The end of the Civil War. An end to terrible things. Everything back to normal, like the concluding moments of a sitcom episode.
Admittedly, this is how I imagined the Surrender at Appomattox Court House ever since grade school. Not only because of how textbooks present it, but also because the hero of the day, Ulysses S. Grant, is in my family tree. He and my grandfather’s great-great grandfather were first cousins, removed seven generations. (They probably never even met.) So when I made my pilgrimage last month to the place where Uncle Ulysses saved the Union, I arrived proud and eager to celebrate.
My first stop was to the Visitor Information Center, where I watched a brief film outlining the events leading to the eventual surrender of the Confederacy. “With malice toward none”, an expression from Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, was very much taken to heart by Grant and General Robert E. Lee, who did everything they could that fateful day to try and begin to mend a broken nation.
And then my perspective of the surrender became less cut-and-dry.
Immediately following the film, I attended an outdoor presentation of a gentlemen dressed as Dr. William Christian, Appomattox County's doctor at the time of the Civil War. This was a Living History interpretation, so as far as he was concerned, it was October of 1865, months after the Civil War ended. He looked like a real 19th-Century Virginian—long beard, distinct drawl, and eyes that might as well have been tattooed with “Don’t Tread on Me”. The audience of this presentation was comprised of thirty 9th-graders and a handful of adult tourists, including me. Doc Christian asked us why we had come to Appomattox Court House. I wanted to give the children a chance to answer, but it was clear that no one was going to speak up. So, I raised my enthusiastic, liberal hand and asked, “I’m from the North, and respectfully, I’d like to know why you decided to stand with the Confederacy.”
He said that at first, he and his fellow Virginians didn’t want to get involved in the tensions between President Lincoln and South Carolina, the first state to secede. And yet, Virginian soldiers were among the first to be sent to fight on behalf of the Union—and many did not come home. They did not want to continue waging war against their fellow Southerners, and so they left the Union.
“So it wasn’t an issue of slavery?”
He paused and stared me down. He reminded me that Appomattox Court House was built on the backs of slaves, and that their economic success depended on their labor. And, at this point in 1865, where were slaves supposed to go? They had a place to live here, and if they were to be freed, they would likely suffer anywhere else.
I had always known this was a talking point for the Confederacy. But hearing it from an actual person’s mouth—even if those lips were in character—was chilling and disturbing. He could tell that I wasn’t pleased with his answer. When he asked how I get my food in the North, I answered with pro-labor mindfulness that I get it from people who earn a fair wage with decent working conditions. He responded that he'd heard about how Northerners treat minorities. Irish, Jews…and yes, even African Americans. And it’s true. Racism pervaded all around the continent.
Though I was still appalled that someone would give such a rationale for slavery, I decided to be quiet and let Doc Christian continue the presentation. He told us about how Appomattox Court House was left in complete shambles after the surrender. The town was ransacked. Tensions prevailed between Virginians and Union soldiers who were assigned to stay put. And although African Americans were free on paper, it surely wasn’t the case for many in real life.
After this presentation, I explored the grounds and some of the trails nearby. I visited the McLean House, in which Grant and Lee drew up the terms of surrender. I still felt some family pride there, but my newfound perspective held back some of my original enthusiasm. Indeed, the surrender was not the feel-good resolution that I had romanticized. It brought change to our nation’s framework, no doubt. But the struggles of racism, xenophobia, sexism, North vs. South, Urban vs. Rural…these are just as real in 2015 as they were in 1865. They did not magically disappear.
Although the events at Appomattox Court House account for just a portion of the first act in “Appomattox”, I still feel that my visit enhanced my understanding of the opera. As performers, it’s important to know: What are we conveying? Joy? Grief? Hope? Fear? The answer for this opera is, all of the above and more. Indeed, our audiences experienced such a mixed bag of events that demonstrate our country’s truly brackish history. And it was thrilling to portray them from the orchestral pit.