A lot happened in April 1865: Richmond fell to the Yankees, Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House, Lincoln’s funeral train set out on a long and meandering route for Springfield, Ill., and four years of brutal conflict came to an end. But at the close of the Civil War — 150 years ago this April — no one knew how things would turn out for the United States and the defeated Confederacy.
This time on BackStory, the hosts dwell on that moment and explore the uncertainty of 1865. Would the rebellion resurge? Would Southern leaders be hung for treason? Would freed men and women enjoy full citizenship? … How would a nation torn asunder ever rebuild?
We have stories about how Union soldiers enforced emancipation, how formerly enslaved families sought their own reunification, and why Jefferson Davis and other Confederate officials escaped prosecution. Plus, Brian, Ed and Peter take questions at an event recorded live, commemorating the sesquicentennial of the war’s end — in the erstwhile capital of the South.
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PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf. The Civil War been over for months, but Dora Franks was still enslaved on a Mississippi plantation. That’s when an unexpected visitor arrived.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Her brother sneaked into the house, and said, get ready. You’re free now, and I’m taking you with me. And he did.
PETER: The war may have been over, but many Confederate resisted the implications of Union victory.
MALE SPEAKER: White Southern soldiers have returned from fighting still fighting. And they’re attacking free people.
PETER: 150 years after the end of America’s deadliest war, stories about its uncertain peace, and some thoughts on what emancipation means today.
FEMALE SPEAKER: To me, this is our 4th of July. It is our Independence Day.
PETER: The turbulent, pivotal year of 1865– today on BackStory.
MALE SPEAKER: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.
From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory, with the American Backstory hosts.
BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh.
PETER: I’m Peter Onuf.
ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. Earlier this month, the Town of Appomattox, Virginia, was inundated by soldiers. Not actual soldiers, but by men and women in costume. They were there to reenact the momentous event that took place 150 years ago, the signing of the surrender that effectively ended the Civil War. A small team of us from BackStory went– me to give a speech, and our producers to get a sense of what it would have actually been like on that historic day.
KELLY JONES: Can you tell me what you had for breakfast this morning?
ED: In case you missed it, that was our producer Kelly Jones asking a couple of reenactors the standard public radio mic check question– what did you have for breakfast?
MALE SPEAKER: This morning, I had corn mush for breakfast.
MALE SPEAKER: I didn’t have anything for breakfast. They had us make our fires, boil our coffee, and we started to cook ourselves food. And then we heard the sound of the guns coming from this way. And, well, we poured our coffee out on top of the fires, and off we went.
ED: April 9, 1865, dawn– chilly and foggy. At 7 AM, a battle broke out. The Confederates were surrounded and outnumbered six to one. Confederate General Robert E. Lee and the United States General Ulysses S. Grant exchanged letters. And at around 10 o’clock, ceasefire flags went up.
Here’s how one union reenactor, up on a hill, described what happened next.
CHARLES JOHNSON: Well, General Grant just came through our lines. First time I’ve really seen General Grant that close, but he just wrote down the hill and into that brick building down there. Seems to be going inside at this point, from what we can tell.
ED: At 1:30, the generals met in the parlor of the McLean house. Grant had to come to some distance, and arrived muddy from the ride. Lee was the picture of military dignity in his new uniform.
CHARLES JOHNSON: Well, my guess is they’re trying to figure out whether or not we’re going to pitch back into them or not. But I guess the question really is, are the southern boys going to surrender, or are we going to fight it out and see who’s left standing at the end of the day?
ED: The generals bantered a bit about their tours in the Mexican War, and then they drafted and signed surrender letters. At half past three, Lee left the house to a deafening silence outside. Grant followed at 4:15.
PETER: 150 years later, this was exactly the script that unfolded. And there were plenty of people not in costume who were there to observe. Alex Yergin was among them.
ALEX YERGIN: Yes, it’s actually my 30th birthday. So I had planned for years to come down here, and I’m very excited to be here.
PETER: None of Alex’s ancestors fought in the Civil War. And yet, for him, Appomattox is an incredibly meaningful place.
ALEX YERGIN: It sounds like soldiers, even who’d fought against each other for four years, sort of embraced each other, and tried to move forward as a nation.
PETER: Charles Johnson agrees. He’s the reenactor we heard from a minute ago, now out of character. And he says the promise of unification was infused in the very materials of surrender.
CHARLES JOHNSON: The beautiful aspect about– in the McLean parlor, a document is written. The paper is federal, and the ink is Confederate ink. And in that moment, even the surrender documents were a togetherness project.
FEMALE SPEAKER: This is a story to which there’s more than meets the eye.
