Should We Treat the Civil War the Way Germany Treats WWII?


Our article today is another from Crystal Ferreira, history teacher at Polyhistoria, as she tackles a topic that is touchy for many in the US. Should the America treat the history of the Civil War in the same manner as Germany treats World War II? We’ll let her take it away from here.

Civil War reenactors on a mock battlefield

How Did the Civil War End?

After 4 years of fighting, General Ulysses S. Grant’s armies had finally defeated General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. While the surrender terms had been agreed upon by Lee and Grant on April 9, 1865, the formal surrender ceremony did not take place until April 12th.

Neither Lee nor Grant elected to attend the surrender ceremony—instead, Grant selected
Brevet Major General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain to receive the surrender of the Confederate infantry.

Grant’s approach to surrendering was the same as it was to fighting: pragmatic and unpretentious. He had no intention of holding a formal, parade-ground surrender ceremony, with the Confederate commander handing over his sword. He had no desire to rub the Southerners’ noses in it; capitulation was humiliation enough. This was a mistake. It sent the message to the South that they hadn’t really surrendered.

What Happened Instead?

One officer, Brig. Gen. Edward Porter Alexander, suggested that instead of surrendering, Lee disperse the army and tell the men to regroup with Johnston’s army or return to their states to continue fighting. Lee rejected the idea, explaining that “if I took your advice, the men would be without rations and under no control of officers. They would be compelled to rob and steal in order to live. They would become mere bands of marauders.”

Lee’s words were dignified and gentlemanly– he came across not as a man who was beaten, but rather as a man who cared for the well-being of the people. Lee surrendered because he knew that Grant wouldn’t demand an unconditional surrender.

Grant not demanding unconditional surrender, not holding a parade-ground surrender ceremony, and not attending the surrender ceremony (and forcing Lee to attend as well) are all mistakes that can still be felt today. The combined lack of all of those things sent the message to the South that they had never really surrendered at all.