In February 2017, a month after the inauguration of Donald Trump as president, the veteran U.S. diplomat Dan Fried gave a much-covered retirement speech that included the following line: “The option of a White Man’s Republic ended at Appomattox.” It was an extraordinary thing for a senior American diplomat to feel the need to say in 2017 and the line was on my mind a lot as I read more about the American Civil War in the months that followed and visited Appomattox last autumn. But increasingly it seemed to me that Fried was wrong. The “option of a White Man’s Republic” should have ended at Appomattox. But what was happening in America, and in particular what happened in Charlottesville (60 miles from Appomattox) in the summer of 2017, showed that it hadn’t – at least in the minds of some Americans.
Appomattox in southern Virginia brands itself as the place “where our nation reunited”. In reality, the war did not end instantaneously when General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House on 9 April 1865. As Gregory Downs pointed out in an op-ed in the New York Times on the 150th anniversary of the surrender in April 2015, fighting continued for weeks afterwards and the United States continued to use its war powers to put down a white insurgency in the South for more than five years. But even that, the South did not give up. “Whatever the extent of Union victory on the battlefield, the verdicts to be rendered in history and memory were not settled at Appomattox,” David Blight writes in Race and Reunion, a study of the memory of the Civil War in the fifty years following the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
Blight’s argument is that the sectional reconciliation that took place in the fifty years following the end of the war took place largely on Southern terms. “Healing” took precedence over justice as the South successfully fought a “second war” against Reconstruction in the decades after 1865. Thus, as Blight put it in an article for the Atlantic – also on the 150th anniversary of Appomattox in April 2015 – “the defeated in this civil war eventually came to control large elements of the event’s meaning, legacies, and policy implications, a reality wracked with irony and driven by the nation’s persistent racism”. Thus, Blight concluded a year and a half before the election of Trump, “the great issues of the war were not resolved on that April morning at Appomattox. In this sense, not only is the Civil War not over; it can still be lost.”
The meaning of Appomattox, in other words, is more ambiguous than Fried suggests. The defeat of the Confederacy on the battlefield certainly ended slavery in America. But with it, the losers of the war began a struggle for a different version of a “White Man’s Republic” in which African-Americans would nevertheless remain disadvantaged in all kinds of other ways – and, at least since the election of Trump, it is clear that that struggle it is still ongoing. To claim that “the option of a White Man’s Republic ended at Appomattox” seems to me to whitewash American history since the end of the Civil War. Like the idea that Trump is “un-American”, it obscures the dark current of American history – going back to Appomattox and beyond – of which he is a part. The question is just how strong that current remains.