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The Greatest Moment in American History

When one asks the question, “what was the greatest moment in American history?”, there are a lot of potential answers.

Some could say July 4th, 1776, the birth date of the United States. Well, yeah, declaring independence from Great Britain was a great moment, but it did miss the mark. It started the country down the right path, but the Founders still couldn’t resolve the slavery issue. The inability to do that would lead to decades of strife. So a good moment, but not great.

Flag on Distant Path — © 2008 America In ContextOthers look at the D-Day invasion of Nazi-held Europe to be America’s shining moment. Undoubtedly, it was an incredible feat of will and bravery on the parts of thousands of American soldiers and the men who led them, but I view D-Day as a great moment in world history, not American history. We were part of something much bigger than America itself, which is, of course, tremendous, but it’s not uniquely an American moment.

Some will also say America’s great moments revolve around technical or scientific achievements, like the moon landings or Jonas Salk’s discovery of the polio vaccine. I’m not at all belittling the great successes of those scientists and engineers. In the case of Salk, his work aided the entire world, not just our own egos. But there is something fundamentally true about science: eventually, someone will figure it all out, it’s inevitable (unless the Kansas Board of Education takes control of the planet or something…). I’m looking for moments of human greatness, not of scientific achievement.

No, I say that the meeting between Gens. Grant and Lee at Appomattox is America’s greatest moment.

Now I know what you’re thinking: being from Massachusetts, I’m clearly a Union sympathizer and take great pride on the Union ass-whupping of the Confederacy. All I can say is “nope”. The victory isn’t what’s important about Appomattox. Victory was guaranteed: the Blues not only outnumbered the Greys, but they also had a stronger industry and greater resources. Victory was certain. Besides, there have been many other American victories throughout the decades, and none of them come close to being the “greatest moment,” either. It’s not victory in battle that makes a great moment.

I can sum up the reason why I feel the events at Appomattox are America’s Greatest Moment in one sentence: the American Civil War ended.

Hay Bales — © 2008 America In ContextPeople don’t understand how rare it is for a civil war to actually end outright. History shows how these things usually end: in guerilla warfare, or terrorism, or oppression, or genocide, or economic collapse, or a plethora of other horrible ways. So very, very rarely do the two sides simply reconcile, reunite, and get on with their lives. Yet this is exactly what happened to the United States in 1865. It ended this way because of the dignity and grace of the two great opposing figures: Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and Union General Ulysses S. Grant.

The scene was the Virginia hamlet of Appomattox. Lee’s Confederate Army had been chased out of Richmond and found itself surrounded by Grant’s superior – and better fed – force. Lee had no choice: he surrendered his armies to Grant, in a dignified manner befitting the son of Southern aristocrats. Grant, in a manner seemingly not befitting his prior reputation, accepted in an equally dignified manner.

For months prior to this momentous day, the North’s newspapers and politicians had mapped out a horrid path. They demanded financial reparations, extracted from the very hides of the Southern elitists who marched their states to secession. They also advocated public executions for Lee, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and others. “Treason must be made odious; traitors must be punished and impoverished!” Of the Confederate capitol, Richmond, Northern newspapers cried “Let Her Burn!”, regardless of who happened to be living there at the time. A graceful end was not what the North had in mind.

Last of the Fallen — © 2008 America In Context

The South had also been thinking of this day for months. Some in the command structure urged a continuation of war in the form of guerrilla warfare tactics, designed to disrupt and hamper the conquerors. Hit-and-run raids, sabotage, assassination, all run from the Appalachians and the dense swamps of the South. This is usually the parting shot by the conquered: a continuation of war from the shadows, perhaps (and often so) even devolving into direct acts of terrorism.

So there we were, after nearly four years of horrible, bloody conflict, at a point of immense decision. How would the Civil War end? Would the North seek revenge against the secessionists? Would the South crawl into the shadows and fight on?

Fortunately for us, these two men, Lee and Grant, were the finest two men we could possibly expect a war-torn nation to deliver. Grant was magnanimous: the beaten army must simply lay down their arms, and go home. Lee was reciprocally honorable: he had his men do exactly that.

Clover Hill Tavern & Guesthouse — © 2008 America In ContextSo there we were. On a fine April day in 1865, two armies met, shook hands, and went their own separate ways. Yes, the Union clearly won, and would clearly take charge. But there would be no guerrilla movement; no reciprocity; no retribution; no terrorism; no genocide. This is such an amazingly rare occurrence in world history, it’s absolutely remarkable.

Yes, I’m simplifying. There were a few more battles after that, but one by one, the remaining Confederate armies in North Carolina, Alabama, Oklahoma, and elsewhere would surrender, all amicably under the “Spirit of Appomattox”. Jefferson Davis was imprisoned for two years, but his bail was paid by wealthy friends north and south, and he became a free man (even writing a book about his experiences). There were a lot of controversies and entanglements around Reconstruction, and the freed slaves would still have decades of hardship ahead. To this day, we still have conflicts over the Confederate flag, so the wounds haven’t fully healed almost 150 years later. But it could have been a lot worse. Look at Algeria, or Cambodia, or Lebanon, or Bolshevik Russia, or the Congo. Long-lasting (or even never-ending) bloodbaths, all of them.

The U.S. Civil War was a terrible conflagration that killed over 600,000 men and laid waste to entire swaths of the countryside. But in the end, even with all that trauma, America emerged from the Civil War a far better country than it was when it entered. That’s largely thanks to the decency of two honorable men, meeting in a small Virginia hamlet. Therefore, I decree the Meeting at Appomattox to be the Greatest Event in American History.

The Surrender by Rocco — public domain photo courtesy of the National Park Service

My other original photos from Appomattox can be found here.

Links:

Appomattox Court House National Historical Park

Google map to Appomattox

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