Remembering History as Fable

The emancipation of black Americans has been written out of our celebration of the Civil War’s end.

A group of Confederate re-enactors are gathered before a rifle d,A group of Confederate re-enactors are gathered before a rifle demonstration.
A group of Confederate re-enactors are gathered before a rifle demonstration.

Photo by Jamelle Bouie

It’s a damp, cloudy April afternoon on a muddy industrial park in Appomattox, Virginia, and—clad in the grays, golds, and reds of his Confederate officer’s uniform, Bill is giving me a short soliloquy on the joys of re-enacting America’s past. “I’m bringing history to life,” he said. “You bring the subject to life, you bring your ancestors to life—you’re honoring the ones that came before us. And that’s what I’m all about. The honor of them, whether they fought North or South, is what I’m all about.”

For him, and many of the men gathered in the camps and on the re-created battlefield—made more authentic by regular rifle fire, thick smoke, fields of homemade tents, and copious horse shit—the Appomattox anniversary weekend was a capstone to four years of constant activity and a celebration of the beginning of the end of a conflict that savaged the human landscape of the United States. Thousands had gathered in the small Virginia town to mark Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant and commemorate the point where Americans stopped fighting and started the long, hard work of reuniting (and re-creating) their nation. Despite separate camps, there wasn’t animosity between Union and Confederate re-enactors. They ate their meals together, rode their horses together, and even mugged for the camera together when “Abraham Lincoln” came on the field. “We’re all friends again,” said the Lincoln re-enactor after taking a photo with two soldiers.

But missing in this remembrance, and in the audience as well, were black Americans. Of the thousands of re-enactors and thousands more spectators, only a handful were black. And while this may seem minor (or worse, a needless invocation of race), it’s a terrible disadvantage. The real Appomattox wasn’t just about reunion; it was about emancipation as well. Hannah Reynolds, an enslaved woman, was wounded during the battle of Appomattox, the victim of cannon fire. But while she was injured a slave, she died a free woman, three days after Lee’s surrender.

Without these voices and stories, we’re left with a narrow and impoverished portrait of the end of the war, to say nothing of the whole conflict. But that’s where we are in our public commemoration of the Civil War. And unfortunately, that’s where we’ve been for a long time.

One hundred-two years ago, more than 50,000 Union and Confederate veterans—and countless other spectators—gathered in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to commemorate their experiences and celebrate—under a Southern, Democratic president—the full reunion of the United States. The event—the 50th anniversary of the battle—was a logistical marvel. Railroads moved day and night to transport the old soldiers, the oldest of whom were in their 80s. Veterans were housed in a camp spanning 280 acres, where thousands of cooks delivered hundreds of thousands of meals to the participants, and the army medical corps provided top-notch hospital care. Survivors of the war came from as far as California, and were joined by more than 150 journalists from the United States and abroad. Throngs of photographers documented the event, which was centered on the reunion of the two sides, as Confederate and Union veterans met, spoke, shared memories, and shook hands as symbols of national harmony.

President Woodrow Wilson traveled from Washington to give the address, which struck those chords of unity. “How wholesome and healing the peace has been,” he declared. “We have found one another again as brothers and comrades in arms, enemies no longer, generous friends rather, our battles long past, the quarrel forgotten—except that we shall not forget the splendid valor, the manly devotion of the men then arrayed against one another, now grasping hands and smiling into each other’s eyes.” For Northerners and Southerners alike, this is what the war was: a valiant fight between two honorable sides. Full of glory, but also tragic—“the blood and sacrifice of multitudes of unknown men.”

The Robert E. Lee re-enactor travels between tents at the main camp site in Appomattox, Virginia.
The Robert E. Lee re-enactor travels between tents at the main camp site in Appomattox, Virginia.

Photo by Jamelle Bouie

Ignored in this story of Gettysburg, and the war, was emancipation. As David Blight details in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, in the first years and decades after the war, at least in the North and among former enslaved people, black freedom was as much a part of remembrance as reunion. “They are not dead,” said a speaker of the fallen in Kenduskeag, Maine, in 1869; “The early manhood of this nation retains its majesty by their fall, and the black stain of slavery has been effaced from the bosom of this fair land by martyr blood.” Likewise, at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg on July 1 of that year, Indiana Gov. Oliver P. Morton—a Union partisan—declared, “The rebellion, the offspring of slavery, hath murdered its unnatural parent, and the perfect reign of liberty is at hand.”

