Review of: Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War, by Elizabeth R. Varon

As the sesquicentennial fades, I sought to abandon binge-reading Civil War books and to move on to the postwar era of Reconstruction and Redemption. Appomattox: AppomattoxVictory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War, by Elizabeth R. Varon, randomly plucked from the shelves of a local bookstore, turned out to be an excellent choice for the transition.

Varon, professor of history at the University of Virginia and author of several previous books on the Civil War and the antebellum period, effectively asserts that Appomattox was a seminal event that has assumed a mythological place in both the history and the historiography of the war – so much so that its myth frequently but quietly intrudes and distorts historical accounts. How many times have we heard the story of Lee gallantly proffering his ceremonial sword to Grant, who graciously refuses it? It never happened, yet that singular imagery persists in historical memory so stubbornly that it has been repeated even in scholarly retellings. The story of the fictional sword is yet however only a metaphor in some ways for far more pernicious elements of the myth of Appomattox that even historians often have to struggle to shake off.

Varon argues convincingly that within minutes of the historic surrender, the military constituent of the “Lost Cause” myth was conceived. It is worth pausing here to reflect on the “Lost Cause,” born in the postwar era, which has both political and military components, and continues to resonate to this day. The political piece holds that the doctrine of states’ rights was the primary motivation for secession and discounts slavery as the central core of the rebellion. The authors of this well-constructed prevarication after the war were often the same prominent figures who were the primary architects of what was proudly advertised as a “slave republic” on the eve of hostilities, which is best made manifest by juxtaposing what they wrote in 1860 and in the years following the Confederacy’s defeat. This aspect of the “Lost Cause” myth has repeatedly been effectively rebutted by a consensus of scholars, but it remains alive and well and has seen an unfortunate resurgence in recent years as an element of contemporary right-wing ideology.

Varon focuses instead upon the birth of the perhaps less nefarious but yet equally misleading military component of the “Lost Cause” myth, which imagines the heroic defeat of the noble and valiant rebels, led by vastly superior generals, who nevertheless finally succumb to the overwhelming men and materiel of their more vulgar and less competent northern adversaries. No less invented than the fiction of its political complement, the military portion has proved a more difficult theme to rebut, largely because on the face of it the north did indeed possess greater manpower and resources than its southern counterparts. Still, the Confederacy did not need to win – only not to lose – in order to achieve its independence and prevail. It had several million slaves to serve as support behind the lines, freeing up more white men to serve as soldiers. It had the benefit of fighting on its own territory; on the two occasions when Lee left that comfort zone to go north – Antietam and Gettysburg – he was soundly beaten. Finally, while Lee can rightly be considered the greatest field general of the war, the south had as many or more bad generals as the north: Bragg, Polk, Pemberton, countless others. To Lincoln’s chagrin, all eyes tended to be in the eastern theater where the north had a true dearth of talent in McClellan, Burnside and Hooker, but the union was consistently triumphant in the west with the likes of Grant, Sherman and Thomas, and when Grant – whom historian Gary Gallagher rightly calls the “best soldier of the war” – came east he finished the job.

In Appomattox, Varon identifies the moment of creation of this military part of the “Lost Cause” myth with the deliberate understatement of the troops under Lee’s command at the time of surrender and its enshrinement in Lee’s “Farewell Address” known officially as General Order #9, which opens with: “After four years of arduous service marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources.” Varon carefully deconstructs Lee’s words and the efforts of those around him to report an ever-shrinking band of tatterdemalions overcome solely by superior numbers. Early reports that Lee has a mere 8,500 men under arms are soon put to the lie when the much coveted written parole Grant had issued so that the former Confederates could venture home unmolested are claimed by an additional twenty thousand rebels! Yes, Lee was indeed still outnumbered, but this was a reality because of the many losses inflicted by Grant’s army on Lee’s in the past eleven months. Lee had not won a significant battlefield victory in nearly two years – since Chancellorsville in May 1863 – and had not been on the offensive since his great loss at Gettysburg in July shortly thereafter. Grant’s “Overland Campaign” of 1864 – often criticized then and now for the huge sacrifices of men to suit the strategic objective and the origin of the unfair “Grant-the-Butcher” myth – had choked off Lee’s options and forced him to the siege at Petersburg, which could only end as it did with the fall of both Petersburg and Richmond. Lee had been squarely beaten by Grant, and there was much more to it than an excess of supply wagons and greater numbers of boots on the ground.

