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The first insurrection

The Civil Conversations Project


APR 11, 2023

On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to General Ulysses S. Grant of the United States Army at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, effectively ending the war that the Confederate States waged in order to keep Black humans in bondage.

The United States had defeated the armies and the navy of the Confederate States. To the northerners celebrating in the streets, it looked like the South’s ideology had been thoroughly discredited.

Southern politicians had led their neighbors to war to advance the idea that some people were better than others and had the right to rule. In their view the founders of the United States had made a terrible mistake when they declared, “All men are created equal.” In place of that “fundamentally wrong” idea, they proposed “the great truth” that White men were a “superior race.” And even within that superior race, some men were better than others.

Those leaders were the ones who should rule the majority, southern leaders explained. “We do not agree with the Declaration of Independence, that governments ‘derive their just powers from the consent of the governed,’” enslaver George Fitzhugh of Virginia wrote in 1857. “All governments must originate in force, and be continued by force.” There were 18,000 people in Fitzhugh’s county yet only 1,200 of the so-called “right” people could vote “But we twelve hundred . . . never asked and never intend to ask the consent of the sixteen thousand eight hundred whom we govern.” But the majority of Americans recognized that if it were permitted to take hold, this ideology would destroy democracy. They fought to defeat the enslavers’ radical new definition of the United States.

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”

The events of April 9 reassured Americans that they had, in fact, saved the United States’ idea of a democracy of, by, and for all the people. Their victory on the battlefields made northerners think they had made sure that “this democracy shall not perish from the earth.” So confident was General Grant in the justice of his people’s cause that he asked only that Lee and his men give their word that they would never again fight against the United States and that they turn over their military arms and artillery. The men could keep their sidearms and their horses because Grant wanted them “to be able to put in a crop to carry themselves and their families through the next winter.”

But northerners’ conviction that generosity would bring White southerners around to accepting the equality promised in the Declaration of Independence backfired. After Lincoln’s assassination, Andrew Johnson of Tennessee – famous in the news these last few days over murder and race - took over the presidency and worked hard to restore White supremacy. The decision of government officials 158 years ago to trust in the goodwill of former Confederates seemed at the time to be the honorable and best course for healing the divided nation. But it ended up prolonging White supremacist ideology.

Much of what you just read above was written by historian Heather Cox Richardson with edits by me. But as I read about the insurrection that lasted for 1,458 days in the 1800’s as men fought and died to force their view of race on the country, I could not help but think of the insurrection that lasted just one day in 2021 as men, flying the same flag as their counter-parts had 156 years earlier, fought and caused death and mayhem, as they too tried to impose their view of race and democracy on the country. I also could not help but think that after all these years since the country prevailed in that first insurrection, plus with the enactment of the 13th, 14th, 15th and 19th amendments settling the question of what kind of democracy we were going to be, that here some folks still are…fighting for their own, personal view of the way our democracy should look.

The rest of us, regardless of race or party affiliation, should be terrified. I also can’t help but think that we could shut down this hate if we simply shut down the politicians who promote it…whether they be school board members, county commissioners, voter registration clerks, town clerks, congressman and women, senators, or presidents. We could finally move past America’s thing with race that politicians poke at to gin up hate, fear and votes. You just need to get involved. There are politicians that you need to advocate for. And there are politicians that you need to advocate against. We all need to get past our personal and party issues and be for the country. A house divided against itself like we are truly cannot stand. There’s work to be done.

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