"The Bells of Appomattox" (Essay)

Reflecting on the many contradictions in our nation's history as a milestone anniversary passes, and the author ponders the influence of where we've been on how we go forward.

At 3pm today, bells will ring all across this great land to mark the sesquicentennial of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, about 3 hours south of my home here in the tranquil foothills of the Blue Ridge. The book of the American story is opened to these pages this week, for us to revisit, and reflect, and remember. And in so doing, all eyes are once again on us - the state where the most blood was spilled, the home of the rebel capital and the fertile Shenandoah Valley, the "breadbasket of the Confederacy". And the beginnings of the reunion - to become again one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Last week we took a family trip "back in time" to the roots of that one nation - a trip we've planned with my mom for a long time to southeastern Virginia's "Historic Triangle". We started in 1607 at Jamestown, the first English settlement. The next day was into the 1700s at Colonial Williamsburg, and the excitement of hearing the Declaration of Independence being read at the old state Capitol building as well as seeing "General Washington" review the troops as they prepared to march to Yorktown (an impressive herd of little people, including one in bunny ears). And our final day, a stirring visit to that site where the Revolution was essentially won in October of 1781; "Until Yorktown, the Declaration was nothing but a promise, and it was here at Yorktown where that promise was kept". Stirring words delivered at the conclusion of a brilliant and passionate park ranger's talk about the meaning of the battle, and a fantastic end to our inspiring visit.

Yet from those early days at Jamestown, the story that led to the promise was built in large part on the forced labor of the unwilling. That miserable paradox, that "peculiar institution", was allowed by our most revered documents and our founding fathers to flourish until it ripped us apart. While Appomattox is a defining moment in our history that loosely marks the forced end of slavery, still we struggle with the twin promises - that "all men are created equal", and "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" which all too often means at the expense and to the detriment of many others.

Many now yearn for a return to a simpler time - to live by strict adherance to those founding principles, and yet ignore how many would be left out and trampled beneath those lofty ideals and tainted realities. As I look around the world at other parts of the world that yearn to return to their history, I'm not seeing anything that looks too encouraging or desirable about going backwards. While I revere learning our stories, and am fascinated and inspired imagining those places and times on the American continuum, they are the past, and they belong to the past.

It seems a great time to ponder great things, at this confluence of history and story. As Christians celebrate the resurrection and Jews mark the Passover, as we remember the death of Martin Luther King, and the surrender at Appomattox and the charred ruins of Richmond, as we in the northern hemisphere marvel at the annual miraculous arrival of spring after a long winter, there is much to ponder.

Bells are used to call us together to many things, often to worship or remembrance. This is as fitting a time as any to remember where we have been, and where we come from, the good and the bad, and to contemplate the inexorable way forward. Time goes in but one direction, and we have no choice but to move forward with its currents. Perhaps it is time to ring the bells to call us together, to bridge the angry waters that divide us, to find things upon which we can agree, and to set aside the others to revisit after we have laid some planks across the torrents.

On this day 150 years ago, Robert E. Lee chose that challenging path instead of leading more of his exhausted men to more slaughter, and more southern families to the loss of loved ones. Ulysses S. Grant offered those weary men dignity and respect before sending them home to rebuild shattered lives. Abraham Lincoln had hoped for a reunion framed "With malice toward none; with charity for all". On this day we stand still far from that noble ideal, divided in many ways along ethnic and economic lines as well as political philosophies and religious views, and our attention fragmented into small clans of the like-minded. How might we find a way to step forward together with both the best of our past and acknowledgement of its sins?

After all, I'm an American. I fervently believe in our promise and our capability to achieve the impossible. Despite all of our imperfections, that too is our history.

Andrew McKnight & Beyond Borders sing "The Road to Appomattox"

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