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Guest opinion: Appomattox and our desperate need for constructive civility

This is an undated photo of the American Civil War Confederate surrender house at Appomattox Court House, Va. It was at the home of Wilmer McLean that Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865.
This is an undated photo of the American Civil War Confederate surrender house at Appomattox Court House, Va. It was at the home of Wilmer McLean that Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865.
via Associated Press

On this day in 1865, with his army demoralized, beleaguered and defeated, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee met Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in a small home in the town of Appomattox Court House to negotiate terms of surrender. Anticipating being humiliated and taken as Grant’s prisoner, Lee dressed in his crisp, ornate ceremonial uniform. Lee was, as celebrated historian Ron Chernow describes him, “determined to look the victor, even if he could not be one.”

Many Northerners wanted to seek vengeance and inflict crushing pain on the South. At Appomattox, Gen. Philip Sheridan had Lee’s army trapped and wanted to decimate his forces. But Grant’s terms followed principles laid out by Lincoln in his second inaugural address, “to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

“With malice toward none, with charity for all” as the guiding ideal, Grant proposed that all Lee’s officers and men be pardoned, sent home with Union rations and their private property, including their side arms and horses.

As salutes began to ring out in celebration of the war’s end, Grant quieted them, stating “The war is over. The Rebels are our countrymen again.” In his memoir, Grant described his feelings. “I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though the cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”

Grant's adjutant Ely S. Parker recorded the terms of the surrender. Upon discovering Parker to be a Native American of the Seneca tribe, Lee remarked "I am glad to see one real American here." Parker replied, "We are all Americans." These ideals of respect and reconciliation, as well as the ability to accommodate and include diverse voices, were, tragically, upended in the years of Reconstruction and thereafter.

More than 620,000 American soldiers died from combat wounds, calamities, starvation and disease during the Civil War — nearly as many as in every other war combined. The events at Appomattox have become a symbol of magnanimity and reconciliation despite the fact that the reality of the moment’s idealistic vision was scarcely realized in the decades that followed.

Though the fabric of our nation is not as frayed as it was during the Civil War period, our deepening political divisions are concerning, if not alarming. Furthermore, our public space is divided into echo chambers in which we can electronically wall ourselves off from diverse perspectives and construct our own social reality. We tend to listen to voices we agree with and demonize rivals. Compromise is seen as selling out. Absent a common space in which rival views are constructively engaged, peaceable solutions to our most pressing social and political challenges remain elusive.

We desperately need a common ethical commitment to civility. Otherwise, the temptation is to go the way of Sheridan and overreach, battering our opponents into submission and furthering the cycle of anger and retribution.

In recent years, colleges and universities have become flashpoints for this deepening division. Controversies over campus speakers raise questions about who can and should have a voice in our nation. Nevertheless, higher education has the potential to become an important part of the solution. The American system of higher education was designed in part to produce good citizens. Thomas Jefferson’s vision was to create an educated citizenry that could lead to more peaceable and constructive pluralism.

General education programs are designed in part to help younger generations think more deeply and carefully about their place in society and to provide them tools to productively contribute to the civic wellbeing of their communities, nation, and globalized society.

Commemorating the ideals of civility, diplomacy, and inclusion that were demonstrated at Appomattox Court House, Utah Valley University has developed the Appomattox Project, a multi-year initiative designed to advance the ethical dimensions of public life and to promote civility, engage critical issues and explore how ethical principles and practices can enrich our democratic culture. The project includes a variety of events and activities including workshops, public lectures, student research projects, panel discussions and community projects.

Today’s anniversary of Appomattox may remind us all of the importance of staying involved in public issues and working together for the public good. Toward this end, we invite the broader community to engage with us in the effort to advance civil dialogue, inclusion, compassion and compromise. Nothing less than the health of our democracy is at stake.

Brian D. Birch is director of the Center for the Study of Ethics and professor of philosophy at Utah Valley University; Karen Hale is director of special initiatives for Salt Lake County; Charles Cannon is co-president of Cannon, Massarsky & Company in Salt Lake City. Information on the project can be found at