Appomattox: How a War Ends

On the morning of April 9, 1865, one hundred and fifty years ago, the main Confederate army attempted a last desperate escape from its encirclement southwest of Richmond, Virginia. The attempt was over by the break of dawn, and General Robert E. Lee sent a letter to General Ulysses S. Grant. Grant later described that he’d been suffering from a terrible migraine headache for hours on that morning, and that the moment he read Lee’s letter his headache disappeared.

How does a war end? There are many different possible ways. Recent US wars in Iraq both ended badly and uncertainly, as our invading forces left vacuums of power behind. But questionable wars do not always end badly. The US/Vietnam War, which began exactly a hundred years after the US Civil War ended, was finally resolved in a luxurious European conference room by depraved and nefarious diplomats. And yet the unified Vietnam that emerged from this banal treaty turned out to be a peaceful presence in the world.

Ironies abound as we compare the unique ways a war can end. The Korean War never ended; it stands ridiculously at eternal stalemate, requiring armed guards to stand stiffly with weapons glaring at each other across a big fence to this day. They are marching at that fence right now, solitary soldiers in a war that has been dormant since the age of television: a show that nobody knows how to cancel.

World War One and World War Two each ended in opposite ways. The Second World War so completely exhausted all its combatants that most of the nations involved have managed to live peacefully next to each other since 1945. They seem to have learned a lesson that is all too easy to forget.

But the chaotic collapse of Germany 27 years earlier at the end of the First World War left a dreadful power vacuum. Extremist parties began rising up almost immediately in Berlin and Munich, as the leaders of the victorious nations met at Versailles to produce a formal treaty that would provide an enduring peace. American president Woodrow Wilson strongly urged an equitable settlement, along with the creation of a powerful League of Nations to arbitrate global disputes.

The League of Nations was formed, but Wilson’s own Senate refused to ratify the treaty, mostly on petty political grounds. Led by Wilson’s bitter rival Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, the US Senate actually rejected the treaty that all the nations of Europe had signed, a treaty that was designed to curb the power of extremist parties that were then rising all over Germany. Four years later, Hitler staged his first putsch.

Some wars end in an overpowering sense of moral collapse. The literature and journalism of late 19th Century France shows a nation deeply wounded by the disaster of the Franco-Prussian War. But other defeated countries bounce quickly back, as Japan did after 1945. It’s very difficult to find clear patterns of any kind that explain how a war ends, and what happens after it does.

150 years ago in Appomattox, Virginia, four years of ruinous war ended with an outburst of gentlemanly courtesy. According to all accounts of the meeting between Lee and Grant, both generals addressed each other with sincere warmth. Lee told Grant that his soldiers were hungry, and Grant ordered that they be immediately fed from his stocks.

Though this meeting went well, a bitterness has remained between the former South and the former North in the United States of America, and a political division has remained too. When a war is fought and the war ends, do the conflicts that originally created the war linger into the peace that follows? It does not seem so; rather the shame of defeat itself sometimes seems to become a new source of conflict.

War is a thing that self-perpetuates; this is perhaps the best reason why peace treaties are nearly always helpful. What, for instance, are the USA and Iran at war about today? Nobody really knows, and yet we do not seem to know how to end this war either. Sometimes there is a war that nobody wants to fight, and in fact the war has already been over for a long time, even though few have the insight to realize this truth.

* * * * *

I visited Appomattox, Virginia for the 150th anniversary. Here are some pictures I took while visiting the town and the historical park, where of course a reenactment was taking place. The specter of Robert E. Lee on horseback with an aide seemed to me to bear an unintentional resemblance to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. The house is the reconstructed McLean House, where Lee and Grant’s first meeting took place.

8 Responses

  1. Since I moved to Texas in
    Since I moved to Texas in 1979, I heard more about the Lost Cause than I ever did Up North where WWII was with the older generations & Viet-Nam with the younger. Peace was the vibe in those years before Reagan made the Cold War hot but that was somewhere else so that was OK. After Gulf War1, the USA was a winner again so war was OK as long as someone else did the dying.
    the worse thing about the war on terror is that there are no widely popular songs with good lines such as “Give peace a chance.”
    The 2nd worse thing is the lack of rage over the free reign of the war machine et al& its profiteers.
    BTW, v.good post

  2. …war without end. Humanity
    …war without end. Humanity, on the whole, knows no other way….it’s a matter of degrees…sad, really. Our own political wars, domestic wars, and culture wars…exhausting. War causes grudges and grudges are hard to break…

  3. Problem is terrorism exists.
    Problem is terrorism exists. Just listen to them and their threats.

  4. “And yet the unified Vietnam
    “And yet the unified Vietnam that emerged from this banal treaty turned out to be a peaceful presence in the world.” Did YOU miss the people who were killed after we left for supporting the war against the North? Even after we left and the South cave din a few years later the killing and imprisonment didn’t stop. Did you miss all those sent to re-education camps for years? “What, for instance, are the USA and Iran at war about today? Nobody really knows” Really? Do the numerous threats of complete destruction of Israel ring a bell? Iran assistances to Assad, another brutal dictator and supporter of terrorism, didn’t happen? How about Iran’s assistance to terrorism throughout the middle east? Hezbollah and Hamas are unknown names to YOU? The idea of nukes for Iran is seen by most countries in the middle east as a threat to the world but YOU don’t? How many things do the US, France Great Britain agree on and sit at the table trying to bring another country in line?

  5. Hi Jim — thanks for engaging
    Hi Jim — thanks for engaging with me about this topic. There’s a lot to say here.

    The Vietnam War was sold to the American people on the pretext that “if Vietnam falls to Communism, all Asia is lost, and the entire world will be lost”. I’m pointing out that Vietnam was ultimately unified as a Communist country, but no other dominoes fell. In fact, it was Communist Vietnam that finally intervened to end the horrifying genocide in neighboring Cambodia being carried out by fellow Communist Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Of course there were many lives lost in a war that killed millions of people … that is the very nature of war, and in fact that is why I’m a pacifist. If you are concerned about deaths in war, why are you not a pacifist?

    As for Iran … the terrible status quo in which Iran sponsors terrorism, frightens Israel with (empty) propaganda and races to build a nuclear bomb is the result of six decades of NO PEACE. How do you think a peace treaty would make things worse? The goal of the peace treaty is to improve Iran’s communication with the west and empower the moderates over the extremists in Iran. The alternative is to do what we did with the extremists in 1920s Germany — ignore them while they rise in power.

  6. Missed adding China & Russia
    Missed adding China & Russia sitting at the table with the US, France & Britain.

  7. Jim, it’s not a peace treaty
    Jim, it’s not a peace treaty unless you meet with some enemies. Nobody ever said peace was easy.

  8. I’m sorry, but thoughtful
    I’m sorry, but thoughtful discourse isn’t possible when one looks at only one side of a story/ situation. That is propaganda, not discussion.

    Why is there no discussion of the hard-right Israeli government’s acts of terror? Why no consideration of The West’s 20th century history in the Middle East? Why no mention of the cia muscling in on Iran to install the Shah’s brutal regime? Why no mention of Iraq’s invasion based on straight-up fraud?– an invasion schemed by a pack of chickenhawk neo-cons, some of them straight out of extremist Likud think tanks– an invasion that gave us bloody Western military occupation of a country on BOTH sides of Iran. Why no mention of any of these types of things? NO. It’s always THE OTHER that is inherently evil, and the cause of war, isn’t it?

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