Reviewed by Miles Smith, IV
Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War offers the first cultural, political, and social history of the Army of Northern Virginia’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. Elizabeth Varon’s elegant narrative, provocative argument, and skillful use of sources make this work an interesting addition to the historiography of the Civil War Era.
Varon argues that the traditional interpretation of the surrender as an agreement between a victorious and a defeated military commander who nonetheless respected each other is simply a construction of a national conservative reconciliationist narrative. Grant and Lee in fact brought differing views of what the surrender meant. Chiefly, she argues that transformation was the point of the Federal victory, not restoration. Nationalism and race equality formed the core of the necessary conditions for the surrender to mean anything. Varon casts U.S. Grant as the chief hero of the surrender, a man committed to making the Civil War mean something.
The antagonist to Grant as the chief actualizer of the national transformation was Robert Lee. The Confederate commander hoped instead for a restoration of the old constitutional order. In his capacity as the most prestigious public Confederate, Lee (according to Varon) transmogrified Confederate paroles into shields protecting Confederates from apparently justified retribution of all sort. Varon seems to conjecture that the Confederates deserved punishment, of some sort, and that despite Lee’s nefarious attempts to forestall national cultural and social progress Grant magnanimously stayed his hand.
Grant appears as the chief protector of southern freemen in Varon’s narrative. Keenly aware that he served as the personification of the United States’s guarantees of emancipation, Grant in Varon’s narrative responds negatively to Lee’s apparent breach of faith. Varon does not see Grant’s support of Lee in 1866 as an affirmation of Lee’s generalship and ability to reunify the Union. Instead, Varon offers a vision of Grant as chiefly concerned with being maneuvered by Lee into affirming his own personal honor—which took the form of protecting what Varon sees as duplicitous Confederate general officers.
The chief inconsistency in Varon’s analysis is her insistence on Lee as a post-war political actor. To be certain, Lee affirmed innately conservative politics. If he held in his mind a vision for the South, he hoped for as little change as possible. Varon affirms this, but she dubiously paints Lee and other members of the Confederate high command as active agents of the racist post-war regime. Some, certainly, were. It is interesting, however, to note that many overtly political ex-Confederates became Republicans and colluded with the Reconstruction regime. Lee’s political indifference, not his activism, allowed him to gather and exercise a massive post-war influence.
Painting Lee as a post-war conservative intent on maintaining the pre-war racial milieu serves Varon’s purposes if the Civil War is viewed strictly through Varon’s paradigm of societal and racial conservatism/progressivism. Undoubtedly, Lee affirmed the culture, politics, and society of Old Virginia. However, Ed Ayers’s In the Presence of Mine Enemies offers a convincing argument that Tidewater aristocrats in Northern Virginia proved unwilling secessionists. Lee and his brother planters on the Potomac and Northern Neck refused to secede in the immediate aftermath of Lincoln’s election. Lee and his fellow Virginians saw their action as innately defensive and therefore innately conservative. He and his fellow planters felt honor-bound to defend their state. Historians seeking to find some deeply-implanted racial authoritarianism in Lee’s decision to secede might consider the fact that Kentuckians, many of whom were just as deeply invested in the plantation economy and just as racially authoritarian, refused to secede. Why? Because unlike Virginia, Kentucky never seceded and the Bluegrass planters’ loyalty lay with a state that remained in the Union.
Varon’s work is stimulating and well-written. The author’s sometimes hyper-nationalistic sympathies, however, lead her to embrace certain academic vogues, chiefly the deconstruction of Robert E. Lee. True, Lee was a paternalist and not gentle towards his slaves. But Varon reads backward from the post-war era and applies the populist racism of the Reconstruction Era to Lee. In one instance Varon states that Lee encouraged soldiers to “denigrate” the post-war settlement. Varon also argues that Lee was political during his post-war life. Historian Emory Thomas argues convincingly, however, that Lee was in fact a temperamental aristocrat who disliked politics of all sorts precisely because he exemplified the sort of honor-bound gentry that Grant’s settlement was supposed to displace.