When I arrived at Fernwood Cemetery in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania, in the early afternoon of January 6th, it was colder than I had anticipated, with a biting wind. Although I had a cemetery map with the specific section and grave number that I sought, I knew from previous searches of old gravesites that having this information didn’t always guarantee success.
Despite the cold, I was content. Historic research is a rewarding activity for me, and I knew that the protests planned for that day in Washington D.C. would be another gloomy reminder of our sharp national divide. So, I purposely chose that day to revive my dormant research interests in the hopes that it would not only serve as a welcome diversion, but also lift my spirits a bit. For, the grave that I sought to find was my great-great grandfather’s, a former Philadelphia police officer. I’d just recently discovered that the New Jersey State Archives had mistaken him for a Marlboro, N.J. man with the same name buried in a New Jersey cemetery, and I was eager to photograph his gravestone.
Although a cemetery employee had confirmed the grave’s location over the phone prior to my visit, I didn’t have any success finding it. Unfortunately, the cemetery office was closed that day, so I decided to head back home, but vowed to return and resume my search with the help of the cemetery personnel.
As dawn broke on April 9th, 1865 at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia, Major General George A. Custer maneuvered his 3rd Division troops on a ridge overlooking the Confederate positions and prepared to attack Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s once vaunted, but now badly battered, Army of Northern Virginia. Among the Cavalry units in Custer’s 1st Brigade was the 3rd New Jersey Cavalry, commanded by Colonel Alexander C. M. Pennington. The night before, the 3rd New Jersey, along with other cavalry units of the 1st Brigade, attacked the Confederate cavalry positioned in the woods a half-mile from Appomattox Station. In the fierce hand-to-hand fighting, Custer’s victorious troops seized 24 cannon, 5 battle flags, 200 wagons, and took 1,000 prisoners.
A murmur soon arose among the Union soldiers as a Confederate staff officer, Major Robert Sims, under escort by a Union officer, approached Custer while carrying a white towel on a pole. Sims told Custer that General Lee requested a suspension of hostilities. As chronicled in “Custer,” by Jeffry D. Wert, he “replied that he was not commander on the field and could not halt the attack unless Lee announced an unconditional surrender. Turning to Chief of Staff Edward Whitaker, Custer directed the lieutenant colonel to return with Sims to the enemy lines and to wait for a response.”
A few hours later, at the home of Wilmer McLean, Lee surrendered his army to Union General Ulysses S. Grant. A poignant moment occurred as the terms of the surrender were being finalized. General Grant took the opportunity to introduce Lee to the Union officers in attendance. One of them was Lieutenant Colonel Ely S. Parker, a Seneca Indian who served as adjutant and secretary to Grant. As recollected by Lt. Col. Parker in “The Life of General Ely S. Parker: Last Grand Sachem of the Iroquois and General Grant’s Military Secretary,” by Arthur C. Parker, “Lee stared at me for a moment…he extended his hand and said, ‘I am glad to see one real American here.’ I shook his hand and said, ‘We are all Americans.’”
As word of the surrender spread among the Union troops, jubilant cries erupted along their lines. In the days following the surrender, New York Times war correspondent, E.A. Paul, reported that even the Virginia citizens in the very heart of the Confederacy were joyous: “As Custer’s cavalry column passed through the country…the people flocked to the roadside, waved handkerchiefs, and at several places actually clapped their hands to express their happiness. At the house where Gen. Custer made his headquarters last night, the people made a particular request that the band play the Star Spangled Banner – an unheard of event during the last four years.”
For the men of Custer’s 3rd New Jersey Cavalry, many of them from Philadelphia, this moment must have been bitter-sweet. Although 157 of their fellow soldiers had given their lives for the Union cause, they were likely heartened to see that their sacrifice was not in vain and America would now finally unite again.
When I arrived home after my visit to Fernwood Cemetery, the attack on the Capitol Building was well underway, and I was stunned by the violent images on my TV screen.
But there was one photo among the hundreds shown on the news that day that truly shook me. For on the day that I tried to find the grave of my great-great grandfather, James H. Baird, a Union sergeant in Company B of the 3rd New Jersey Cavalry, and who was there at Appomattox when Lee surrendered to Grant, a rioter walked through the halls of our Capitol carrying a Confederate flag. If the man had been armed with a gun instead of that flag, he wouldn’t have been as deadly, for his brazen act symbolically slayed the remaining, feeble hopes for American unity.
And if those from the left side of the political spectrum proudly tout this photo as evidence of their greater allegiance to traditional American values, they need to be reminded that there are also photos from last summer’s riots of numerous monuments dedicated to Union soldiers and abolitionists that were defaced by leftist extremists.
Although the Civil War ended over 155 years ago, America is now once again adrift in a sea of dissension. I can’t help but think that if my great-great grandfather, in the early days of the post-Civil War era, had somehow been miraculously transported forward in time, and then viewed these same photos, that he would have wept.
Let’s hope that this Memorial Day we can begin to move beyond these divisions and honor the ideals that so many have died for by remembering the words of Lieutenant Colonel Ely S. Parker: “We are all Americans.”
Chris Gibbons is a freelance writer from Philadelphia. His recent book, Soldiers, Space, and Stories of Life, is a compilation of 78 of his published essays.