There are few more iconic moments in American history than the April 9, 1865 surrender of Robert E. Lee to Ulysses Grant at the McClean house in Appomattox, Virginia. Although armies remained in the field, the surrender, for practical purposes, ended the Civil War. In her new book, "Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War" (2013) Elizabeth Varon examines the events leading to Appomattox, the surrender conference itself, and the aftermath of Appomattox through the assassination of Lincoln and continuing into the Reconstruction Era. Varon argues that the pictures many Americans hold of the Appomattox surrender is "largely a myth" because it masks disagreements over the nature of the Civil War and the subsequent peace that remained unresolved well after the end of the conflict. The Longbourne M. Williams Professor of American History at the University of Virginia, Varon has written extensively on the Civil War.
Varon maintains that Union supporters and Confederate supporters had differing understandings of Appomattox. These differences were personified in the two commanders, Grant and Lee. Grant saw the Union victory as the triumph of "right over wrong". He believed that the magnaminous surrender terms he offered were ways of vindicating the Union war effort and of encouraging the Confederates to return peacefully to the Union. Grant looked forward, Varon argues, to a United States which would puruse moral and material growth.
Varon further argues that Lee viewed the surrender as the triumph of "might over right". The South lost the war due to the North's superiority in men and resources rather than due to any deficiency in the valor of the soldiers or to moral fault in the cause for which they fought. The South had to accept defeat but, Lee believed, had little cause for repentance of guilt. Lee looked towards the past, Varon maintains, towards the restoration of the southern ruling elite that had governed prior to the War and to the relationship between the races, without slavery, that had prevailed before the war. Varon finds a source of Lee's position and of the subsequent "Lost Cause" view of the Civil War in the Farewell Address that Lee delivered to his Army upon the surrender.
In her study, Varon describes how these conflicting visions of Appomattox played out. In the first part of the book, she offers a good military portrayal of the Appomattox Campaign. This was a more difficult, closely-fought campaign than sometimes realized. Among other events, Varon discusses the role of African American troops (USCT) in repelling Lee's final attempt at a break-out on the morning of April 9. Varon concentrates on the events leading to the surrender, including the exchange of notes between Grant and Lee, the surrender document itself, and Lee's Farewell Address. For all the criticism of mythologizing the event, Varon's portrayal of the surrender conference exhibits the high degree of solemnity appropriate to an iconic moment.
Varon examines how Americans viewed Appomattox in its immediate aftermath through a discussion of Newspaper and other accounts. The supporters of the Union war effort supported Grant's lenient surrender terms on grounds that they would unite the country and allow for the protection of African-American rights. Northern sympathizers with the South, and most southerners saw the surrender as validating their bravery and allowing them to return to their homes with control of their own internal affairs. They did not see in the War or its aftermath a reason to revise their beliefs or social structures about the political rights of African Americans.
Varon carries the competing visions of Appomattox through Lincoln's assassination and Andrew Johnson's presidency. She personifies the competing views with her emphasis of the activities of Grant and Lee during this time. When President Johnson showed himself unwilling to protect the rights of the Freedpeople, Grant gradually distanced himself and became a supporter of the Radical Republican policy for a military Reconstruction to protect the persons and rights of African Americans. During this period, Lee, while acting with peace and restraint, signaled his support for the former southern elite and for a restoration of the Union and of southern society as it stood in the pre-war years. Grant and Lee remained, in essence, enemies in peace as they had been in war. Varon concludes with a discussion of a northern reformer, Ellen Watkins Harper, who toured the South in 1867. "The work goes bravely on", Harper wrote. Varon adds: "For those in the postwar world determined to seize the promise of freedom, this was the true meaning of Appomattox."
Varon has written an eloquent history of Appomattox and its aftermath. In my view, she does not show that the received picture of the Appomattox surrender is a "myth". Rather the momement is properly iconic and self-contained, in the way a photograph is self-contained. More importantly, the icon was an ideal that held forth through all the tumult of its attempted realization that Varon describes. There may also be more space that Varon suggests, in places, for reconciling the two polar views of Appomattox that she develops in her study. The book is well documented but lacks a bibliography. This book will interest readers who want to think about the Civil War and its continuing impact on American history.
An excellent book on the subtle, but profound, shift of meanings associated with Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House.
With political and social ramifications that echo to the present day, how the defeat of the South was handled by the both winning and losing sides in the aftermath of Appomattox is superbly analyzed by Professor Varon.
In essence, the South invented myths that allowed it to believe that, while it lost militarily to an overwhelming force, its cause was still right and its pre-war social system of white supremacy was still valid.