But by the beginning of the 20th century, this meaning of the war had faded from mainstream memory, replaced by the Lost Cause and its vision of dutiful soldiers, honorable leaders, and white supremacy. A thoroughly racist public had no interest in black memory of the war, a fact underscored by the color of the 50th Gettysburg anniversary. Few arrangements were made for black veterans of the war (nearly 200,000 freedmen and freemen served in the Union Army and Navy), and there’s little evidence of black attendance. If blacks were present, it was under the shadow of Jim Crow, as laborers, janitors, and other service workers.

Hostile to black Americans, tired of sectional conflict, and committed to white supremacy, white Americans, North and South, had written emancipation out of the legacy of the war and embraced a new mythology of honorable soldiers and glorious combat, a synthesis of Confederate remembrance and Northern sentiment for the Old South. Their Civil War was a white man’s fight, for the ideals of a white nation. “[I]t was slavery that raised the question of State sovereignty; but it was not on behalf of slavery, but on behalf of State sovereignty and all that it implied, that these men fought,” wrote the editors of the Outlook, a liberal magazine, in their coverage of the event. “Both sides,” it concluded, had fought for “the same ideal—the ideal of civil liberty.”

A large group of Confederate re-enactors face inspection from their “officers” before a march.
A large group of Confederate re-enactors face inspection from their “officers” before a march.

Photo by Jamelle Bouie

We are far removed from the racism of the Gettysburg memorial. But the mythology remains. For all its trappings of authenticity, the Civil War showcased at the 150th Appomattox anniversary—like the Gettysburg celebrated in 1913—was divorced from the reality of the conflict, and what it meant for those involved. By 1865, as historian Chandra Manning shows in What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War, Union and Confederate soldiers agreed they were fighting over slavery. “Now I am ready for the war to be over,” said one federal soldier in a letter to his sister, “as the great cause, Slavery, is abolished.” Likewise, as a Texas chaplain wrote, the “amendment of the Constitution abolishing slavery” had “awakened” soldiers “to the solemn reality of the situation.” As they had four years prior, the white Southern man would refuse “to stretch out his hand for Northern fetters, and bow his dishonored head for the yoke which abolitionism stands ready to place upon him.”

Slavery doesn’t touch the re-enactors’ war. Or at least, not much. “It wasn’t just [slavery]; there were many other causes, with slavery being part of it,” explained Charlie, who was re-enacting a medical officer. He “wore blue” because he believes the Confederacy was an illegal government. “I want to fight for the one that was legal.” For another re-enactor, Lorne, who played a Union soldier, the remembrance at Appomattox was about the “emotion” of the surrender for “the Southerners and the Northerners who had been fighting for so long.” “When the final shot was over, the soldiers just came together,” he said, “it was something very special.“ “They fought because they were defending their rights, defending their home—defending their way of life,” said Bill. “Were there other issues? Of course there were other issues … but both sides were fighting for their constitutional rights.”

Civil War reenactors.
Union artillery re-enactors man a cannon and fire the first of several blank shots.

Photo by Jamelle Bouie

The only participants who talked about black people in relation to the event were, well, black people. Leslie, a first-generation American from Guyana, was re-enacting an enslaved “body servant” of Robert E. Lee, responsible for maintaining his camp and tending to his needs. She chose the part because she thought people should understand the roles enslaved people played on both sides. “We need to realize it’s nothing to be ashamed of. We have to learn from it,” she said. “As you learn from reading, they stripped slaves of everything. They stripped them of their name and reduced them to an animal. And even an animal has self-determination. They took that from human beings.”

Less critical of the Confederacy was H.K. Edgerton, a long-time black Confederate re-enactor known for his real-life support of the Confederate States of America. Standing on the corner of Confederate Boulevard in the town of Appomattox, Edgerton said that, if he could go back in time and tell Lee to keep fighting, he would. Still, he framed his experience of re-enacting and his remembrance of the war in terms of black Americans. “For me, [the surrender] was the worst day in history for Southern black folks, and Northern black folks as well.” He continued: “The Christian white folks in the South were the only ones who ever cared about the African, period.”

With that said, the absence of slavery from the Appomattox events—and re-enacting in general—is understandable. Most everyone involved is just trying to have fun; to spend time with their friends and dive into a period of history they love. In a way, it’s no different than cosplay or live-action role playing games. To expect a serious treatment of slavery—in addition to everything else—is to ask for more than what most are willing or able to give.

All of this leaves us in an odd place. In our history books, the war is a conflict over slavery. But in our remembrance, it’s still a fable, where valiant white men fought each other over abstract principles. The difficult reality—the facts that made this war so vital—is absent. At the sesquicentennial of the surrender at Appomattox, we weren’t commemorating our history; we were celebrating a myth.