VARON: Appomattox (2013)
Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War by Elizabeth R. Varon. Oxford University Press, 2013. ISBN: 0199751714. $27.95.
Appomattox was not a gentleman’s agreement. The scene at the McLean House on April 9, 1865 was neither a moment of sublime magnanimity on the part of Grant, nor virtuous, dignified acceptance on the part of Lee. Appomattox was not simply the culminating scene of the Civil War, merely marking the victory of the Union and the defeat of the Confederacy.
As Elizabeth R. Varon argues in a compelling new account of the war’s end, Appomattox was a moment of calculated maneuvering by both sides—an occasion that inaugurated the beginning of a new war over the substance of the peace. In Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War, rather than emphasizing the finality of military defeat, Varon stresses the uncertainty of the subsequent days, weeks, and months. After Lee’s surrender, various groups mobilized memories in a bid to legitimize their visions of postwar Reconstruction.
Confederates and Northern Copperheads argued, as Lee had in his Farewell Address, that the North’s victory had been one of might over right. This argument supported “restoration” as the proper course. Northern Republicans and Southern Unionists, on the other hand, emphasized the parole terms’ requirement of ex-Confederate obedience to the law and crafted a narrative of their victory as one of right over wrong. They used this interpretation to argue for some degree of transformation on the part of the defeated South. African-Americans memorialized the participation of the U.S. Colored Troops at Appomattox and interpreted that day’s meaning as one of black freedom.
Varon divides the book into three sections: “Battlefront,” “Home Front,” and “Aftermath.” The first chapters trace the battles accompanying Grant’s pursuit of Lee in the early days of April, interpreting the flurry of letters between Grant and Lee leading up to Appomattox as the beginnings of a contested negotiation over the meaning of the future peace. For Varon, the meeting between Grant and Lee at the McLean House becomes an “inherently political moment” (48) in which officers and the rank and file on both sides, understanding that crucial fact, crafted competing versions of the event and its meaning. On the one hand, Union soldiers told a story of bravery and righteousness. On the other, Confederates narrated a defeat by numbers and resources, a tale that seized “moral victory from military defeat” (109).
Focusing next on the civilian realm, Varon uses newspapers to chart the fissures within the North over what Appomattox meant. Copperheads subscribed to the victory of numbers thesis to support an argument against change. Radicals, reading freedom into northern military triumph, advocated for transforming the South. Moderate Republicans saw a victory for Union and thus promoted “caution in Reconstruction” (115). Varon disputes the idea that Lincoln’s assassination turned Northerners toward retribution. While some saw the assassination as proof of Southern obstinacy that justified punishment, many still saw “mercy as a source of moral authority” (136). Divisions existed in the Southern populace, as well. Ex-Confederate civilians followed the overwhelming numbers interpretation of defeat, but were less certain of Northern leniency. Southern Unionists felt “vindicated” (157) and demanded postwar power, while former slaves celebrated Appomattox as a moment of freedom.
Moving from the immediate wake of Appomattox to the subsequent months and year, Varon challenges the reader to shed the popular notion of Lee as a “symbol of reunion” (184) who provided an apolitical model of acceptance for the postwar South. Rather, he was a “polarizing figure” (184) who crafted a political memory of Appomattox in an attempt to restore the South along the old lines. As Andrew Johnson began a lenient program of self-reconstruction for the South, Lee promoted a linked, inherently political vision of Appomattox’s terms as contingent on Northern leniency. In other words, he saw and advocated Southern restoration as the true legacy of Appomattox.
Meanwhile, Grant was developing an opposite vision, in which Southern recalcitrance—their violation of Appomattox—proved the necessity of ensuring black freedom in the South. In debates over the Civil Rights Bill in the spring of 1866, each side proved “determined to claim the Appomattox terms for their respective causes” (213). Ex-Confederates and Copperheads saw Republican aggression as defying the parole’s promise of leniency, while Republicans saw Southern recalcitrance as breaching the parole’s promise of obedience to the law and justifying further intervention. Southerners drew on their interpretation of Appomattox’s meaning in their political and extra-legal efforts “to secure peace on their own terms” (236). An epilogue traces the enduring utility of competing visions of the surrender through Reconstruction and beyond.
Honing in on the ways both Northerners and Southerners made meaning out of the moment of surrender enables Varon to usefully connect the Civil War and Reconstruction. Emphasizing how different factions used Appomattox to buttress their conflicting visions of post-war Reconstruction enables us to see the culminating scene of the war as transitional, rather than final. Historians have for many years seen the postwar period as an extended argument over the meaning of the war and its results, but Varon powerfully situates the origins of these debates in the moment of Lee’s surrender.
Varon’s clear, engaging prose make the book appropriate for a general audience. But the book’s engagement with questions about the political uses of historical memory, as well as its contribution to a deeper understanding of the beginnings of Reconstruction, also make it a suitable volume for students and scholars.
Sarah Bowman is a Ph.D. candidate at Yale. Her dissertation is exploring how white southerners reimagined the North in the half century after the Civil War.