On the day after the surrender at Appomattox Court House, Va., Abraham Lincoln appeared at a second-floor window of the White House. He was acceding to the wishes of citizens who had gathered to serenade their president in this moment of victory. They called for a speech but Lincoln demurred. Instead he asked the band to play “Dixie.”
The song — a homesick Southerner’s lament — had been the de facto anthem of the Confederacy during 48 bloody months of Civil War, but Lincoln declared now that the South held no monopoly on it. “I have always thought ‘Dixie’ one of the best tunes I have ever heard,” he said. It was probably his way of encouraging a nation that had ripped itself apart along sectional lines to begin knitting itself together again.
Lincoln received an answer of sorts two days later as beaten rebels surrendered their weapons to the Union Army. Union Gen. Joshua Chamberlain remarked to Southern counterpart Henry Wise that perhaps now “brave men may become good friends.”
Wise’s reply was bitter as smoke. “You’re mistaken, sir,” he said. “You may forgive us, but we won’t be forgiven. There is a rancor in our hearts which you little dream of. We hate you, sir.”
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Two days after that, April 14, Lincoln received a more direct response. John Wilkes Booth, famed actor and Southern sympathizer, shot him in the head.
Thus ended arguably the most consequential week in American history. This week, the events of that week move fully 150 years into the past. They are further away than they have ever been. And yet, they feel quite close. If the “hate” Henry Wise spoke of has dissipated in the 15 decades gone by, what has not faded is Dixie’s sense of itself as a place apart and a people done wrong. Small wonder.
Twice now — at gunpoint in the 1860s, by force of law a century later — the rest of the country has imposed change on the South, made it do what it did not want to do, i.e., extend basic human rights to those it had systematically brutalized and oppressed. No other part of the country has ever experienced that, has ever seen itself so harshly chastised by the rest.
Both times, the act was moral and necessary. But who can deny, or be surprised, that in forcing the South to do the right thing, the rest of the country fostered an abiding resentment, an enduring “apartness,” made the South a region defined by resistance. Name the issue — immigration, race, abortion, education, criminal justice — and law and custom in Dixie have long stood stubbornly apart from the rest of the country. But the headline 150 years later is that that apartness no longer confines itself to the boundaries of the Confederacy.
In 2015, for example, we see the old pattern repeating in the fight over marriage equality — most of the country having decided as a moral matter that this has to happen, yet a few people resisting as the change is imposed over their wishes. But if resistance is fierce in Arkansas, it also is fierce in Indiana. The sense of apartness is less geographically constrained. Who knows if that’s progress?
There is nothing predestined about America’s ultimate ability to overcome its contradictions. This was true in 1865 and it’s true now. It will always be true of a people bound, not by common ancestry but only common cause — a presumed fealty to self-evident truths.
America shattered in 1861. Lincoln forced the bloody pieces back together at the cost of more than 600,000 lives, one of them his own. It never did knit itself back together in the way he had hoped — in the way he might have helped it to, had he survived.
Instead, it became this once broken thing where the seams of repair still show. And the question of that consequential week is the question of every day since then. Can you make a country out of that?
So far, so good.