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Our One Common Country

Our One Common Country

By Carl M. Cannon - June 6, 2014

On May 13, 1865, John J. Williams, a handsome young private in the 34th Indiana Regiment Volunteer Infantry, was killed, along with an undetermined number of other Union soldiers, while fighting Confederate troops encamped near Brownsville, Texas. It’s called the Battle of Palmito Ranch, but it wasn’t much of a battle. It was a minor skirmish, and a pointless one: It took place more than a month after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, an event known to the combatants.

Private Williams, the last casualty of the Civil War, died for nothing. But he wasn’t the only one.

Each Memorial Day amid flag-waving, family picnics, and baseball, Americans come together to honor the dead—and the living—as a way of meeting a national desire that is more akin to a psychological need: assuring military families that their loved ones’ sacrifices were not in vain.

Speaking on that hallowed day last month at Arlington National Cemetery, after returning from Afghanistan, our current commander-in-chief addressed this topic directly.

“Everything that we hold precious in this country was made possible by Americans who gave their all,” Barack Obama said. “And because of them, our nation is stronger, safer, and will always remain a shining beacon of freedom for the rest of the world.”

Obama repeated similar sentiments Friday at Normandy, yet we know in our hearts that some of those wearing the uniform of this country have died in vain. The reasons range from stupid errors and fog-of-war misjudgments to ill-considered foreign incursions. The specter of wasted lives vexes every field commander, whatever flag they march under. For the parents, spouses, siblings, and children of the fallen it is almost unbearable.

It is a recurring nightmare. The Battle of New Orleans in January 1815 was an American rout, with fewer than 100 U.S. casualties. But those men were maimed or killed in a war that was already officially over—a treaty had cemented the terms of the peace—not to mention the 300 British troops who died and 1,200 who were wounded in Louisiana.

Testifying before a Senate committee on April 23, 1971, a recently discharged junior naval officer named John Kerry alluded hauntingly to this theme. Referring to the Vietnam War, a conflict that U.S. leaders had come to disbelieve in—but had not disengaged from—he said, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

That question hangs in the air these days, too. President Obama has promised to withdraw from Afghanistan—even to the point of announcing an extraction date—while American troops remain in harm’s way. One of the most troubling aspects of the controversy swirling around the case of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is not only how he came to be in the hands of the Taliban, but the ultimate price paid by soldiers who went out on patrol to find him. Did they die for nothing—as John J. Williams did?

This is the haunting theme at the heart of an extraordinary new volume, “Our One Common Country.” Written by Boston trial lawyer James B. Conroy, this book examines the peace talks between the Union and Confederacy in the winter of 1864-1865, culminating in the Hampton Roads Peace Conference some 10 weeks before the end of the Civil War.

Until the 2012 movie “Lincoln,” which depicted President Lincoln’s personal participation in the Hampton Roads talks, few Americans were aware of their existence. James Conroy’s book is the first full-length treatment of that remarkable episode, and fills a notable gap in a Civil War bibliography encompassing some 65,000 titles.

Once upon a time, a Civil War volume by a layman—Conroy is a self-trained historian—might have been considered a vanity project. But that was before a legal scholar and former Justice Department attorney named James L. Swanson produced a runaway bestseller on Lincoln’s assassination that was not only riveting, but contained reams of top-quality new scholarship. Swanson, born on Lincoln’s birthday, always felt a connection with the 16th president.

“Our One Common Country”—the phrase was Lincoln’s—is also a labor of love that grew out of the author’s private fascinations and professional background. A U.S. Navy veteran with a college degree in political science and history, Jim Conroy worked for public interest advocacy groups in Washington in the 1970s and early 1980s, and as a top congressional aide at a time when Capitol Hill was only beginning to be gridlocked by partisanship. An admiration for good government lies at the heart of this book. So does the idea that the cost of ideological radicalism and political cravenness can be steep.

In 2008, Conroy wrote to esteemed Lincoln scholar David Herbert Donald inquiring whether, among all books about the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln, anyone had written about the peace talks that began in January 1865.The answer was no, and Donald’s response was so gracious that it set in motion a Civil War book of direct relevance relevant to 21st century Americans learning anew how much harder it is to stop a war than start one.

The terms Abraham Lincoln set forth for a Southern surrender at Hampton Roads in early February of 1865—when the war’s outcome was not in doubt—were more generous than those tendered to the Confederates two months later. In the meantime, some 10,000 Americans wearing either blue or gray uniforms lost their lives. Let that sink in for a moment: Ten thousand needless deaths. That’s more than the total number of Americans killed over the last 13 years in Iraq, Afghanistan, and in the attacks of 9/11—combined.

In this beautifully written book, the author occasionally puts a name to such statistics, and sometimes more than a name. He mentions long-forgotten soldiers, such as Pvt. George Deutzer of the 48th Pennsylvania Volunteers who lost his life when one of the ceasefires attendant to the peace talks ended. Or a corporal in the 35th Massachusetts Infantry named Charles W. Gilman, and his comrade-in-arms, Henry Lenkorf.

