Thursday, April 9, 2009

A Reunion of Brothers

In honor of the anniversary of the Appomattox, my father presented me with the most fascinating piece of medium - a recording of a broadcast and an interview over 50 years old.

On April 9, 1865, Gen. Robert E. Lee signed the document of surrender, conceding the Civil War to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, at the courthouse in Appomattox, Virginia. As you can imagine, each year the town of Appomattox holds a remembrance event. Forgive me as I turn somber and sentimental for just this post. This is for my dad.

The recording is a broadcast of this such event in 1950, where renowned historian Dr. Douglas S. Freeman weaves the tale of the final week of the Civil War leading up to Lee's decision to surrender, when Lee said his famous words, "No, you young ones can push back, but for me, there’s nothing for me to do except to go to see General Grant and take the consequences of my acts."

This wasn't just a history lesson. Freeman cleverly presented it as a camp fire story or a legend full of details and moments left out of history books. As Freeman told it, when Grant received word Lee wanted to meet him, he had been lying down in his private tent nursing a migraine headache, but immediately got out of bed and put on his cleanest uniform when he heard. In turn, Lee dressed himself in his finest, telling his chief of staff, "If I have to surrender I want to be at my best."

They agreed to meet at the Appomattox Courthouse. A new courthouse was being finished in the spring of 1865 to replace the old one, but the men recognizing it's historical significance declared, "Here's a name of the immortals... give the new courthouse a new name."

Lee waited alone for Grant to arrive, Freeman recounted, "who knows what he thought, waiting to surrender the greatest army ever to be raised in America... the army of northern Virginia."

Once it was done the terms agreed to, Lee walked out of the courthouse, put on his gloves, got on his horse and rode towards where the last of his men had been waiting for him down the hill. "Men, I've done the best for you I know how to do," he told them, "you're free to go home and just stay there."

Deemed "a reconciliation of gentlemen by gentlemen," Grant included some of Lee's words from that day in his inauguration speech, "let us have peace... a reunion of brothers." Although Freeman tells us that the day after the surrender, Lee said to Grant, "Yes, I am grey and you are responsible for most of those grey hairs."

Following the historian came a recording of an interview with Julius Franklin Howard, a CSA soldier. This was the most touching because it's so rare to hear the eyewitness recounts of a Civil War battle and to listening to his retelling of clashing with generals, being alive when Lincoln was shot and living through a country torn apart is just breath-taking.

Born in 1846, Howard began with explaining how he didn't becoming politically conscious until age nine or 10, his "mind wasn't developed to take in what the politicians wanted," and so he "sympathized with elders" by default and wanted to fight.

He got his chance in 1862 when Lee called for more men "even though the big battles haven't come yet" and so he was signed onto the 24th Virginia Calvary at 16. His first account of serious battle didn't come until 1964 when his unit was camped around Petersburg, VA just as Grant began his invasion

"Across the James River, there we saw long lines of blue."

The first and only he was shot was during a charge at Richmond where he was shot in the leg and sent home for two months. At 19, back around Petersburg, Howard tells of how "Sheridan over took us on our way back and after a fighting a few hours he surrendered us and thus I became a captain," dropping Sheridan's name as if it were nothing.

Howard even recalls waking up one morning to the field before him covered with flags standing at half mast. He and other men asked what it all meant only to be told by their commander, "President Lincoln was shot last night."

On the day of surrender, Howard stood with other coats of grey. "I almost worshiped Lee, even those he wasn't divine... and saluted him the very best we could. I never saw General Lee after that."

The question of what Southerners fought for came up and Howard had an answer for that without missing a beat. Explaining Lee has drafted policies to free the slaves long before the war began, Howard didn't think the war was about slavery at all.

"I guess you would say I fought in the 'Civil' war but the citizens of the south don't like that term, they like the expression "the war between the states," Howard said. "I thank god my boys and girls were not brought under a world of slavery, but the war was for states rights, and I look back now and i see my heart in it."

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