- Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War by Elizabeth R. Varon
In this well-researched and cogent book, Elizabeth R. Varon reexamines the complex legacy of Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox. She skillfully dissects the visions Lee and Grant held on April 9, 1865, and how Americans of all persuasions debated the meaning of Appomattox in the year that followed.
At Appomattox, Varon contends, the two generals offered competing visions of peace. To Grant, Union victory symbolized the triumph of good and a vindication of the free North’s ideals; he offered Lee generous terms because his eyes were on the future, where chastened and repentant southerners would work toward justice. To Lee, Union victory was not the triumph of right but that of might over right: honorable southerners had simply been outnumbered, and for that—along with secession and slavery—they had nothing to apologize. All southerners could hope for was restoration, a reversion to what Lee and many Confederates envisioned as the antebellum glory days—albeit without slavery, but with white supremacy intact. Each man was convinced he held the only morally righteous position, and their competing visions did much to shape postwar politics, Reconstruction policy, and justice for African Americans.
Varon carefully details the week surrounding Appomattox, following Lee’s desperate attempt to reunite with Gen. Joseph Johnston’s forces and avoid defeat. She analyzes the exchange of letters between Grant and Lee, with Lee looking for restoration in the face of Grant’s vision of a world transformed. In his farewell address, Lee praised Confederate valor and cited overwhelming numbers as the reason for Union victory. Varon’s reading of it as an “irresistible consolation” to many southerners is astute, as is her reminder that the Lee of [End Page 70] 1865 was a different Lee than the reluctant soldier fighting for Virginia in 1861 (141). Confederate troops and civilians, along with Copperhead Democrats and even some moderate Republicans, rallied around both Lee’s vision of an outnumbered, noble Confederate army and his hopes to restore a world that largely resembled the South of 1860. Radical Republicans, abolitionists, Union veterans, African Americans, and some southern unionists clung to Grant’s vision of a moral triumph over an erring South and a progressive future.
In his last public address before his death, Abraham Lincoln noted that the road ahead was “fraught with great difficulty” (103). This became abundantly clear in the months that followed. Lincoln’s (and Radical Republicans’) endorsement of black suffrage sent a clear message that there would be no simple restoration, but, dangerously, northerners did not share a uniform vision for the peacetime world. After Lincoln’s assassination, it quickly became clear that President Andrew Johnson’s vision matched more closely to that of Lee than that of Grant. In the year that followed Lee’s surrender, Grant became more and more urgent in his recognition that African Americans’ rights were imperiled. As such, he found himself at odds with both Johnson and Lee, who grew more hardened and intent on restoration. He led Confederates and northern Copperheads in reenvisioning Appomattox as a conditional contract between northerners and southerners—one that radicals had betrayed by their insistence upon racial equality. Varon’s reassessment of Lee stands as an important contribution, as she insists upon his ideological stance and reminds readers that he denied the reality of anti-black violence in the postwar South, though he clearly knew better.
A year out from Lee’s surrender, what all Americans shared was only a sense that the generous terms of Appomattox had been betrayed, whether by Andrew Johnson, the Radical Republicans, or whites who failed to protect African American rights. Early on, Varon notes that Grant wanted “the might of the federal army” on display at the surrender while Lee avoided bringing many men to partake in “the mortifying experience of surrender” (48–49). Because of this, the...