By Elizabeth R. Varon
This year’s Civil War sesquicentennial commemorations have highlighted the theme of emancipation, and appropriately so: Lincoln’s promulgation of his Emancipation Proclamation in January of 1863 was a watershed event. But if we cast our eyes back to African American freedom commemorations in the wake of the war, we are reminded that emancipation was a process, not an event — and that its fulfillment hinged on Confederate military defeat.
Over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries, African Americans celebrated a series of “freedom days” — milestones in the emancipation process — including the anniversaries of the end of the slave trade; the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies; the date of Lincoln’s preliminary emancipation proclamation; the fall of the Confederate capital; the announcement of emancipation in Texas; and the passage of the 13th and 15th Amendments. Prominent among these freedom days was the ninth of April, the date of Robert E. Lee’s 1865 surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. The enshrinement of Appomattox as an emancipation milestone rested on three interconnected claims: that the Union army’s victory over Lee dramatized black agency and heroism; that the Virginia setting of the surrender gave it special meaning for African Americans; and that the magnanimous terms of surrender which Grant offered Lee symbolized the promise of black citizenship and of interracial reconciliation.
From the end of Civil War end until the early 20th century, African American commentators, including veterans, ministers, politicians, reformers, editors and historians, celebrated Appomattox as the apogee of black military heroism. They were keenly aware of, and eager to call the nation’s attention to, the fact that seven different regiments of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) participated in the Appomattox campaign and were present at the surrender.
In that last battle of his fabled Army of Northern Virginia, Lee found that the last road south, the Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road, was blocked, by the “bristling bayonets, and glistening musket barrels” of black soldiers in blue: the 8th, 29th, 31st, 41st, 45th, and 116th regiments of the USCT (the 127th waited in the wings). His escape route closed off, Lee was left no choice but to surrender. These regiments were a microcosm of black life in America. They included ex-slaves trained at Kentucky’s Camp Nelson and free blacks trained at Philadelphia’s Camp William Penn. They included men who would become race leaders in the postwar era, such as the renowned historian George Washington Williams, the influential A.M.E. minister William Yeocum, South Carolina judge and legislator William J. Whipper, and Baptist editor William J. Simmons, who was the journalistic mentor to Ida B. Wells.
Not surprisingly, African American soldiers and those civilians who had championed their enlistment quickly seized on the USCT’s critical role in the surrender as a point of pride and a vindication. For example, Thomas Morris Chester, a correspondent embedded with the Army of the James, reveled in the fact that black regiments had participated in the “vigorous campaign” that gave “Lee’s forces as trophies to the Union army.” The Confederate capitulation at Appomattox was especially sweet because it was a rebuke to the haughty elite of the Old Dominion, the self styled “F.F.V.’s” or “first families of Virginia,” whom Chester, after the surrender, wryly dubbed the “Fleet-Footed Virginians.”
USCT troops, according to postwar black discourse, had not only defeated Lee but hammered the final nail into the coffin of slavery itself. Emancipation was contingent: Confederate victories kept freedom at bay and Union ones brought freedom into view. Thus countless reminiscences, memoirs and oral histories testify that slaves first learned of and experienced emancipation at the moment of the Union’s triumph at Appomattox. As James H. Johnson of South Carolina explained, after Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation, “the status quo of slavery kept right on as it had.” It was only when “Gen. Lee surrendered,” he observed, that “we learned we were free.”
Black remembrance of Appomattox as a freedom day incorporated not only the themes of black heroism and liberation, but also of clemency; African Americans inscribed a civil rights message into the magnanimous terms of the surrender. George Washington Williams praised USCT soldiers for treating the vanquished Confederates with “quiet dignity and Christian humility.” In his view, African American magnanimity at Appomattox was an exercise of moral authority — a conscious effort, as purposeful as Grant’s own clemency to Lee — to break the cycle of violence slaveholders had perpetrated; to refute the white supremacist prophecy that emancipation would open a pandora’s box of racial strife; and to prove that the freedpeople had earned full citizenship.
These themes would animate black commemorations of Appomattox, which persisted into the 20th century, in the North as well as the South. On the 9 April 1914, for example, the congregation of Philadelphia’s Miller Memorial Baptist Church gathered to celebrate “the Emancipation of the Ethiopians from American slavery, by the surrender of Robert E. Lee to General U.S. Grant at Appomattox.” Ten years later, in 1924, Roscoe Simmons, a columnist for the Chicago Defender, reminded his readers that “slavery began in Virginia” and that, fittingly, “it ended in Virginia” with Lee’s capitulation. This made Appomattox, in his view, African Americans’ “place of salvation.” Such discourse reminds us that 9 April 1865 was a touchstone for the politics of race and reunion.
Elizabeth R. Varon is Langbourne M. Williams Professor of American History at the University of Virginia. A noted Civil War historian, she is the author of Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War; Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859; We Mean to be Counted: White Women and Politics in Antebellum Virginia; and Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, A Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy, which was named one of the “Five Best” books on the “Civil War away from the battlefield” by the Wall Street Journal.