BRIAN: This is Elizabeth Varon, a Civil War historian who’s written about Appomattox, and who was also at the commemoration. She has a very different understanding of what happened in the McLean parlor.
ELIZABETH VARON: Appomattox was not a meeting of the minds and a serene, healing moment, but a moment fraught with a lot of tension and uncertainty.
BRIAN: Yes, says Varon, Grant did allow the Confederate to go home. They did get to keep their horses, and in some cases, their side arms. But that didn’t mean that Grant intended to let bygones be bygones.
ELIZABETH VARON: His magnanimity, Grant reckons, is an inducement to Southerners to repent of, atone for, their sins– the sins of secession and slavery, and of the war itself. Lee believes he has extracted from Grant honorable terms, terms that pay homage to Confederate bravery, that confer immunity– political immunity– on the Confederates.
So from the start, you have quite different understanding of what Grant’s magnanimity means. The dominant, northern view was that this was a victory of right over wrong, and that Northerners had won the moral high ground at Appomattox. But the Confederate answer was that this was a victory of might over right, and again, overwhelming numbers and resources, and that Confederates had not relinquished the moral high ground at Appomattox. And this is a very, very fundamental dispute.
PETER: Fundamental, because if you play those two scenarios out, you arrive at very different futures. Confederates looked ahead to a time when they would regain their social clout communities back home, and also their political clout in Washington, D.C.
ED: Many Northerners, on the other hand, saw their victory discrediting the entire Southern way of life– the economy that had grown up there, and the race based system that supported it. About the only thing the two sides saw eye to eye on was that the shooting war was over.
ELIZABETH VARON: But the political questions that remained– would these ex-Confederate again be permitted to vote or hold office? Would they have property restored to them? What would the former Confederate States once again be states of the Union? All of these questions were open.
ED: For generations, Appomattox has represented an ending– the final chapter of the story Americans tell each other about the Civil War. That’s understandable. As an ending to four years of unimaginable carnage and suffering, we could hardly do much better than the peaceful scene that played out, hour by hour, on the 9th of April.
And yet, if we stand in that moment, everything changes. If we think of Appomattox not as ending, but as a beginning, suddenly there are multiple competing story lines. And how the story lines play out is something no one at the time could really be sure of at all.
PETER: For the rest of the hour today, we’ve got a show we’re calling, the United States of Uncertainty. We’re picking up where Appomattox leaves off, and considering that wasn’t clear in the spring, summer, and fall of 1865. We’ll look at what the end of the word meant for former slaves, suddenly able to put together the pieces of their broken families.
And for the Union troops, tasked with enforcing emancipation in the face of resistance by white southerners. We’ll also play an excerpt of our recent live performance at the 150th Anniversary of the fall Confederate Richmond.
BRIAN: But first, we’re going to play the tape forward from Appomattox, and look at what happened to the leaders of the losing side. President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet had fled Richmond when their capital city fell to federal troops a few days earlier. For the next month, he and his still acting government moved from city to city, in an attempt to evade capture.
Union troops finally caught up with Davis on May 10th in the tiny town of Irwinville, Georgia. He was taken to Fortress Monroe on the Virginia coast to await trial for treason against the US Government. But Davis wasn’t actually put on trial in 1865, or the year after.
It turns out that he was released after only two years imprisonment on $100,000 bail. And believe it or not, that was the most severe punishment that any of the top Confederate leadership faced in the aftermath of the war. I sat down with historian David Blight to talk about what happened to some of the other rebel leaders.
DAVID BLIGHT: Well, first of all, Robert E. Lee was put under a kind of house arrest in Richmond. Now that really didn’t amount to much. He went home, he went to Richmond–
BRIAN: Right, we know he walks out of Appomattox.
DAVID BLIGHT: He rode his horse out of Appomattox, in effect, a free man, except for the fact that he did have his citizenship stripped. But Lee was free to travel within the state of Virginia. And though declared not a citizen, he had– in virtually every other way– the rights of any other American.
Lee, of course, will only live until 1870. But he will live long enough to begin some gatherings and meetings and reunions of his surviving lieutenants, his surviving officers and generals. And he will begin to, first quietly, and then fairly openly, lead at least a kind of Confederate officers’ effort to denounce reconstruction policies.
A good number of ex-Confederate, especially in the army– possibly as many as 6,000– fled the country. And particularly in Brazil, a lot of ex-Confederate went and settled, hoping they could reestablish a kind of plantation slave owning life. A fair number of those who went into self exile eventually will come back to the US.
A famous example is Jubal Early, one of Lee’s key generals. Early first fled to Canada, then to Mexico, believing he was going to be– many of these fled, by the way, believing they were going to be arrested, tried, and executed for treason. They had every reason to believe, in a rational way, that that’s what was going to happen.
