Today’s reunification efforts, led by Republicans who call for healing just days after the riot, mask challenges much as similar calls did in 1865. Then, as now, we were a country divided by different values, including a contingent willing to use violence and anti-democratic means to accomplish its goals. Healing isn’t possible until those challenges are placed squarely on the table and addressed. Nor is it possible when those who seek to thwart the Constitution aren’t held accountable.
History reminds us that avoiding this difficult work only pushes division and violence into the future.
The very goals of the Union war effort and Reconstruction were to preserve the union and reunify, which meant ending slavery and bringing the individuals and states of the Confederacy back into the national fold. But when Gen. Ulysses S. Grant compelled the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s army at Appomattox in 1865, Grant’s primary goal was merely to end the fighting. There was no co-signed treaty dictating the terms of peace or laying out the process of reunion. Instead, Grant paroled Lee’s army and sent them home on the promise that they would not be disturbed by U.S. officials so long as they agreed to henceforth obey the law.
Grant, worried about the dispersal of rebel soldiers across the South and the potential for guerrilla warfare that might follow, insisted that paroling as many Confederates as quickly as possible would serve as the best means for achieving peace and reconciliation. Retribution, he believed, would lead to continued warfare. But in the weeks and months that followed, many Northerners rebuked Grant for his magnanimous surrender terms.
Though President Andrew Johnson at first called to punish the treasonous, he then offered, only weeks after taking office, forgiveness rather than punishment. On May 29, 1865, he issued his first proclamation of pardon, which conferred amnesty to all participants in the rebellion who took an oath promising two things: to support and defend the Constitution, and to support all laws concerning the emancipation of slaves. Confederates did not need to rebuke their cause or denounce their past actions, only promise future loyalty. Johnson’s policy opened the door for the vast majority of Confederates to regain their legal and political rights as Americans.
Johnson and Grant believed that the country could heal if it looked forward rather than backward. But this approach only helped seed further resistance. Even at Appomattox, Lee fanned the flames of division when he praised Confederates for devotion to their country. As one Virginia newspaper reassured its readers, “We are still proud of our country [aye, if possible, prouder than ever], and still love it with devotion intensified by her misfortune.”
With no consequences for their acts of rebellion, the months after Appomattox saw former Confederates regain local and state control and bend it to their purposes. They passed Black Codes, which limited the freedom of 4 million newly emancipated men and women. They escalated violence against both African Americans and White Southern Unionists. While White Southerners acknowledged that their quest for Confederate independence failed, they refused to concede that their cause had been unconstitutional or their actions treasonous. The Union might have been preserved by the war, but the “mystic chords of memory,” which Lincoln spoke of in 1861, had yet to bind the hearts and souls of Confederates to their former enemies, White and Black.
On Jan. 6, we saw men and women — of all ages, geographies and economic means — attacking the seat of democracy while carrying Trump, Confederate and American flags. Virginia state senator and Republican gubernatorial candidate Amanda Chase tips her hat to peaceful protest but refers to those who stormed the Capitol as “patriots” who have been backed into a corner, provoking “revolution.”
Far from co-partners in a “healing” process, those who rampaged through the U.S. Capitol — and others who were at home cheering them on — have expressed a commitment to continued violence and upending the rule of law.
Before reconciliation can take hold, we must be clear about who we want to be as a nation and act on values that support the practice of democracy. We must also use our Constitution, laws and norms to defeat those who don’t support them. The lesson that must be learned from the Civil War and Reconstruction is that accountability, not denial, is essential to healing.