Today is the 140th anniversary of Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, which essentially ended the American Civil War.
As a (white) child growing up in the Deep South in the 1950s and 1960s, I looked forward in history class to the tale of the Appomattox surrender, because it marked the end of the interminable period of time we spent studying--or more accurately, saturating ourselves in--the War Between the States each year. Indeed, such was the extent of our wallowing in the Confederacy that we rarely made it past World War I in American history.
Far beyond elementary school, in the broader southern white culture I grew up in, there was an odd exultancy about Appomattox that had nothing to do with vicarious relief at the end of that brutal war. No, we drank in the details of Lee's peerless dress and manner at the moment of surrender, and were encouraged to think of the shabby Grant's generosity in victory as little more than the acknowledgement of a superior being--and a superior, if Lost, Cause. A Cause, moreover, that was about everything other than the ownership of human beings--about states' rights, about agrarian resistance to capitalism, about cultured Cavaliers defending civilization against philistine Puritans, about Honor, about Duty.
And that was the essence of Confederate Nostalgia in those days: a cult of romantic defeat, denial, self-pity and pride. I never quite shared it, even as a child, but never quite understood its pathological depths until its mirror images in Serbian and (some parts of) Arab culture became part of world events in more recent years. And remarkably, I get the sense Confederate Nostalgia is not only surviving, but perhaps even reviving among people too young to know its nature and political usages.
So now, in many heated conversations with my fellow white southerners--and occasionally with Yankees who've been caught up by the Romance in Grey--I find myself insisting on an acknowledgement of the reality of the Confederacy, and its consequences for our home region.
It was an armed revolution led by a planter class that could not tolerate restrictions on the "right" to transfer its human property into the territories.
It was a "Cause" centered in the states most dependent on slavery, made possible by a secession bitterly opposed by poor white farmers in much of the region, and imposed on them by the narrowest of margins.
It was a rebellion whose success entirely relied on the calculation that the people of the North would not sacrifice for abstactions like the Union and Freedom.
Its inevitable defeat plunged the South and all of its people into a century of grinding poverty, isolation, and oligarchical government. Its heritage has been used again and again to justify racism and every other sort of reactionary policy.
I look at Appomattox and see the end of a disastrous folly that killed over 600,000 Americans, maimed far more, and made life miserable for those of my ancestors who survived the Planters' Revolt. No romance. No victory-in-defeat. Just carnage and destruction in a bad cause made no better by the good men whose lives and futures it claimed.
It is far past time for southern pride--which I share to an almost painful extent--to attach itself to everything, anything, other than those four disastrous years that ended at Appomattox Court House. --