Earlier this month, we wrote about Gregory P. Downs’s After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War, and about the interactive companion website Mapping Occupation, which visually represents the distribution of U.S. troops in the states of the former Confederacy in the postwar years. As we reflected in that post—and as David W. Blight writes in his important new piece at The Atlantic—the consequences of the Civil War’s not having ended at Appomattox 150 years ago continue to resonate today. In the introduction to After Appomattox, below, Downs discusses the epoch that began on April 10, 1865, when “the war seemed almost over, and yet the war could not end.”
On April 8, 1865, after almost four years of fighting and nearly three-quarters of a million deaths, Robert E. Lee wrote to Ulysses S. Grant to ask for “peace.” As the U.S. army closed in on Confederate forces near Appomattox Court House, Virginia, Lee sought a way to end not just the fighting but the entire conflict. With this letter from the Confederate general to the U.S. commander, the Civil War at last seemed near its close. If Grant had accepted Lee’s proposal, the two generals might have negotiated not just an army’s surrender but a nation’s peace, not just an end to fighting but an end to war. But Grant’s aides dismissed Lee’s offer out of hand. The rebel general “wants to entrap us into making a treaty of peace,” one of Grant’s aides said, but “that is the prerogative of the President, or the Senate.” A month earlier, President Abraham Lincoln had reminded Grant that politicians, not generals, would set the terms of peace. Even though Grant had referred to his own “great desire” for peace in a previous letter to Lee, he knew he did not have the power to make that decision. Taking Lee’s reference to peace as a sign that the rebel would not actually surrender and “still means to fight,” Grant went to sleep without sending a response. Upon waking, Grant decided to send a reply to Lee, writing that “I have no authority to treat on the subject of peace.” They could, however, discuss surrender. Even as he dismissed peace, Grant acknowledged that he was “equally anxious for peace.” Trying to appeal to Lee without making any promises, Grant stated that surrender would hasten but not bring peace.”
The distinction between Lee’s “peace” and Grant’s “surrender” would make a great deal of difference over the next five years. Denying peace was among the most important decisions made during the Civil War. It confirmed that the war was fundamentally a political, not just a military, conflict, and its terms would be set by politicians. By allowing the United States to utilize war powers years after battlefield fighting stopped, the continuation of wartime gave the national government the necessary authority to suppress the rebellion, consolidate its forces, and fashion effective civil rights. The United States would not declare peace because it could not be certain of the national government’s own safety. Beyond that, with nearly 3 million people still enslaved, with the Thirteenth Amendment not yet part of the Constitution, and with state laws on the books defending slavery, the U.S. government would not end the war because slavery had not died. Destroying slavery and constructing freedom depended upon the military’s authority to override state laws, displace judges and sheriffs, arrest outlaws, proclaim emancipation, oblige planters to provide contracts, transfer freedpeople’s legal cases to military- backed courts, and try violent white Southerners in front of military commissions—in short, to run an occupation of the South that would have been illegal in peacetime. From that occupation would emerge new rights, new governments, and a newly expanded democracy. Constitutional protections that we still take for granted—due process, equal protection, birthright citizenship, the vote—were by-products of martial law. All of this was on the line as Grant and Lee met in April 1865, yet no one could have predicted how long it would actually take to end the war.