When Early realized in, I think, 1866 that that wasn’t going to happen, he came back to the South, took up residence in his hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia, and he would become one of the staunchest advocates of the lost cause tradition.
BRIAN: And the other members of the governments? Were they charged with anything? Did anything happen to them?
DAVID BLIGHT: Alexander H. Stevens, who was the Confederate vice president, was also arrested and taken to Boston, and imprisoned–
BRIAN: The ultimate punishment for a Confederate.
DAVID BLIGHT: Yes, that’s right. I think he was put in the Charlestown jail for about five months, from May to October. And he, too, was to be charged with the same things, of treason, rebellion, against the United States Government, and so forth. But he was released, ordered released by Andrew Johnson, the then president, as an act of reconciliation of some kind toward the South.
And he simply went back as a free citizen, all the way to his home state of Georgia.
BRIAN: So all of these government officials, did they have to seek individual pardons from Andrew Johnson?
DAVID BLIGHT: Yes.
BRIAN: Is that how they were allowed to simply go on with their business, so to speak?
DAVID BLIGHT: Well, Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, is a key player in this– particularly the first year or two after the war– in who gets punished, or if anyone gets punished. Initially, when he took office, he announced very publicly, in a phrase no one ever forgot, he said, “treason must be made odious.”
Now, exactly what he meant by that, no one quite knew. Turns out he didn’t really mean it, and in the summer of 1865 and into the fall of 1865, Johnson– who was from east Tennessee– offered presidential pardons to ex-Confederates, if, particularly, they came to Washington to request them. And he set up a small bureaucracy to adjudicate, or to administer, these pardons.
The only distinction he put into that process is that anyone who owned $20,000 worth of property or more had to personally apply to the president himself. Now that was Johnson’s old personal contempt or scorn for the planter class of the South, which he was not part of. And he blamed, in many ways, that kind of planter elite of the cotton kingdom for secession, and for the war.
And he started issuing, first, pardons by the dozens, then pardons by the hundreds, and eventually pardons by the thousands, to ex-Confederates.
BRIAN: David, I’m just baffled by this, as a 20th century historian. There’s so many moments– one could argue, the majority of the 20th century– where simply hinting at overthrowing the government would get you slammed in jail.
DAVID BLIGHT: At least.
PETER: Yet here are people who fought the Union, seceded from the Union, armed rebellion– obviously, hundreds of thousands of men killed. And nothing, nothing happens to them whatsoever. How do you explain that?
DAVID BLIGHT: Well, it’s difficult to explain, except that we need to step back again to Lincoln’s leadership. It was basically Lincoln’s vision that reconstruction, when it came– and of course, they had debated this richly during the war for two years– when the war ended, and when it was possible to reconstruct the Southern states, and re-admit them to the Union, Lincoln wanted it to be as rapid as possible.
He wanted lenient terms. He wanted a quick surrender. He wanted surrenders that would not allow the war to result in guerrilla war. The Union leadership– really quite a ways down the line, this wasn’t just Lincoln– the last thing they wanted were hundreds of bands of Confederate troops operating as irregular guerrillas, going up into the Appalachian Mountains, or going into the upcountry of Georgia, or going into the hinterland of Arkansas, or going into east Texas– these bands that could be there for months, if not years, which would mean the Civil War would not have had a distinctive end, and it might have had an even bloodier kind of end in local areas.
BRIAN: And was it generally acknowledged that the reason for such leniency was just that? That it was the quickest way to bring at least the overt military fighting to an end?
DAVID BLIGHT: Yes, it was. And there was the assumption– let’s also remember, there’s no blueprint for. This country, nor any other, had ever quite done this after a massive civil war. So they don’t have a blueprint for this. What they do know is those Southern states can’t go anywhere. They have to come back into the Union. They have to be reunited on some basis.
And I mean, that’s not just because they saw Southerners as fellow Americans and all of that. There is that story out there, all over the literature. There are books like this, that claim that the surrender at Appomattox and surrenders to follow were just part of this American genius for leniency and compromise and healing. I don’t buy that at all.
I think it was more a realpolitik set of judgments that said, look, we have to put the Union back together. If we carry out a large number of treason trials and executions, this thing might just never end.
BRIAN: David Blight is a historian at Yale University. His new biography of Frederick Douglass is due out later this year. Earlier in the show, we heard from Elizabeth Varon, a historian at the University of Virginia, and author of Appomattox– Victory, Defeat and Freedom at the End of the Civil War.
ED: It’s time for a quick break, but stay with us. When we get back, Union troops left behind in the south get a lesson in the multiple meanings of freedom.
PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. And we’ll be right back.
BRIAN: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.
PETER: I’m Peter Onuf.
ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. We’re marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War’s end with an hour we’re calling the United States of Uncertainty. We’re considering all that was up for grabs in the weeks and months following the surrender at Appomattox.
PETER: We recently read an anecdote that caught our eye in a book called After Appomattox. It’s about an enslaved man on a North Carolina plantation in 1865. His name is Ambrose Douglas, and years later, he described his very drawn out process of liberation this way. “I guess we must have celebrated emancipation about 12 times. Every time a bunch of Northern soldiers would come through, they would tell us we was free, and we’d begin celebrating. Well, before we could get through, somebody else would tell us to go back to work.”
GREGORY DOWNS: It’s an amazing quote. I mean, I think as with any quotes, especially older people remembering their youth, I’m not positive that we’d want to fact check 12 specifically. I mean, I think he’s trying to capture a truth behind it. It’s possible that some people certainly did have soldiers march through that many times.
BRIAN: This is historian Gregory Downs. We noticed this story in his book.
GREGORY DOWNS: But even if it was only three or four, what he’s trying to point us to is a problem that emerged for slaves, and through them, as a problem for the US government. Which is, what did emancipation mean, and when would it arrive?
BRIAN: The legal story’s this– in January of 1865, the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery finally passed the House of Representatives. Ratification by the states would take another 10 months. But in the meantime, 100,000 Union soldiers, who might have thought that the war’s end meant that they soon would be heading home, were instead sent out into the countryside. Their orders? To free those still held in bondage.
PETER: Now imagine you are one of these soldiers, riding out across the south that spring. Plantation to plantation, town to town. You might think that all you’d need to do was announce the arrival of freedom. As it turned out, the job was a lot more complicated than that.
BRIAN: Many northern– white Northerners lived in societies where you didn’t have to have the force of the state to make basic freedom felt. And the legal system seemed to operate naturally. But the question that Ambrose Douglas asks us is, what do we do if we have abstract rights, but we cannot defend them?
PETER: The first lesson, then, was that emancipation needed to be enforced. But what exactly did that mean? There’s no doubt that you, our northern soldier trekking around the South, were free. But why? Was it simply that you weren’t enslaved, or was it something more?
BRIAN: To be something other than negative, to be something other than not slavery, freedom has to involve some sort of positive attributes. And I think by the 19th century, and certainly in our time, those attributes have largely been located around rights that are not just abstract or human rights, but are rights that you can call upon people to help you enforce.
PETER: This may have been a brand new concept to many white Union soldiers. But freed people were all too aware of the specific rights they had been denied their entire lives– the right to move, contract with an employer, own property. The right to use public goods, and to marry. At the first opportunity, these freed people found their ways to military outposts set up to help them find employment, and they filed complaints about all the rights they were still being denied. Leaving it up to you, the soldier, to find ways to guarantee those rights.
BRIAN: Seem a little daunting? Well, what if you just guaranteed that negative? Guaranteed that these people weren’t actually being enslaved? Well, that wasn’t especially clear either.
GREGORY DOWNS: Separate from sale, there are other forms of slavery that speaks to a kind of slavery as personal domination, that’s meant to keep the government from being able to step into this relationship. And that becomes much more nebulous, because as soon as that gets opened up, it’s a Pandora’s box. Because when does it end?
If slavery is being whipped, and northern officers very frequently banned whipping– but as you know, in some northern states, employers could whip employees, and that didn’t make them slaves.
BRIAN: Throughout the summer of 1865, Southern states passed what became known as black codes. In many cases, these were seemingly innocuous laws that, for instance, required freed slave children to remain on their plantations, working in so-called apprenticeships. Army officials responded by throwing out laws that they saw as propping up de facto of slavery.
Downs points to one example of vagrancy law in Virginia that was pretty much identical to the one on the books in Massachusetts.
GREGORY DOWNS: And so you go into this gray zone that army officers and free people are navigating, where things that might be legal in a society that has a standard of freedom, like Massachusetts, start being defined as illegal in a southern society, precisely because of the way that it’ll be enforced. And when we think about slavery in those terms, as a series of customs and practices, that’s going to be a much, much more difficult thing to define and to overthrow.
BRIAN: Now, grappling with the meaning of emancipation was pretty clearly a heady endeavor. But the challenge of enforcing could hardly be more concrete. And that’s because there were a lot of people committed to keeping anything that resembled emancipation from taking effect.
GREGORY DOWNS: White Southern soldiers have returned from fighting still fighting. They might not be wearing their uniforms, but they’re attacking. And who are they attacking?
