One hundred and fifty years after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant’s Union forces at Appomattox Courthouse in central Virginia, a group of New Haven residents gathered to observe the anniversary on Thursday afternoon.
At 3 p.m. yesterday, roughly 30 people assembled in front of City Hall to hear remarks on the importance of the Civil War. Speakers present included Amistad Committee President Alfred Marder, local Knights of Columbus Education Director Peter Sonski and Yale history professor David Blight, a noted expert on the Civil War era.
In his remarks, Marder noted the significance of the Civil War to local history. Pointing to a statue behind him, he also spoke of the fight to end slavery as a struggle that occurred not only on the battlefields of Virginia, but also locally in the Elm City. In 1841, some 50 slaves stood trial in New Haven after they staged a mutiny on the Amistad, a slave ship bound for Cuba. Though the United States Supreme Court ultimately freed the slaves, slavery was not abolished nationally until 1865. In 1990, the Amistad Memorial Foundation commissioned a statue to mark the saga.
“It is very fitting indeed that we stand here discussing the Civil War in front of the Amistad statue,” Marder said. “The tragic reality was that our country did not learn the lessons of the Amistad trial.”
Before discussing the significance of Appomattox, Blight briefly described the military history of the event, in which Lee’s army fled from the siege at Petersburg across central Virginia until it found itself trapped at the Appomattox River by Grant’s forces, who had marched nearly 100 miles in under four days. Lee, knowing he could not escape, was forced to agree to terms with Grant.
Blight then described the Civil War as a transformative event that still exerts an impact on the American psyche and national affairs. Though the war formally ended at Appomattox, Blight said politicians today debate the same two issues as their equivalents did a century and a half ago: racial disputes and the extent of federalism. Recently, the issue of race has arisen in discussions on policing and income inequality, while disputes over the extent of federalism have arisen in light of Republican control in the majority of state legislatures.
“That’s what makes this day so important,” he said. “It’s a mark of what came before and what came after, and what we’re still living through.”
At 3:15 p.m., three churches on New Haven Green rang their bells in conjunction with bell towers across the nation, including the University’s own Harkness Tower. The project, called “Bells Across the Land,” was organized by the National Park Service to commemorate the surrender at Appomattox. William Boughton, director of the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, distributed handbells to attendees so that they could join in on the ringing.
After the ringing of the bells, the Spirit of Black Rock Fife and Drum Corps — a group of Civil War re-enactors representing the historical First Connecticut Calvary — played a selection of period music. The 27th Volunteer Regiment, another re-enactment group comprising New Haven men, was also present.
For Boughton, the use of bells was significant. Music has been played for momentous occasions throughout history, and bells have a special meaning, he added.
“We ring bells to mark the passing of time,” Boughton said. “The ringing of a bell makes a mark on our subconscious, and causes us to consider, at least for a moment, the past, present and future.”
To complement Thursday’s event, the Knights of Columbus Museum on State Street has created an exhibition documenting the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.