06/09/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Ceremony of Forgetting: Appomattox

"Tell General Lee that my command has been fought to a frazzle... I can not long go forward."
General J.B. Gordon was a man for whom "forward" was an article of religion; if he was admitting weakness, it could mean only the end. Lee's face, as always, betrayed no emotion - but his shoulders lost something of their confident set: "then there is nothing left for me to do but to go and see General Grant - and I would rather die a thousand deaths."

Today in 1865 saw the last drops of fight drain from the Army of Northern Virginia. Wielded with genius and daring by leaders whose names resonate like Old Testament kings, it had survived all 1,264 days of the Civil War and, in the course of a dozen major battles, regularly humiliated larger forces commanded by lesser men. From the mile-wide surge of Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg to a thousand savage little fights in the burning Wilderness, it had shown all the courage and skill that any nation could ask of its military; but it crumbled at last before the laws of probability.

Probability reveals itself in repetition: black may come up on the wheel once, twice, or even twenty-six times, but if you have to keep playing, the house will take your bankroll. It was only with the appointment of U.S. Grant that the Union gained a general who realized that the North was the house. When, in May 1864, he crossed the Rapidan and advanced into northern Virginia, Grant kept uppermost in his mind the one fact his predecessors had ignored: that superior force, if it bears down unrelentingly, must prevail. After every battle, won or lost, he simply extended a little to his right and pressed a little forward, slowly stretching and thinning Lee's army before him. The two spent the winter in trench warfare around the town of Petersburg. In April, abandoning the South's last cities, Lee headed out once more for open country - but then Gordon, cutting his way over the ridge, saw those long blue lines facing him. They were trapped; there was no "forward" to go to.

In faultless dress uniform, straight as an ash-tree on his war-horse Traveller, Lee rode out to meet Grant - in a private's flannel shirt with tarnished shoulder bars, "dusty, and a little soiled." When the matter of surrender was broached, a great sadness seemed to settle over the victorious commander, and it was some time before he could get to business. His terms were fair, even generous - and when they were announced, he forbade cheering: the Confederates were "now our countrymen," and it would be wrong to "exult in their downfall." As the 23,000 thin and ragged veterans marched past give up their weapons, the Union regiments that lined the road gave them the honors of war, presenting arms in silent salute. "On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glorying... but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead!"

Military music has its fine funeral notes, and this is one of the best. But in its perfection, it obscures what all the fighting had been about. War and the study of war are like ancient drama: an artifice to isolate the complicated, indeterminate qualities of fate - and therefore history - and represent them as appropriate and intended. The Civil War "becomes" the tragedy of Lee, in which even the agents of his loss feel the melancholy fitness of his end. In reality, though, the war was not about the Army of Northern Virginia, its admirable leader and its relentless opponents. It was not about the Peach Orchard, or Little Round Top, or the moonlit fording of the Chickahominy. It was not the struggle of chivalry against implacable modernity. It was not even the conflict of State's Rights and Federal power. It was about those important people not present on this spring morning at Appomattox Court House: the slaves.

This sad pageant of surrender marked the passing of a way of life founded - not "ultimately," but intimately and immediately - on the unpaid labor of a third of the South's population. The Northern soldiers (or, more accurately, civilians under arms) admired Lee's chevaliers, without fear or reproach, bold, careless and free - but free was the essential prerequisite for all the rest; slavery paid for those fine horses they rode so well, the leisure to practice their martial skills, and the balls at which they polished their dazzling manners. To judge from antebellum diaries, there was scarcely a prominent man of the Confederacy, civil or military, who actually depended on his occupation to support him; even the lawyers were landed gentry, freed from care by the sun-cursed toil of sweating field hands. So let us, by all means, indulge our sentiment and recall with sweet sadness a lost age of courage, courtesy, and honor - but we can never forget the savage injustice that maintained this lovely artifice. Truth, like Grant, may not be attractive - but it prevails.