Well, they’re attacking soldiers if they’re caught away from their away from their posts, and they’re attacking free people.
PETER: Many soldiers told stories of finding the bodies of former slaves who attempted to walk away from their plantations. In one case, a plantation owner slit the throats of three children rather than grant them freedom.
GREGORY DOWNS: So you have a population that’s trying desperately to sustain slavery, and not willing to give up anything more than they have to. And they talked openly about the fact that they intended to restore slavery legally once peacetime came, by blocking the 13th Amendment, and by taking the Emancipation Proclamation and other military orders to court.
BRIAN: So you’ve got to ask, where does that leave you, you the Northern soldier in 1865? Now the overall purpose of your mission may have been straightforward. But its nuts and bolts have proven to be anything but. You’re under the threat of physical violence all the time. Not to mention the fact that you’re still recovering from everything you’ve experienced in the past four years– four years of exhausting and bloody war.
Downs says the letters he found from soldiers like you reflect a range of emotions.
GREGORY DOWNS: In the summer of 1865 and into the fall of 1865, I think that many of them still hope– well, if this time, I tell this plantation owner, then he’ll get it. But over the course of the next months and years, many of them will become deeply, deeply skeptical of their own power.
PETER: Greg Downs told us the story of a man named Hugo Hillebrand, a veteran of military campaigns in Hungary and Italy. He had immigrated to the US to fight for the Union cause. If anyone was going to be a wholehearted enforcer of freedom, it would be Hillebrand.
He was stationed in North Carolina, as Downs tells it, in 1867– two years after the end of the war– when a freedman finds him.
GREGORY DOWNS: And he makes a complaint that he’d been denied his previous year’s crop when he left to work for a new landlord. Hillebrand writes out an order, that freedman takes it back 15 miles, hands it to his previous landlord, and the landlord throws it on the ground. Says I’ll see Hillebrand farther in hell than a jaybird can fly. I don’t intend to be obeying no such order.
When the freedman comes back– Peter Price is his name– comes back to Hillebrand, Hillebrand has to say, as a matter of practicality, that’s right. Hillebrand had to leave a dying US soldier in the road a few miles outside of town earlier, because he was told by townspeople if he went out to rescue him, he would be murdered.
And so his control, as he writes, is a very small radius around his office. And beyond that, the government can write out– soldiers can write out as many orders as they want. But how do they make them felt? And that skepticism will torment them over the next few years.
PETER: Gregory Downs is a historian at the City College of New York. His new book is called After Appomattox– Military Occupation at the Ends of War.
ED: Dora Franks was one of the many people still enslaved on a Mississippi plantation in the summer of 1865. For her, salvation didn’t come in the form of a soldier.
BRENDA STEVENSON: Her brother, she said, sneaked into the house, and said, get ready. You’re free now, and I’m taking you with me. And he did.
ED: This is Brenda Stevenson, a historian at UCLA. She’s written extensively about stories like this one– stories of former slaves attempting to reassemble families that had been torn apart many times over, going back many generations. It was a daunting task, considering how far and wide the Southern slave market stretched, and how many different kin connections a freed person could have.
It was not uncommon for an enslaved person to have started a family on one plantation, only to be sold to another, and forced into a child bearing relationship with a new partner. I asked Brenda to describe some of the tough choices that freed people faced as they tried to piece their families back together.
BRENDA STEVENSON: There were thousands of people who hit the roads and went to find family members– tens of thousands, actually. And of course, there were hundreds, and even thousands, who advertised for family members, who asked, do you know where my family members are? I am located this place. I was sold at this time. This was my master at this time. My mother’s name was this. Can you help me to find her?
There were people who had people write letters for them– those who were literate– to ask their former masters, do you know who bought my mother? Who brought my brother, my sister, et cetera, et cetera. So people really did feel as if they could connect. And they wouldn’t allow themselves to think that they could not.
ED: Would they find any collaboration with former masters and mistresses and speculators and such?
BRENDA STEVENSON: Well, they would write to the former masters. And sometimes the masters would cooperate. But remember, the master class at this point, is also devastated. And they are trying to reconnect their families. They are trying to get their sons back, who had been off at the war. They’re trying to figure out their finances.
I don’t think that it’s uppermost in their mind that they’re trying to connect these persons who were enslaved, who no longer are working for them, that they don’t have control over. We do certainly find some instances where people said, you might look in this area, or she was bought by this person. That was much more likely to happen, however, if the person actually arrived at the former master’s home and asked.
ED: Would that not have been resented, and maybe even dangerous?
BRENDA STEVENSON: It could actually be dangerous. And I think the former slave who was looking for a family member had to be very careful, and had to decide what was the best way to approach this plantation. And that’s why, for example, this woman, Dora Franks, her brother climbed into a window and said, get your things together. We’re leaving.
