Should We Make the Confederacy’s Defeat a National Holiday?

Painting by Tom Lovell of Lee surrendering to Grant commissioned by National Geographic for their April 1965, “centennial” edition.

This 2015 article suggests we should make April 9, the date of R. E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant, a national holiday. “This week provides an occasion for the U.S. government to get real about history, as April 9 is the 150th anniversary of the Union’s victory in the Civil War. The generous terms of Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House foreshadowed a multitude of real and symbolic compromises that the winners of the war would make with secessionists, slavery supporters, and each other to piece the country back together. It’s as appropriate an occasion as the Selma anniversary to reflect on the country’s struggle to improve itself. And to mark the occasion, the federal government should make two modest changes: It should make April 9 a federal holiday; and it should commit to disavowing or renaming monuments to the Confederacy, and its leaders, that receive direct federal support.”

In 2013, the article tells us, ” Jamie Malanowski proposed recommemorating 10 Southern U.S. Army bases that bear the names of Confederate officers. These include both obscure fighters—like Edmund Rucker, who is commemorated more for his successes as a post-war industrialist than as a combatant—and extremely prominent warriors for the cause of slavery—like P. G. T. Beauregard, whose men fired the first shots at Fort Sumter; and A. P. Hill, who made an example of race mixers by parading hundreds of captured Union soldiers, black and white, through the taunting streets of Petersburg, Virginia. As Malanowski explained, all of the bases were built during the world-war mobilizations in the first half of the 20th century. The responsibility for naming them fell to people with antiquated racial views and blinkered memories of the Civil War itself. It’s unfathomable that anyone today would attempt to name a new military installation, or rename an old one, after a Confederate general. But at the time these bases were named, there wasn’t nearly as much of a consensus behind the argument that the Confederates committed treason against the United States in support of a war for slavery. That lack of consensus was an ineluctable consequence of concerted postbellum efforts to sand down the seams reuniting the states. There was a real but inadequate constituency for crushing the Southern establishment after the Civil War, and reintegrating the country under an entirely different paradigm. Instead, the North enabled the South by giving it unusual influence over shaping the official mythology of the war. Yes, the South surrendered. The states ratified the 13th Amendment. The Union survived. These facts couldn’t be altered. But memorializing the rebellion as a tragedy of circumstance, or a bravely fought battle of principle—those narratives were adopted in part for the unspoken purpose of making the reunion stick. ‘You lost, we won, and we’re all living in the USA,’ Talking Point Memo’s Josh Marshall once wrote. ‘But we’ll let you win in the battle of memory and valor and nostalgia.’ ” In anticipating resistance to this proposal, the author writes, “those who would caution that a more accurate reckoning with the Confederacy would inflame racial tensions are merely restating the implication that the country is too weak to be introspective.”

In concluding, the author writes, “the Union’s victory, and the abolition of slavery, both merit celebration as exemplars of American improvement and renewal, even if many Unionists weren’t moral heroes. These twin accomplishments are as worthy of a federal holiday as any holiday we already celebrate. So let’s name April 9 New Birth of Freedom Day. And if that creates too much paid leave for government workers, we could swap out Columbus Day.”

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2 comments

  1. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

    “And if that creates too much paid leave for government workers, we could swap out Columbus Day.”

    Probably the best line in the article 😊. I am sold on the idea that the end of slavery should be recognized and celebrated, however, the more appropriate date would coincide with Juneteenth. Since the actual end of the Civil War did not occur on April 9th, I do not feel that it is the proper day to commemorate the end of slavery.

    1. The official end of the war didn’t happen until 1866, but Lee and the ANV were so important to the confederacy their surrender essentially ensured United States victory.

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