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Appomattox Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the end of the Civil War Review

Historian Elizabeth Varon has gone a long way in puncturing the myths that surround what happened at Appomattox Court House in April 1865 and the months and years that followed. Her Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War is a fitting work for all to contemplate as we near the end of the sesquicentennial observation of the war.

Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War. Elizabeth R. Varon. New York and Oxford. Oxford University Press. 9-975171-6. Notes, Index, Illustrations. Pp 258. $27.95

“In peace as in war [Ulysses S.] Grant and [Robert E.} Lee were enemies – still,” Varon wrote. Her portrait of Lee using the paroles under the articles of surrender to protect himself and other Confederate soldiers and naval officers and officeholders such as Jefferson Davis from prosecution on treason charges is deft. Her portrait of Grant seeing for himself as commander of the army the true state of affairs in the South is insightful. After this tour, he placed his own stake in the political debate over Reconstruction – justice for the freedmen and loyal whites.

Yes, as she noted in the Epilogue, there were major differences from the reprisals that marked the end of the English Civil Wars and the French Revolution, but all was not harmonious or even settled politically and economically, especially in the South.

It was a geography that encompasses diehard Confederates believing to the end in the “Lost Cause;” veterans like James Longstreet and John Singleton Mosby who paid a high price for their acceptance of the new order of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments; old elites scheming , often successfully, their way back into power as “redeemers;” conditional Unionists – even after the war; freed slaves – a sizable number who served in the federal Army with hopes and ambitions of their own but hemmed in by “Black Codes” and often terrorized or murdered; a steadily shrinking army of occupation; and a Congress bent on .defining Reconstruction on its terms in the defeated Confederacy.

Appomattox still evokes so many conflicting emotions and differing rationales of what the Civil War accomplished. “Not until 1950 – after decades of planning, debate, fundraising, and historical restoration – was a National Park Service site at Appomattox officially dedicated.”

While I have concentrated this review on the South, even in my own writing outside of this posting, Varon takes a broader view and paints a varied picture of how the North [New England the Mid-Atlantic] and the West [the Midwest] during the decade that followed the war. Maj. Charles Mattocks of the 17th Maine and a Medal of Honor recipient, wrote his mother in April 1865, “I would not have missed these ten days for all the world.” Ten years later, many Northern attitudes were changing or had changed – that military occupation had to end, for starters.

Varon wrote, “There had been no moment, however brief, in which Souherners had mourned in unison for their lost cause, and no moment in which Northerners had, in unison rejoiced. Nor was there any moment of shared reconciliation or of agreement to bury the hatchet.”

She correctly returns to Lee and Grant to find meaning in what had transpired. As president of bereft Washington College in Lexington, Virginia after the war, Lee came to symbolize a commitment to peace but “unbowed and unrepentant, and determined to protect [the South] against Northern interference.” Grant came to symbolize “a Union righteous and vindicated to instructing Southerners in a new moral order” as he moved from the battlefield to the White House.

Varon called these two views the “perennial debate” of looking at the nation as already having passed through its best days or one steadily on the march of progress. Her Appomattox does not settle that debate, but it gives it new focus and sharp dimension.

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