And so people often would have to use a clandestine way to actually get their relative.
ED: Now there was an amazing story here in the liberation of Richmond. One of the leaders of the United States colored troops– or actually, one of the chaplains– stood up and started giving a talk. And a woman in the audience stepped up and says, I’m your mother. He had been taken away from her at an early age.
And so there he is, marching back into Richmond, and his mother recognizes him. And they patch up. It seems sort of too good to be true. But it sounds, what you’re telling me, Brenda, is that these stories happened all across the South.
BRENDA STEVENSON: They did happen all across the South. And these were amazing stories of just people’s prayers being answered, and their desires coming true. There was a lot of anxiety around it, too, whether or not you would meet a relative– a cousin or a sister– and become romantically involved. And that becomes some of the folklore that comes out of the post-slave era, is that people would be reunited and not know that they were blood related, and that kind of thing. So there’s a lot going on here.
ED: Were the churches of help? The African American church had been one way that people could sort of maintain contact with people who’ve been sold away, and still wanted access to the church where they went. Was that one of the networks that would be useful?
BRENDA STEVENSON: The churches would be a useful network, because people in the churches often were literate, and they are the ones who could help to write the notices for the newspapers, write the letters to former masters, also to former slave traders, to try to find, connect people with their lost loved ones. The churches also were interesting, too, because they insisted that former slave couples get married.
Slaves could not legally marry. And so they instituted these group marriages. And they insisted, in many places, you have to marry. You cannot just live together any longer. And I think that that’s sort of an interesting thing that happens as a result of the war.
ED: You mentioned the large scale marriages that the Freedman’s Bureau would enact. Were all the participants in that eager to do so? Do we have any sense that these were enforced marriages on the parts of the Union Army who were just determined to bring progress– as they saw it– to the South?
BRENDA STEVENSON: There were some people who resisted, mostly men. But there were a few women too who decided that they were not going to stay with their husbands– that they had been forced into these relationships by their masters, and they were not going to stay with them. But there were some tragedies, as well.
There’s a story of this man who talked about his father– Henderson Beckett– who talked about his father. They lived in Texas. And his father had had a family in Florida, and then was sold to Texas, and had several children.
Well, when the war ended, the father went back to his family in Florida. And of course, that was heartbreak for the family that had been created in Texas. So these were difficult decisions that had to be made. But I think what’s most important is that we understand that the institution of slavery, as harsh as it was, did not kill this desire to have family, and that family was really at the core of the social and psychological lives of these people.
ED: Brenda Stevenson is a historian at UCLA. She’s the author of Life in Black and White– Family and Community in the Slave South.
BRIAN: It’s time for another break, but stick around. When we get back, a fire that sweeps through the capital of the defeated Confederacy is not what it might seem.
PETER: You’re listening to BackStory, and we’ll be back in a minute.
BRIAN: This is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.
ED: I’m Ed Ayers.
PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf. We’re talking today about the end of the Civil War as the beginning of a whole lot of uncertainty in America. We started the show in Appomattox at a reenactment of the Confederate surrender. We’re going to close with tape from another recent reenactment– this one in the streets of Richmond, Virginia.
ED: What you’re hearing is a re-creation of April 3, 1865– a few days before the surrender at Appomattox. On that morning, Union soldiers under the command of Major General Godfrey Weitzel, marched into the former capital of the Confederacy. Richmond was still engulfed by fires that the fleeing Confederates had set in an effort to destroy the material and the goods they had left behind.
Two regiments of United States Colored Troops were among the first to enter the city. Linda Holmes of Portsmouth, Virginia, was among the many who were there to watch.
FEMALE SPEAKER: This was a snapshot of what was a gigantic happening at the time. And what it must have meant to African Americans who were enslaved, to see in the streets of Richmond, the Union soldiers, including the colored troops marching free, liberated, in victory– I mean, it’s like, to me– to me, this is our 4th of July. It is our Independence Day.
ED: The Colored Troop reenactors were followed by active duty military– young men and women of all skin colors. And bringing up the rear, African Americans in traditional African garb, playing drums and carrying pictures of influential black leaders.
BRIAN: All in all, it was a very different kind of event from those you might associate with Civil War history. It was part of a four day commemoration of the fall of Richmond that Ed here helped organize, and that the BackStory crew was lucky enough to play a small part in.
PETER: 150 years to the day since Abraham Lincoln walked the streets of that burned out city, and strolled through the capitol building where Jefferson Davis governed for four years, we hosted a live question and answer session in that very same building. We’re going to conclude our show today with tape from that event. As you’ll hear, it featured snippets from interviews our producers conducted over the course of a few days, with some of the people attending the events.