My take from this book? The North won for more reasons than brute strength; Lee was far from an unblemished hero; the cause of effective voting rights for blacks was set back for a century; there is a reason there are no public monuments in Washington, D.C., for President Andrew Johnson; and Grant deserves his honored place in our country's history.
on November 24, 2013
Varon offers the first cultural, political, and social history of the Army of Northern Virginia's surrender at Appomattox Court House. Her elegant narrative, provocative argument, and skillful use of sources make this monograph an interesting addition to the historiography of the Civil War Era.
Varon argues that the traditional interpretation of the surrender as an agreement between victorious and defeated military commanders who nonetheless respected each other is simply a construction of a northern and southern 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 neccesary conditions for the surrender to mean anything. Varon cast US Grant as the chief hero of the surrender, a man committed to making the Civil War mean something.
The antagonist to Grant's role 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 concede that the Confederates deserved punishment, of some sort, and that despite Lee's nefarious attempts to forestall progress Grant magnanimously stayed his hand.
Varon's work is well-argued and elegantly written. The author's sometimes hyper-nationalistic sympathies however lead her to embrace certain academic vogues, chiefly the deconstruction of Robert Lee. True, Lee was a paternalist and not gentle towards his slaves. But Varon reads backward from the post-war era and applied 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. Emory Thomas argues convincingly that Lee was in fact a temperamental aristocrat who disliked politics of all sorts precisly because he exemplified sort of honor-bound gentry that Grant's settlement was supposed to displace.
on February 4, 2015
Appomattox! A name which will live in historical memory in the mind of the nation. On Palm Sunday April 9, 1855 the immaculately dressed Robert E. Lee general of t he Army of Northern Virginia tendered the surrender of his forces to General U.S. Grant in a small parlor in Appomattox Virginia. This famous event is known to every schoolchild and the myths and legends surrounding it are well known. Now it is the task of Dr. Elizabeth R. Varon a Civil war scholar of note and professor of history at the University of Virginia to dispel the myths surrounding the surrender ceremony and give us a 21st century view of the momentous occasion Varon has accomplished an impeccable job of researching original sources such as soldier s letters, newspaper accounts and memoirs to give us a first hand understanding of Appomattox and its implications. Among the things I learned by reading this scholarly work are":
a. Robert E. Lee was a white supremacist who was against African-American equality. He wanted the South to be restored to the Union with all of its ante-bellum society of white rule preserved. This view of Lee will not set well with Lost Cause and Lee worshippers but it is the truth of the great general s views. Lee opposed the Radical Republicans favoring the approach of President Andrew Johnson who pardoned thousands of Confederate soldiers and wanted reconstruction to maintain the white society of Dixie.
b. Ulysses Simpson Grant viewed the Civil War as a huge step in achieving racial citizenship and equality for African-Americans. He favored the Civil Rights Bill which was vetoed by President Andrew Johnson. Grant allied himself with the Republican Party as did James Longstreet, William Mahone and John Mosby., Grant looked to Amerca s future while Lee looked backward viewing our greatest historical era to be that of his hero George Washington and the Revolutionary War generation. Grant emerges as a hero in the eyes of this reviewer!
c. Varon does an excellent job in showing how black Americans who had been freed from slavery looked upon Appomattox as a victory for freedom. They were to be disappointed as southern white supremacy ruled the South and black people were persecuted. Varon refers to the horrible Memphis riot against blacks in 1866.
d. The myth developed that Lee was vastly outnumbered in troop strength during the Appomattox campaign. Varon shows that Lee opposed by a force of 2-1.
e. Lee and Grant were not friends and had vastly different visions of American society.
I first saw Elizabeth Varon on C-Span lecturing on this book. It is the best book I have read on this pivotal event in American history. Highly recommended to Civil War buffs and general readers! Excellent !
on February 14, 2014
Elizabeth Varon's "Appomattox" is well written yet too often examines facts only insofar as they might support her point. The disappointment I had in the book is that it seems to have seen there is more to the surrender at Appomattox than has been considered, yet uses her book to flog a straw man in despite the facts.
Her main point-that the Appomattox surrender has become iconic and as such misunderstood-is to be applauded. The picture of Lee and Grant at the surrender table in the parlor of the McLean House is an iconic part of American history. From there she argues that in fact the surrender was not the start of a reconciliation of the country that led it to be able to become an international power. She suggests there were misunderstandings from the start as to what the surrender meant...so far so good...but then pivots to what is an argument that Grant is marvelous, Lee is not, and that the South is horrible because it did not accept its defeat in the war.
