and loss. Gone were the future husbands, fathers, and grandfathers. Farms fell into disrepair, criminals and scoundrels often went unchecked.
My Great-Grandfather Alfred's uncle Henry had been a private and fought with the Confederates in Northern Virginia. At some point in the campaign, young Henry had an accident and got one of his toes shot off. The exact details of what happened and how are lost to history, but he was in the ranks at Appomattox on April 9th, 1865, when General Robert E. Lee recognized the cause was lost and surrendered his forces to US General Ulysses S. Grant. The once mighty army of Northern Virginia had been beaten decisively, and the men doubtlessly expected their fate to be years of starvation and disease in a desolate prison camp for the crime of treason against the United States. Approximately 28,000 Confederates surrendered, which would trigger a collapse of Southern military opposition throughout the breakaway states. In a wise and generous gesture, the terms of surrender were lenient. In exchange for oaths of loyalty, Grant had graciously granted parole to the men. Instead of languishing for years in prison camps, they would be allowed to return to their homes. Officers could keep their sidearms, horses, and personal baggage. Men could keep their horses and mules to work the fields, so they could provide food for their families. Lee was given food from Union supplies for his now starving men. Grant’s sensible decisions were in keeping with the spirit of the words from Lincoln's second inaugural address only a few weeks earlier. "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."
Grant’s adjutant, Ely Parker, was the one to write out the surrender document. Parker was Native American from the Senaca Tribe. Recognizing his heritage, General Lee quipped that "It is good to have one real American here." Parker replied, "Sir, we are all Americans."
After his parole, Henry made the long trek home to North Carolina carrying a small bundle that held his toe. It rested in a jar of vinegar at the family farmhouse for many years. My grandmother told me she had seen it sitting on a shelf in the corner cupboard when she was a young girl, but by the time I arrived it was long gone.
Unfortunately for the South, President Lincoln’s vision of a healing reunification died with him six days after Lee’s surrender. The inarguably just war to cleanse the nation of slavery had been settled on the field of battle, but atonement for the bloodshed that polluted the land was yet to come. In a tragedy for the young nation, an assassin had chosen Lincoln to pay the cost. In this version of the Biblical redemption story, Abraham himself would be placed on the alter. There would be no redeeming ram caught in the bushes. The South descended into the chaos and resentment of the Reconstruction era.
“My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.”