- Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War by Elizabeth R. Varon
What did the Civil War mean to the people who lived through it? The recent wave of memory studies has explained what it has meant over time but, strangely, few scholars have parsed how participants conceptualized it. One of the best places to look for an answer to that question is Appomattox. Lee’s surrender inspired northerners and southerners, soldiers and civilians, blacks and whites, to begin coming to terms with the war. This process, like the military conflict itself, demanded strategy and tactics deployed in pursuit of political goals. As Elizabeth Varon concisely explains, white southerners hoped to achieve “moral victory from military defeat” and from that vantage retain control of their society (109). White northerners wanted the question of secession and national integrity resolved forever and expected the South to model its economic and political practices after the North. African Americans wanted freedom and justice for all. Varon’s new book reveals how these conflicting interpretations took root at Appomattox.
In what should become the standard account of the Civil War’s dramatic conclusion, Varon shows both how important Appomattox was and how little it accomplished. Varon buries the old canard that Appomattox represented a reunion of brothers, a true reconciliation of Americans. Most Civil War scholars know this portrayal to be false, but Varon adds a crucial layer of interpretation that connects the military and political narrative of the conflict to the tumultuous politics that followed. For Ulysses S. Grant and most white northerners, Union victory demonstrated the moral superiority of their free labor society. For Robert E. Lee and most white southerners, Confederate defeat came because of overwhelming northern numbers and resources, leaving their worldview and honor intact.
Varon opens the book with a thrilling and concise narrative of Lee’s retreat from Petersburg, weaving analysis into the story with a nimble hand. She follows this account with chapters that assess the actions and attitudes of the officers present at Appomattox—Grant and Lee and also their subordinates who observed the scene carefully and worked in the [End Page 476] postwar years to advance their interpretations. The focus then shifts to common soldiers and citizens of both sections. Varon carefully parses the often conflicting attitudes among Confederates, white Unionists, and black southerners in the South and between Republicans and Democrats in the North. The deep ideological disagreement over the war’s meaning within the North confirms the arguments of scholars such as Mark Neely and Adam I. P. Smith that party conflict divided rather than annealed the North. Many northerners advocated mercy toward ex-Confederates, but they did so from very different positions. Radical Republicans felt entitled, from their posture of victory and moral superiority, to demonstrate magnanimity. Northern Democrats, in contrast, respected Lee’s honor and sympathized with white southerners now exposed to the vicissitudes of life among the freedpeople. Black Americans celebrated Appomattox and the role played by United States Colored Troops units (who helped trap Lee’s army at the campaign’s end) in Union victory in April 1865 and for decades to come. In this interpretation, Appomattox earned them a claim for full citizenship, including the franchise. The behavior of black soldiers in the campaign and toward defeated Confederates demonstrated their capacity for restraint and order over chaos, refuting the pernicious argument advanced by northern Democrats that black people were not fit to participate in the civic order.
Varon deftly connects the war and postwar periods, usefully blurring this artificial distinction. She shows that both radical and moderate Republicans believed Andrew Johnson had missed a golden opportunity to impose tough but fair conditions on the South. This framing pushes the interpretation of Reconstruction as a tragic failure back to Appomattox itself, although it’s not clear whether Lincoln could have weathered the storm any more effectively. Varon joins the current wave of Grant revisionism that interprets him as a genuine advocate for black...