On April 9, 1865, two military giants, Confederate General Robert E. Lee and Union General Ulysses S. Grant, met in the parlor of the home of Wilmer McLean in the small Southside Virginia town of Appomattox Court House. Grant, under orders from President Lincoln, offered generous terms to the surrendering Confederates. The officers could keep their personal sidearms, and baggage, and any soldier who brought a horse was allowed to take it home. Most importantly, the surrender terms allowed each man to return home and remain undisturbed by the Federal government as long as they observed “the terms of their parole and the laws in force where they may reside.” Lee, by turning down a subordinate’s suggestion of guerrilla warfare, accepted reunification and Federal authority. After nearly four years of bitter military struggle and political posturing, the effective end of the Civil War was enacted by two military men coming to an apolitical accord that would allow the country to move past the difficulties of the past and into a peaceful future. Except….
Elizabeth R. Varon tells us that this apolitical view of a new era of peace and reconciliation is simply a myth. In Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War, Varon examines how the participants and the population at large both interpreted and used the language of the surrender terms to reinforce their own ideas of what the end of the war actually meant. The result is an echo of the partisan and regional tensions that continue 150 years after the surrender at Appomattox.
Varon looks at how Grant, Southern Loyalists, Radical Republicans and some moderate Democrats saw the surrender terms as magnanimity to a defeated foe. In victory, the Federal government could afford to be kind to the Confederacy, and in doing so, lay the foundation for a chastened and repentant people to come back under Federal authority. By foregoing retribution, Lincoln--who dictated the general tone of the surrender terms-- and Grant, believed they were easing their wayward brethren back into the fold. Lee, his fellow Confederates and northern Copperheads, believed that the terms were a contract with the Federal government, guaranteeing the former Confederates of every rank and position freedom from prosecution and freedom to live “undisturbed”--the definition of which was broad, vague and varying. The Freedmen of both the North and South saw the leniency granted by the Federal government as a betrayal of the promise of freedom Appomattox had originally portended, as southern state governments were again filled with Confederate leaders passing Black Codes to limit Freedmen’s freedom.
This book is an instructive look at just how much work was still left to do at the end of the war and the advent of Reconstruction. Much of what we identify today as a “Confederate” or “Union” bias even in today’s academia and popular history can be traced back to the varying interpretations that Varon highlights. The image of honorable Confederates who fought for the right to be paroled, and who never really lost but were simply overwhelmed by superior numbers is a primary tenant of the Lost Cause interpretation of the war. The image of a magnanimous Union that could claim moral superiority for forgoing retribution and instead being generous to a fault, glosses over the reestablishment of de facto slavery throughout the Confederates states when the Federal government allowed Confederate leaders back into governance.
What strikes me most about this work is that, in the study of history and throughout life, there is fact and there is truth and those two are not necessarily the same thing. It is a fact that the terms of surrender offered by Grant and accepted by Lee read, “ General; In accordance with the substance of my letter to you of the 8th inst., I propose to receive the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia on the following terms, to wit: Rolls of all officers and men to be made in duplicate, one copy to be given to an officer to be designated by me, the other to be retained by such officer or officers as you may designate. The officers to give their individual paroles not to take up arms against the Government of the United States until properly [exchanged], and each company or regimental commander to sign a like parole for the men of their commands. The arms, artillery, and public property to be parked, and stacked, and turned over to the officers appointed by me to receive them. This will not embrace the side-arms of the officers, nor their private horses or baggage. This done, each officer and man will be allowed to return to his home, not to be disturbed by the United States authorities so long as they observe their paroles, and the laws in force where they may reside.”
It is truth that those words were interpreted by individuals based on their own personal biases, backgrounds and objectives. Those who would agree to yielding but not submission saw one truth---that they had earned the right to continue on without being disturbed by forced changes to the social relationships between the races and other changes to their way of life. Those who marched victoriously down the streets of Washington, D.C. in the Grand Review saw another truth--that those words would encourage the Confederates into accepting that the Union was right all along and the Confederacy was fatally flawed. And those men and women of color, who had been born free, or recently freed from the bondage of slavery, saw an entirely different truth--after a war that became about their freedom, those words were poor protection against the status quo.
Varon’s research and writing are top notch. Her challenge to the historical myth of Appomattox not only sheds light on one of the least understood periods of American history--Reconstruction--but on current interpretations of the Civil War which have their basis in the dueling interpretations of the truth that came out of the surrender terms. If you are looking for book about the military history of the Battle of Appomattox Court House, this is not the book for you. If you are looking for a insightful challenge to what you think you already know about the surrender and its aftermath, you can’t do better than this.
Toni is a wife, mom and history buff who loves bringing the Civil War to life for family members of all ages.