Appomattox

Appomattox

This book by Professor Elizabeth R. Varon is an outstanding treatment of Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant in 1865.

She begins the book by giving us the insight that the two sides viewed the result of the war, the surrender, and the surrender terms in diametrically opposed ways.  “For Grant, the Union victory was one of right over wrong.  He believed that his magnanimity, no less than his victory, vindicated free society and the Union’s way of war.  Grant’s eyes were on the future–a future in which Southerners, chastened and repentant, would join their Northern brethren in the march towards moral and material progress.  Lee, by contrast, believed that the Union victory was one of might over right.  In his view, Southerners had nothing to repent of and had survived the war with their honor and principles intact.  He was intent on restoration–on turning the clock back, as much as possible, to the days when Virginia led the nation and before sectional extremism alienated the North from South.  Each man believed that he alone held the moral high ground.  Each man hoped to win over the ‘reasonable’ men among his former enemies.  And each hoped, perhaps naively, that the other would be his first convert.” [p. 2]

This schism in views wasn’t limited to the two commanders.  “White Union soldiers, Northern civilians in the Republican and War Democrat camps, and anti-Confederate Southerners rallied around the idea of the surrender as vindication.  They saw the Union’s mercy, exemplified by Lincoln and Grant, as a source of moral authority and as the best means to knit the country back together.  Free blacks and former slaves, both soldiers and civilians, joined together with white abolitionists and with some radical Southern Unionists in staking out the argument, as a variation on the theme of vindication, that the war had struck a blow for human equality.  The Union’s magnanimity was, in their view, a means to secure the goals of black citizenship and of racial harmony.  They too claimed Lincoln and Grant as the heroes who proved that victory favored the righteous.  But these victors’ interpretations of Appomattox were fiercely contested from the start.  Southerners who had supported the Confederacy, together with Northern antiwar (‘Copperhead’) Democrats who had deplored the Lincoln administration’s policies, particularly emancipation, rallied around the theme of restoration.  They believed that Grant’s magnanimity was both a concession to the moral rectitude of the defeated Confederates and a promise that honorable men would not be treated dishonorably.  Proponents of restoration saw Lee as their standard bearer and came to see Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, as Lee’s ally.” [pp. 2-3]

These divisions in views had profound effects on politics after the war.  “Confederates and Copperheads believed that Lee drew a line in the sand at Appomattox.  White Southerners knew they must accept that the war was over and that secession and slavery were dead letters–but the North must ask nothing more of them.  Northern Republicans and Southern Unionists, white and black, watched in disbelief and even horror as this narrow interpretation of what the Union had won and the Confederacy lost took root in the South, inspiring Southern resistance to Reconstruction and to Republican authority.  In their eyes, Grant’s victory at Appomattox had heralded a new era in American politics: no longer would the haughty Southern elite consider itself entitled to dominate the government; no longer would it feign superior gentility and virtue.  Grant had spared the defeated Confederates their lives and had spared them punishment and humiliation–and for this white Southerners must show humility and gratitude.  Although Lee technically observed the terms of his parole, he failed, most Northerners agreed, to show the required repentance; instead, he worked subtly to promote restoration as a political program.  By the surrender’s first anniversary, Grant was deeply disappointed in Lee’s refusal to give the victors their due.  Confronted with white Southern intransigence, Grant came to see the necessity of black citizenship for the Union’s full vindication.” [pp. 3-4]

Professor Varon gives us an excellent overview of Grant’s pursuit of Lee’s army and the discussions that led to the surrender.  She tells us, “Lee sought to turn military defeat into moral victory.  In his view, the war–which was brought on by extremism and devolved, on the Union side, into a brutal contest of numbers–had cost America dearly.  The peace was an opportunity for the country to obliterate the war’s ‘grievous effects’ and regain what it had lost: to restore the civic virtue Lee associated with the founders and the promising days of the early Republic, before the Union’s fall from grace.  Lee, at Appomattox, staked the claim that his army and not Grant’s embodied such virtue, that something of the underdog courage and steadfastness of the Revolutionary generation survived among the Confederates, intact and purified.  For Lee, the surrender was a negotiation in which he secured honorable terms for his blameless men, and the peace was contingent on the North’s good behavior.  Grant’s position was diametrically opposed to Lee’s.  In his view, the Federal army’s triumph flowed from the superior virtue of its cause.  He believed that in the hands of the incomparable Lincoln and of his officers and troops, the Union war had been noble and ennobling.  The Union’s victory was proof of both the resilience and the adaptability of republican institutions.  It meant that the Confederates must ‘yield principles that they had deemed dearer than life’; Grant knew this would not be easy, and so his magnanimous terms were designed to encourage Southern submission.  The surrender was in no sense a negotiation.  Grant could be merciful precisely because he had rendered Lee utterly powerless and his cause hopeless.  At Appomattox, the stalwarts in each man’s inner circle fell in line behind his particular interpretation of the surrender and took up a new task: that of inscribing the truth, as they saw it, into the public consciousness and the historical record.” [pp. 48-49]

Lee’s General Orders No. 9, published to his troops in the wake of the surrender, was the first document of the lost cause.  It’s where Lee claimed “the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources.” [p. 69]  Professor Varon gives us an excellent discussion of the numbers games the confederates played to make it seem Grant’s army was as large as possible while Lee’s army was as small as possible.  They sought to portray the confederates as less than 10,000 strong, even though over 28,000 confederates were paroled at Appomattox. [pp. 71-73]

The US Colored Troops provided another viewpoint regarding the surrender.  “The Confederate government viewed all black Union soldiers as so many rebellious slaves, and ‘left it to state authorities either to return captured [soldiers] to owners or execute them as insurrectionaries.’  Indeed, Olustee and Petersburg were sites of atrocities committed by Confederates against surrendering black troops.  Black soldiers were aware too that many white Northerners viewed their enlistment as a social experiment–testing the capacity of blacks for citizenship–and that some of those whites hoped and expected that the experiment would, in the end, fail.  Given this context, black soldiers quickly seized on the USCT’s critical role in Lee’s surrender as a vindication.” [p. 95]

The two views persisted into Reconstruction.  “In the South, conservative Democrats seized Appomattox as a symbol and held it hostage.  ‘If the programme [sic] which our people saw set on foot at Appomattox Court-House had been carried out–if our people had been met in the spirit which we believe existed there among the officers and soldiers, from General Grant on down–we would have had no disturbance in the South, and we would long since have had a very different state of things in this country,’ John Brown Gordon, one of the heroes of Lee’s final campaigns, told a congressional committee in 1872.  The committee was charged with investigating the depredations of the Ku Klux Klan in the South.  While black rhetoric invoked Appomattox to signify a righteous peace, white Southerners used it to call forth violence.  Gordon, who headed Georgia’s Klan and represented the state in Congress, credited Lee’s army and Grant’s with sheathing the ‘sword of vengeance’ and indicted Southern blacks, whom he regarded as criminal and insurrectionary, for unsheathing it.  He declared in the U.S. Senate in 1875 that ‘deluded, ignorant negroes … with arms to murder and hearts for plunder’ perpetrated ‘crimes not to be described on this floor,’ which left white men no choice but to resort to violence in self-defense.  In Gordon’s view, blacks had no place whatsoever in the ‘fraternity’ of ‘once opposing soldiers’ who had tried to ‘inaugurate an era of peace.’ ” [pp. 250-251]

I highly recommend this outstanding work for those who wish to understand the Appomattox surrender and how it affected events afterward.  This is the way history should always be done.

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One comment

  1. Very good summary.

    I read Varon’s book for the Appomattox 150th. Really new interpretations.

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