Varon spends a good deal of time on the magnanimous terms offered by Grant with Lincoln’s blessing to Lee’s army in capitulation, which Lee himself had hardly anticipated. Rather than the harsh punishments Confederates had braced for, the generous terms of the surrender treated the defeated foe with respect, issued blanket paroles, and even (although it was not specified in writing) permitted soldiers to keep their horses. Grant also provided some 25,000 rations to the hungry Confederates. (Given the number of rations, it was obviously clear at the outset that Lee had more than the 8,500 men it was disingenuously claimed.) Before too long, early “Lost Causers” were claiming Grant’s magnanimity was spawned less by generosity and much more by his sense of shame at having bested such a noble and gracious foe. Nonsense, of course, but it made for great myth-making.

We often tend to forget how rapidly the northern celebration of Appomattox on April 9th was drowned out by the horror of Lincoln’s assassination only six days later. Calls by some for punishing the rebels – largely muted by the festivities of victory — grew more strident following Lincoln’s martyrdom by a known southern sympathizer. Still, reason ruled in the north and even in deep mourning calls for revenge were shunted aside; an official commitment to mercy upon the conquered prevailed.

Varon neatly chronicles how all of that mercy and magnanimity was manipulated by legions of former Confederates who sought to restore their respective antebellum power bases and rule the roost once more, even if their precious “peculiar institution” had to be abandoned along the way. With Lincoln dead – whose vision of reconstruction seems to have included both benevolence towards the defeated and provisions to protect their former slave property – the politics of the victorious north became polarized in a vicious clash between the new President, Andrew Johnson, who favored leniency for the secessionists but had little concern for the millions of newly freed but disenfranchised blacks, and the Congressional majority of Radical Republicans who advocated punishing the former rebels severely and demanding full and immediate citizenship rights for African-Americans. The closest to a great moderate of Lincoln’s stripe was Grant, and both sides sought to claim him for their own.

As all of this played out to shrill invective that eventually led to Johnson’s impeachment and narrow acquittal, the old guard of ex-Confederates quietly took control of southern political institutions, and the myth-making began in earnest: an outnumbered band of the chivalrous, dedicated to a Constitution that promised rights to the states, sought against all odds to create an independent nation devoted to the values that the republic was originally founded upon. Finally defeated due to overwhelming odds, they sought nothing more than to peacefully reassert their role in the United States as now loyal citizens. Conspicuous in its absence in this narrative was mention of the human chattel that their slave republic was founded upon, or reference to the millions of freedmen who found themselves in a vague purgatory of disenfranchisement, neither slave nor citizen. The seeds of another myth, of a greatly exaggerated oppressive era of reconstruction, took root at this time, as well. The reality was that Johnson’s leniency turned into a kind of appeasement: African-Americans were sidestepped and even as early as the summer of 1865 in Richmond were subject to oppressive “black laws” that were reminiscent of the old “negro laws” of slave days; and soon after former Confederate elites regained political power in a coup of restoration that surprised many by its swiftness on both sides. It was only to get worse: the true horror of “Redemption” for African-Americans in the former Confederacy was still some years away.

Grant was largely disappointed in Lee, whom Grant had hoped would assume a leading role in a genuine peace of reconciliation, but Lee was held in such esteem even in the north that he was asked to testify before Congress, where he lobbied for the unconditional restoration of rights to southern elites. Blacks would remain … well . . . invisible. Soon, the surrender at Appomattox came to be viewed by many in the north – including Grant – as a “golden moment” that was squandered in a rush towards reunion at any price. By 1866, already it was seen that the north had won a long costly war yet had very quickly lost the peace. Johnson had vetoed the “Civil Rights Bill” in Congress. Unrepentant Confederate elites served as unapologetic architects of newly restored southern political institutions. Myths of the war, of an outsized gallant Lee and his noble army, of a brutal Grant, of the “Lost Cause,” of a proud but defeated south only seeking a helping hand as they gratefully rejoined the union – myths that effectively erased the visages of millions of African-Americans, slave and free – all of these were born and thrived in the months that followed Appomattox, and sadly, a good deal of these persist to this day.

Varon’s Appomattox is an excellent work, although somewhat hampered by a structure that at times reads like a long research paper. Extremely well documented with abundant notes, occasionally the narrative relies too much on quotations from notable historians in the abundant catalog of historiography on this era rather than a focus upon the primary sources that while considered are yet less frequently cited. Still, I would highly recommend this book for those seeking to comprehend more fully how the memory of the Civil War continues to resound in this nation a century and a half after that tumultuous and still somewhat unresolved day at Appomattox.

Author: stanprager

Book nerd, computer geek, rock music fan, dogmatic skeptic.

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