Here is where the opportunity is missed. The American Civil War was a first-it was a battle over-ultimately-freedom for a class of people who were not actually fighting until late in the war. There had been wars and revolutions for freedom for a people-the American Revolution is at the front of the line-but in those fights the people seeking the change were fighting the fight. This was a new kind of war, a war that not only changed the status quo but that would destroy a way of life-either slavery would be ended, or the USA would be split into two countries. In other wars governments changed, but when Napoleon fell France still existed.
Wars of the past had been between kings and queens, in fact if not in title. The day-to-day life most people led would not change much regardless of who won. The peasant in Alsace-Lorraine led pretty much the same life (with the benefit of mechanical advances) between 1870 and 1939, despite the changes in national boundary lines and what government they answered to. The Civil War was different, and more terrible and distinct because the reasons at stake were so clear.
In this light the suggestion that the Southern leaders did not live up to the Federal perception of what the surrender meant and to condemn them for this is a bit ludicrous. The real story is how this reflects another aspect of how the American Civil War was a change in how things were done-a fulcrum point not only in the history of the USA, but also in how things were done in warfare and politics. This changed perspective in negotiation and the nature of warfare is just as significant the importance of rifled barrels, cannister artillery, telegraph lines, railroad lines, and ironclads changed how war was fought.
Southerners adapted an interpretation of the surrender that enhanced their self-esteem and their desire to control their lives in the same way that other people have reacted in the wake of losing a war.
From our times, this idea is all too clear. However, in pursuit of her idea of some sort of southern treachery Ms. Varon too often chooses to underplay key events...and her main target is Robert E. Lee. Ms. Varun argues that Lee entered the McLean home with some grand vision of protecting the aristocracy and a way of life...and then really fails to prove this argument. Now it can be argued that his action after the surrender had this affect, but little beyond base speculation and nothing in the way of proof is offered to support her contention.
Along the way the author conveniently chooses to undersell the indisputably positive things Lee did. Mention is given to Lee putting the kibosh to the idea of letting his army fade into the woods and starting a guerilla campaign from the hills. A quick look at Afghanistan and Iraq circa 2013 shows just how horrible to the USA this path would have been. But this act barely registers in the face of Ms. Varon's displeasure with how Lee comported himself in later years. She misses the idea that when Lee surrendered, he gave the green light for the white flag across the South. I suggest that even if Ms. Varun had capably supported her premise of Lee's intentions, his unwillingness to support guerrilla warfare would trump that for historical significance.
There are also the drive by kidney shots, like a boxer punching a passing opponent...
Ms. Varon bring up POW's, but fails to deal with the reality of POW situation. She castigates Lee for not taking steps to relieve the conditions in POW camps, both in Andersonville and attributes reasons of misfeasance and malfeasance to him. She conveniently ignores the fact that Lee attempted to negotiate prisoner exchanges with Grant, and the efforts were refused. Grant had the soldiers he needed, and wanted to deny troops to Lee...and in doing so the disease and death of POW's continued in camp not just in Andersonville and in Richmond, but in Elmira, NY and other sites in the north.
Ulterior motives are attributed to Lee for his request of his various subordinates for their campaign records of the war so he could write the "true" history of the campaigns of the Army of Northern Virginia. Not only did he not write that history, but other authors have recounted his request was the result of being bombarded with requests from officers asking him to state that said officers had not "screwed up". Perhaps had he written such a book then Jubal Early and his triumph of the "Lost Cause" would not have taken root so quickly. Lee is taken to task not doing more to make the South comply with the Northern vision of Appomattox. I suggest that given the times what is more important is that he urged southerners to take the oath to the USA and rejoin the USA as citizens, that he sought to educate the young men of the South to become part of a new productive life, and that he urged Confederate generals to not go off to serve in foreign armies rather than stay and rebuild the South.
Throughout the book Ms. Varon regularly ignores a key fact in the runup to the Civil War-namely, that the question of secession was not a legal concept that had been discussed and and determined prior to 1861, and even in the conduct of the war was addressed with some flexibility. My Virginia father and my West Virginia relatives found it a worthy topic of discussion how it was that Virginia could not secede from the USA, but that what became West Virginia could secede from Virginia.
While Ms. Varun works to portray Robert E. Lee in an unfavorable light, she does a service in reminding us of the service of Ulysses Grant. Nany see Grant as a General and then a President who while suffered a terrible number of scandals, and who sought a third term in office. What we forget-and what Ms. Varun reminds us-is that Grant had a clear idea of right and wrong, and sought to find the way to bring peace to his country and safety to the former slaves and to those in the south who opposed restoration in any form of the Bourbon aristocracy. Grant also had his own manuvering to do in the fighting between Andrew Johnson and the Radical Congress. His presidency-certainly his first term-was better than his reputation, and it seems that at worst the man trusted his appointees.