BRIAN: This next clip of tape that we’re going to hear gets at, I think, a very familiar and common trope that has been used many times in the past. This is John Boudreau. And he had many ancestors who fought for the Confederacy. And when our producer caught up with him, he was wearing a Confederate battle flag as a lapel pin. And our producer asked him about it.
JOHN BOUDREAU: It’s heritage, not hate. I love the South. I love the South. And if we understand the context in which we look at those symbols of our heritage, then I don’t think anybody should have a problem with that. The battle flag is not a political statement. It’s a soldier’s flag.
It’s not a symbol of hate. I don’t express it that way. That’s a part of the South, to me, that needs to have been left behind way more than 150 years ago.
PETER: Well, that, I think, encapsulates the traditional view. And that is, everybody’s got a good war that they can remember. Heritage, not hate, it’s a nice turn of phrase.
The idea that wars could take place, and we could enact them, and somehow the hate would disappear– would not be part of the memory that we’re sustaining– it’s a hard one for me to get my mind around. And I think that John was testifying there certainly identifies with and loves his region. This is the meaning of patriotism, if you go back into the 18th century and before.
It’s connection to the ground, to the country. You love your country, and what could be more precious to you than your country? But what is the South? And I’d only suggest that something like the idea of a team– this is a totalizing concept. He knows what the South is.
Well, there are many Souths. And I think that’s the challenge for us. If there is going to be a South today, which is our challenge– not to recover a South of yesterday– how can that South of today bring together the people who actually live here? I’m sorry I go so loud.
ED: And that’s the paradox. I believe him when he says he hates no one. I believe this is what he means. But the idea of heritage as like a big treasure chest, that you can sort of rifle through and take out the parts that you like, and call that your heritage, is very convenient. Instead, people who’ve inherited things know you inherit debt as well as you inherit the silverware.
You know that you don’t just get the things that you want, you get the mistakes that your ancestors made. And I think that what the challenge that folks like John find is that he says, I look in my own heart. I don’t hate anybody, but I can’t understand why other people can’t just accept that that’s the case. And the fact that this symbol has been used in such hurtful and dangerous and threatening, deadly ways, I just ask them to ignore it. And it just seems too much to ask anybody.
PETER: You know, and I think in that slip, if it was a slip, we should have gotten over this business of hating when we celebrate Confederacy. But he’s implicitly admitting that that has been what the Confederacy has stood for. He’s telling us, it shouldn’t have to stand for that. Well how’s that going to happen, until we come to terms with what the Confederacy was?
ED: Part of the challenge is, what other symbol would you used to show that you are a proud southerner, that you love the place where you live? And I think the what you hear, there’s a kind of pain and confusion. Well, everybody else gets to be proud of where they’re from? Why don’t we get that? And I think that–
PETER: Nah, I’m from New England, and I’m not proud. I’m full of conviction of original sin– and I just want to tell you, I’m sorry.
ED: On behalf of the rest of the nation, we accept.
BRIAN: Well Ed started this session off by talking about telling two stories. And I think as we go on, play a few more clips from our producers, I think you’ll see glimpses of this newer picture. It’s a picture of an old story, but these newer interpretations that are beginning to appear, and really make an impact on some of the folks who were walking around over the last couple of days.
Tony, why don’t we listen to the one from Roz [? Pheins ?]? She’s an African American woman who is talking here about how excited she was to see the United States Colored Troops march into Richmond, reenacting something that I’m sure was not part of the commemoration 50 years ago.
FEMALE SPEAKER: You know, the previous picture was slaves marching across the 14th Street Bridge, or being marched across from North Carolina. So we can be active in knowing that we helped bring about the ending of slavery. And for African Americans, that’s very, very important. We have a lot of school children that don’t realize the active part that African Americans played in the war.
ED: It really was touching today to see the USCT marching in, followed by men and women from Ft. Lee, and to see that continuity demonstrated. And to hear Major General Weitzel read the words he actually said out there, and which they recognized– in this moment– that they are changing the view of the world, and making people understand, not only did you free these 30,000 people, he said, but you have demonstrated to the world that black men have fought to make this nation free.
And I think, in all honesty, if you’d asked people in Richmond three years ago, who set the fire? They would have summed it was the Yankee soldiers. And who put it out? They would assume, somehow, there were still Confederates here, even though they’d fled.
And if you told anybody that it was African American soldiers who walked in here and put the fire out, I just don’t think they would have known that. If you’d know that simple fact, the entire history of Richmond looks different.
