We welcome to the blog today a guest post by Stephen Cushman, author of Belligerent Muse: Five Northern Writers and How They Shaped Our Understanding of the Civil War. War destroys, but it also inspires, stimulates, and creates. It is, in this way, a muse, and a powerful one at that. The Civil War was a particularly prolific muse—unleashing with its violent realities a torrent of language, from soldiers’ intimate letters and diaries to everyday newspaper accounts, great speeches, and enduring literary works. In Belligerent Muse, Cushman considers the Civil War writings of five of the most significant and best known narrators of the conflict: Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, William Tecumseh Sherman, Ambrose Bierce, and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Considering their writings both as literary expressions and as efforts to record the rigors of the war, Cushman analyzes their narratives and the aesthetics underlying them to offer a richer understanding of how Civil War writing chronicled the events of the conflict as they unfolded and then served to frame the memory of the war afterward.
In a previous post, Cushman highlighted a Civil War anniversary likely to be neglected in sesquicentennial observances. In today’s post, Cushman challenges the methods used to determine the significance of Civil War events, and questions why the largest surrender of the Civil War has been primarily overlooked.
The 1969 first edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language gives for the etymology of surrender, “Middle English sorendren, from Old French surrendre: sur-, over + rendre, to deliver, RENDER,” and for render, “Latin reddere: re-, back + dare, to give.” What distinguishes surrender from any of its familiar synonyms, formal or colloquial—yield, submit, capitulate, concede, resign (as in a game of chess), give up, cry “uncle,” throw in the towel—is that it implies two steps or stages: first, the verbal or written acknowledgment of defeat, and second, the action of delivering or giving something over.
For the much storied and studied surrender by Robert E. Lee to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, for example, the two steps or stages took place, respectively, on April 9 and April 12, 1865, and no doubt the sesquicentennial anniversaries of these dates will recall to popular attention, in various media, the familiar and mythologized outlines of each. For the first, which was also Palm Sunday, there will be the details of Grant in his “rough garb” with “a soldier’s blouse for a coat,” as he recalled in his Personal Memoirs (1885–86), meeting Lee in his elegant dress uniform in the parlor of Wilmer McLean’s house and offering him magnanimous terms. For the second, four years to the day after the firing on Fort Sumter, the details most likely will include some version of U.S. general Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s many accounts of his reconciliatory salute to the soldiers led by Confederate general John B. Gordon into the village for the formal ceremony of handing over their arms, equipment, and flags. (The development of Chamberlain’s accounts is the subject of a chapter in Belligerent Muse: Five Northern Writers and How They Shaped Our Understanding of the Civil War.)
What about the second major surrender, that of Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston to U.S. General William T. Sherman, at a farmhouse between Hillsborough and Durham Station, North Carolina? There were several smaller, later surrenders, too, the last of them that of the C.S.S. Shenandoah by Captain James Waddell to a captain of the British Royal Navy in Liverpool on November 6, 1865. But the negotiations initiated by Johnston—in a letter written April 13 and received by Sherman April 14, which was also Good Friday and the same day John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theater—led to the largest surrender of the war. Although more than 30,000 soldiers in the Army of Tennessee surrendered in North Carolina (fewer Army of Northern Virginia veterans were paroled at Appomattox), in fact the terms signed by Johnston and Sherman officially disbanded Confederate units fighting in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, putting the number of soldiers involved close to 90,000.
Why do most of us hear and know so much less about this surrender, the largest of the war? keep reading →