I have little doubt that Ms. Varun is correct in her suggestion that Grant was disappointed that Lee did not take a larger role in leading the post-war South back to to Union...but it is much easier to make such judgements when you did not have to surrender your army. I did not see where Ms. Varun addressed the question that Lee may have not only been more comfortable but also saw there was a greater ability in bringing reconciliation about by staying inside the tent rather than being outside the tent.
Ultimately I give three stars to the book. It is well written, easy to read, and offers a new perspective. I take away one star because of her consistent failure to evenly and appropriately weigh the facts she offers, and another because she had the chance to write a book that cast the aftermath of Appomattox as the dawn of a new day instead of a flagellation of a region that acted exactly as it should have been anticipated it would act.
on December 18, 2013
I had not read anything that covered Appomattox in detail. This author covers the battle and the signing and all the consequences. The writing keeps your interest whether you are a expereinced civil war buff or a beginner. Add this book to your collection. I have 100s of civil war books and am glad to have this be an addition.
on August 12, 2015
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: Victory, 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.
on July 1, 2015
This is an important new book on an iconic moment in American history, and it should be read by anyone interested in the interpretation of the events of the Civil War. Caveat Emptor: it IS 2015, and the Federal Government DID win this conflict. If you still seem to deny these things, then you might want to stay away. Ms. Varon gives a fairly predictable assessment of 1865 from the perspective of 2015. She seems to fault General Lee that he was not visionary enough to assume modern values; she praises General Grant, slightly, that he WAS practical and smart enough to see the war and its aftermath in proper perspective; she is obsessed with dispelling the "lore" of the surrender: that it was a "gentleman's agreement" filled with honor and respect for all involved. I think that, borrowing from Hemingway, it is all true: her assessment AND the lore of Appomattox. No one can argue with the messy and unfortunate years of Reconstruction; no one can deny the stubborn inability of defeated Confederates to act decently (or lawfully) in regards to emancipated slaves and their civil rights. These are embarrassing years for anyone who holds fast to American Exceptionalism, for they are so fraught with our failures and inadequacies. I think Varon misses an important point, however, in her focus on the failures of Lee and, to some extent, Grant.
These were military men, not political animals; they DID respect each other and they DID treat each other with honor. Their later political views as quoted by Varon seem rather pathetic utterances of individuals completely out of their element. Grant's inexperience with the world of politics is easily evident in the disaster of his tenure as President from 1869-77: Lee, fortunately, stayed mostly out of the limelight, preferring the world of Washington College, unless pulled forth to testify before Congress. Lee's choice of educating young men for the future WAS a noble choice, no doubt about it; Grant should have followed that example, pursuing his dream of being a math teacher instead of president. Varon offers little praise for General Lee, preferring to see him as a schemer, or manipulator of his fellow Southerners. From what I have read of the man, this could not be further from the truth. General Lee DID commit treason; it is especially egregious in the light of the fact that the Federal Government educated him and provided him with a thirty-five year career in its military. In joining the Confederate cause, he did what General Winfield Scott said he did: committed the worst mistake of his life. But he responded with dignity and humility, not bombast. He is no man of 2015 with twitter feeds, Facebook pages, or PAC organizations. We should admire him for that, at least. George Washington also committed treason, and had he not won, who knows what his fate would have been at the hands of a vengeful British government. Lee thought backwards, not forwards; and we do him a disservice by whining that he could not see the future; he was, after all, a very limited man intellectually. James Longstreet makes a brief appearance in this book, but steals the show with his to-the-point observation that '"[t]he decision was in favor of the North, so her construction becomes the law, and should be so accepted.'" Maybe he wasn't such a Scalawag after all.
This book is well-written, well-documented and refreshing in many ways. I criticize it for its obsession with smashing the lore of the Surrender, but, in some ways, that obsession (and its argument) is what makes this book so fascinating. But be warned: if you are looking to be reaffirmed in your thinking, better go back to Bruce Catton's or Burke Davis's accounts; they are also well-written, but far more respectful of the main protagonists of the historical moment we call APPOMATTOX.
on February 28, 2014
Original research and very clear writing on Grant versus Lee and their assessments of the war.
Thought provoking discussion of both men's post war mind sets re reconstruction and ex slave voting rights
Often Lee is given mythical status and Grant's victory is denigrated as due to having overwhelming men and material. Varon disputes this assessment
on March 19, 2014
This is a detailed account of the end of the Civil War. It goes well beyond a retelling of the Grant-Lee meeting at Appomattox. It shows how the North and South differed significantly in their interpretations of what the North's victory meant and would mean going forward. I recommend this book to the reader with a casual interest in US History, as well as the Civil War buff who is interested in the immediate post-war period.