It’s not quite right to say that these men lost their lives for no reason. There was a reason. They died because, despite the towering presence of Abraham Lincoln, the political leadership in this country, North and South, was paralyzed by hyper-partisanship, zealotry, and personal pettiness. If that description sounds familiar, that’s intentional. In many ways, the Civil War is a sui generis event that defies comparison to any other period of American history. Yet, counterproductive behavior by politicians is so timeless that it would be beneficial for the country if every member of Congress and all the top officials in the Obama administration would read this book.

By 1864, Lincoln could barely bring himself to speak Jefferson Davis’ name aloud. But he was still willing to meet with him. But the South’s president and Judah Benjamin, his secretary of war, were so arrogant and delusional that they wouldn’t meet with Lincoln. Nor would they compromise with the U.S. government, even though Lee’s army was decimated and starving.

The final standoff between his forces and Grant’s came at Petersburg, Va., where the peace commissioners who passed through the lines could hear cheering from both armies—and from the beleaguered Southern civilians trapped not just by Union military might, but by the stubbornness of their own leadership.

Jefferson Davis sabotaged the peace negotiations over Lincoln’s insistence that the talks take place between representatives of “our one common country.” Lincoln wouldn’t authorize a peace deal with a nation calling itself the Confederate States of America, because he maintained that no such legal entity existed. Yet, Lincoln deftly arranged for such talks, which were undermined by Davis’ deliberate lies to his own people about what Lincoln was demanding—and what he had promised.

It’s dispiriting, even 150 years later, to read how willingly the Richmond press parroted Davis’ deceitful talking points. It’s also disheartening to see how many newspapermen and ex-newspapermen on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line were involved in this ill-fated episode—and how inaccurate and unhelpful they were. The New York newspapers, including the New York Times, were not mere bystanders in the undermining of the peace talks. Activist and partisan, the press of the day rarely seemed to make a positive contribution. James Conroy, whose son is a political writer (he works for RealClearPolitics), takes no apparent joy in this—indeed he doesn’t point it out explicitly.

On a more uplifting note, the eloquence of Southern senators (and Northern generals) rubbed off on Conroy. He captures the essence and nobility of Grant in two exquisite paragraphs and paints evocative descriptions of the main players throughout this book. Yet this is a story in which good intentions did not carry the day. The reason, mainly, is that elected officials, special interest groups, and the news media could not manage to escape their parochial concerns—could not put themselves in their adversary’s positions.

One of the most incredible developments at the time was a scheme floated to the Southern leaders, and swiftly embraced, that envisioned having the Union and Confederate armies join forces to invade Mexico—for the purpose of ridding this hemisphere of the French, who had established a foothold there under Napoleon III. This insane idea was a non-starter with Lincoln, but was embraced by men who should have known better: Lincoln had come to prominence in Congress opposing an invasion of Mexico.

There are lessons here for our time, too. The Republican Party in 1864-1865 was split between moderates and a dominant wing called Radical Republicans. (“Jacobins,” some people called them, in honor of the execution-mad leaders of the French Revolution.) Just as modern-day GOPers find Ronald Reagan insufficiently conservative, Radical Republicans equated compromise with treachery. There were two kinds of Democrats, too. The first were moderates who reluctantly went along with war. The second type, at least in the North, were so-called “Peace Democrats.” Apologists for the war, and for the South, they wanted peace more than union—and certainly more than abolition, which they opposed. “Copperheads,” Republicans called them. What united the Democrats was not principle: Situational ethics was their calling card; mainly they wanted to win elections.

On January 19, 1865, a dashing young Confederate officer named John Pegram was married in St. Paul’s Church in Richmond. A West Point graduate, Pegram had followed Lee into the Confederate army and risen through the ranks to become a general. His new wife was a Baltimore-born beauty named Hetty Cary. Among the wedding guests were Jefferson Davis and his wife, Varina. Less than three weeks later, while defending his hometown of Petersburg, Gen. Pegram took a bullet in the chest. He died, as James Conroy notes, in the arms of a wedding guest, a young Confederate colonel, who looked up at the sound of a carriage rolling by. It was Hetty, heading to the honeymoon cottage, not knowing she was already a widow.

As Grant’s army closed around him, Jefferson Davis took it on the lam. Before he left, he gave Varina a pistol and told her to use it if she needed to defend her honor. That wouldn’t prove necessary, but on May 10, a month after Appomattox and three days before the worthless Battle of Palmito Ranch, Jeff Davis resisted being apprehended—and two soldiers died needlessly while arresting him.

That men like Lee and Longstreet had to report to histrionic zealots like Davis and Judah Benjamin calls into question democracy’s bedrock principle. Then again, the North had Lincoln. We could use him now. 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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