Appomattox, Through a Glass Darkly

Crossposted from Asia Times:

Fittingly, the 150th anniversary of Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse fell on the sixth day of Passover, “the season of our freedom,” when Jews celebrate God’s eruption into human history to free them from Egyptian slavery. Appomattox denoted the end of the American Civil War, which claimed 750,000 lives. The equivalent number proportionate to today’s population would be 7 million. Understandably, Americans remain obsessed with the conflict, by far the bloodiest in our history.

The American Republic which the Civil War renewed, purged with blood of the stain of slavery, arose from a biblical vision of governance in the English Revolution of the 17th century, as Harvard’s Eric NelsonRabbi Lord Jonathan SacksRabbi Meir Soloveichik and others have shown.

For Jews, the primary goal of Passover observance is to make every Jew feel as if he personally had left Egypt with Moses and stood before Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. With respect to our Civil War, many Americans yearn to feel like participants. Europeans do not reenact the great battles of their wars, but thousands of Americans don blue and gray, learn to fire muzzle-loaders, and camp on the battlefields of the Civil War.

But for all the reenactments, films, books, ceremonies and memorabilia, Americans cannot place themselves inside the minds of the men who sacrificed themselves with such terrible abandon. Visitors to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington stare at the chiseled words of the Second Inaugural Address on the marble walls with as much comprehension as American tourists viewing hieroglyphs at Abu Simbel.

Our past may be lost to us, a matter of remote myth like the battles of the “fair-haired Achaians” in the eyes of contemporary Greeks. Perhaps we have become a different, lesser people, staring without comprehension at the relics of the race of giants that inhabited this land a century and a half ago. Perhaps we still can return to the moral grandeur of the generation of 1861. I do not know.


America’s mission hung by a thread at the outbreak of the Civil War. Even Abraham Lincoln did not understand at the outset where the war would take him. As Richard Brookhiser observes, a religious conversion separates the Lincoln of the Gettysburg Address from the Lincoln of the Second Inaugural Address, with its explicit reference to a Providence that directs human affairs, and not necessarily in a way that men find congenial. The evangelical historian Mark Noll argues that Lincoln did not receive his theology from his religious contemporaries, but rather rediscovered it and taught it to them:

Views of providence provide the sharpest contrast between Lincoln and the professional theologians of his day. The American God may have been working too well for the Protestant theologians who, even as they exploited Scripture and pious experience so successfully, yet found it easy to equate America’s moral government of God with Christianity itself. Their tragedy – and the greater the theologian, the greater the tragedy – was to rest content with a God defined by the American conventions God’s own loyal servants had exploited so well.

The grandchild remembers what the father never learned, a Yiddish proverb has it; Lincoln, the grandchild of the American Founding, remembered what the preceding generation had forgotten. That offers us a modicum of hope in an age which has forgotten how to remember.

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