BRIAN: We concluded our program at the state capitol in Richmond by taking a few questions from the audience. Here is a little bit of our exchange.
ROB NELSON: I’m Rob Nelson. So the question is, I could frame it a couple ways. Like, the bicentennial. Looking forward 50 years, when you’re all dead, hopefully. Cross my fingers. Like, do–
ED: You don’t have to hope. I will be dead in 50 years.
ROB NELSON: What would be your dream for what that bicentennial would look like? Another way of putting that might be, if you’re thinking about your counterpart 50 years from now, planning the bicentennial events in 2061, 2065– any advice you’d give them? Like if they’re digging out this recording at some point?
ED: Well, fortunately, we have a guy who lives in the 21st century. What’s it going to be like in 50 years, Brian?
BRIAN: I can tell you what I hope it’s like. I hope we are not as surprised to discover the story of the role of African Americans in the Civil War, because that has become a basic part of the story. And I hope, in many ways, that we treat it– and Peter may push back here. I’m stealing a bit of his thunder.
I hope that we treat it a little bit more like we treat the Revolutionary War. In other words, it’s not, in some ways, as big a deal, because it’s not addressing current problems as much, 50 years from now. And by that, I mean current racial problems.
I think one of the reasons that this remarkable commemoration– and I’ll go ahead and say it– celebration has so much energy is because these questions of racial tension in the United States have not gone away. And so I really hope that’s not the central focus 50 years from now, because I believe that will be one indication that those issues really have gone away, to a much greater degree than today.
ED: I just have one final comment about that. The trick’s going to be that we never forget the visceral suffering of slavery, and of the war itself. One danger of thinking of the war as two different teams is that we forget just how much profound suffering America inflicted on itself, sort of unintentionally. Thank goodness slavery ended as a result, but that would not have been known at the beginning.
So the trick’s going to be simultaneously to forget and to remember. And I think that’s the challenge of all history.
BRIAN: Peter, I think we’re looking at the modern future for our last question. I can’t think of a better young man. What’s your name?
EVAN FISCHER: My name is Evan Fischer. My question is, when Abraham Lincoln came here, did he come here guarded or unguarded.
BRIAN: That’s a great question. I’m going to defer to our Civil War historian for that.
ED: And I’ll tell you this, Evan. It’s kind of scary to think about. So he’d been down the River Hopewell when he’d heard that Richmond was falling. And he took a big boat up the James, but it couldn’t get very far because of obstructions. And so they put him in a bit rowboat– I’m not kidding.
And with soldiers who rowed him. And he did have his big hat on. And he was always six foot five, or whatever. What do you think? Would that be very protected, in a rowboat, in the middle of a river, with that on the other side?
And then they landed not far from here, and nobody knew they were coming. And so they just get out and walk through the city, all over the city. I mean, walked literally right here on his way to the White House of the Confederacy. He goes up and sits in Jefferson Davis’s chair, too. It’s sort of like– all right.
So since it turned out OK, we can be happy, because he was surrounded by all the people who, just the day before, had been held in slavery. And now, they were able to come up– and some of them called him Father Abraham. And they knew that without him to help hold United States together that they wouldn’t be there today.
We all know he didn’t have much longer to live after that, right? It’s ironic, isn’t it, that he can come and walk around the former capital of the Confederacy and survive, but can’t go to the theatre just a few days later. So he was not protected. And it tells you a lot about what kind of man he was, that he wanted to experience what so many people had suffered for for so long to bring to an end.
BRIAN: Well, I want to thank you all for joining us today. This has been a very special day for me, and thank you for helping us make it so special.
ED: Thanks, everybody.
PETER: That was an excerpt of a live event we hosted on April 4th, part of a larger commemoration of the surrender of Richmond and the beginning of emancipation in the former capital of the Confederacy.
BRIAN: That’s going to do it for us today. But there’s a whole lot more Civil War history on our website, including the show we did earlier this month on the anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination. Speaking of which, a few of you wrote in to point out a mistake we made in that episode. We said that John Wilkes Booth was found and killed in a Maryland barn.
In fact, Booth met his demise in Caroline County, Virginia. We regret the error, and we welcome your corrections and feedback on this and on all of our shows. Our email is BackStory@Virginia.edu . Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.
PETER: BackStory is produced by Tony Field, Nina Earnest, Andrew Parsons, Kelly Jones, Emily Gadek, and Robert Armengol. Jamal Millner is our engineer. We had help from [INAUDIBLE]. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.
BRIAN: Major support for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Additional funding is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment, and by History Channel– history made every day.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is professor of history at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is professor of history emeritus at UVA and senior research fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is President and professor of history at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
MALE SPEAKER: BackStory is distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.