Most anniversary commemorations of the Confederacy’s surrender 150-years ago in April, 1865, overlooked a meaningful exchange at that little courthouse in Appomattox, Va. After the proud defeated commander, Robert E. Lee, formally surrendered to the short, squat, sloppy winner, Ulysses S. Grant, Grant introduced Lee to his staff. As Lee shook hands with Grant’s military secretary Ely Parker, a Seneca Indian, the Confederate general stared a moment at Parker’s dark features. “I am glad to see one real American here,” the Virginian said. Parker immediately replied: “We are all Americans.”
That, ultimately, was what the war had been all about, just who was an American and what did that mean. Northerners had gone to war—and to their deaths—singing “Glory, Glory Hallelujah,” a song, written by a New England abolitionist, Julia Ward Howe, evoking the Book of Revelation, capturing the millennial idealism that was and is America. Singing “His truth is marching on” imagines a nation of nations, stronger, prouder, freer, than any other, a chosen nation, blessed as more democratic, welcoming, equal, righteous—and thus occasionally more self-righteous—than any other country.
Their Confederate brothers had less grandiose motives. They sang “In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand, an’ lib an’ die in Dixie.” A song epitomizing love of home, this provincial anthem cherished both individual autonomy and regional or ethnic solidarity in a centralizing, homogenizing, nation. Ironically, tragically, disgustingly, the Southerners—most of whom were not slaveholders—defended their liberty, their freedom, their prerogatives, with provincial prejudices that hurt and enslaved three million others.