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Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War

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Finalist, Library of Virginia Literary Award for Nonfiction
Winner of the Dan and Marilyn Laney Prize of the Austin Civil War Round Table
Finalist, Jefferson Davis Award of the Museum of the Confederacy

Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House evokes a highly gratifying image in the popular mind -- it was, many believe, a moment that transcended politics, a moment of healing, a moment of patriotism ...

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Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War

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Finalist, Library of Virginia Literary Award for Nonfiction
Winner of the Dan and Marilyn Laney Prize of the Austin Civil War Round Table
Finalist, Jefferson Davis Award of the Museum of the Confederacy

Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House evokes a highly gratifying image in the popular mind -- it was, many believe, a moment that transcended politics, a moment of healing, a moment of patriotism untainted by ideology. But as Elizabeth Varon reveals in this vividly narrated history, this rosy image conceals a seething debate over precisely what the surrender meant and what kind of nation would emerge from war. The combatants in that debate included the iconic Lee and Grant, but they also included a cast of characters previously overlooked, who brought their own understanding of the war's causes, consequences, and meaning.

In Appomattox, Varon deftly captures the events swirling around that well remembered-but not well understood-moment when the Civil War ended. She expertly depicts the final battles in Virginia, when Grant's troops surrounded Lee's half-starved army, the meeting of the generals at the McLean House, and the shocked reaction as news of the surrender spread like an electric charge throughout the nation. But as Varon shows, the ink had hardly dried before both sides launched a bitter debate over the meaning of the war. For Grant, and for most in the North, the Union victory was one of right over wrong, a vindication of free society; for many African Americans, the surrender marked the dawn of freedom itself. Lee, in contrast, believed that the Union victory was one of might over right: the vast impersonal Northern war machine had worn down a valorous and unbowed South. Lee was committed to peace, but committed, too, to the restoration of the South's political power within the Union and the perpetuation of white supremacy. Lee's vision of the war resonated broadly among Confederates and conservative northerners, and inspired Southern resistance to reconstruction.

Did America's best days lie in the past or in the future? For Lee, it was the past, the era of the founding generation. For Grant, it was the future, represented by Northern moral and material progress. They held, in the end, two opposite views of the direction of the country-and of the meaning of the war that had changed that country forever.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Varon (history, Temple Univ.; Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy) argues that our conflicting interpretations of the meaning of General Lee's April 1865 surrender to General Grant at Appomattox Court House, VA, help explain our subsequent varying interpretations of Reconstruction and post-Civil War America. The interpretations of Appomattox began even before the surrender itself. In their very negotiations, Lee and Grant attempted to define the meaning of the surrender. Initial responses focused on Grant's generous terms offered to the defeated rebels. To Lee, the very fact that Grant was generous showed that the South had been morally right but was defeated by overwhelming manpower. For Grant, he was magnanimous because the North was morally right and could afford to be generous in victory to "convert" Southern opinion to Northern sensibilities. To Northerners, it was the superior generalship of Grant, the morality of their cause, and effective soldiering that brought victory. For Southerners and copperheads, it was inferior numbers alone that lost the war. These variances, says Varon, explain Southern resistance to radical Reconstruction, especially as it pertained to civil rights for former slaves. Varon shows that the Northern interpretation of the surrender is in fact better supported by the historical record. VERDICT This is a careful examination that anyone interested in exploring the meanings of the war and Reconstruction will find valuable.—MF
Kirkus Reviews
What exactly was the meaning of the surrender at Appomattox? Robert E. Lee's surrender of his starving army to Ulysses S. Grant effectively brought the Civil War to an end; remaining military resistance collapsed shortly thereafter. But once the killing ceased and the Confederate troops had returned home under magnanimous surrender terms, what had truly been resolved? Slavery and secession were ended by force of arms; the South accepted that, however grudgingly. Yet many social and political questions remained to be settled by leaders from both sides of the conflict. Predominating among these leaders were the border-state Democrat Andrew Johnson, who had succeeded the murdered Lincoln, and Lee and Grant themselves. Varon (History/Univ. of Virginia; Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789–1859, 2008, etc.) considers how the months following the surrender came to be viewed by each side as a golden opportunity for conciliation squandered by the other, partly as a result of radically different interpretations of the meaning of the North's military victory and the terms under which the South had laid down its arms. Drawing on sources ranging from newspaper editorials and congressional testimony to the poetry of Herman Melville, the author explores the evolving disagreements between Unionists and the former Confederates about moral culpability for the war, the restoration of the occupied states to the union, and especially about the rights to be accorded the freed slaves. Johnson's approach to reconstruction seemed only to substitute serfdom for slavery and otherwise left the South largely unchanged; this enraged the radical Republicans, who saw this result as a betrayal of the Union dead. Grant observed and vacillated but finally supported the radicals. Lee emerges as less the conciliating figure of modern legend and more a sectional leader who felt betrayed by what he saw as federal interference in Southern affairs beyond anything agreed to at Appomattox. A careful, scholarly consideration of how the ambiguities surrounding the defeat of the South resolved into the bitter eras of Reconstruction and Jim Crow.
From the Publisher

"[A] compelling new account of the war's end... Rather than emphasizing the finality of military defeat, Varon stresses the uncertainty of the subsequent days, weeks, and months."--Sarah Bowman, Civil War Monitor

"A very fine account... In the end, as Varon so ably demonstrates, Appomattox did not end a war. It just closed the phase of that contest characterized by armed conflict. The much older war would go on. In some ways, it is not over yet." --William C. Davis, History Book Club

"Excellent and thought-provoking...Varon...treats Appomattox as a major event in American history, worth extensive analysis, but also as a very engaging human story." --James E. Sefton, Civil War Book Review

"Elizabeth Varon successfully argues in her groundbreaking book that the seeds for the post-Civil War world started before the ink had dried on the surrender agreement signed by Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House... A careful construction and analysis of the meaning of Appomattox to many different people." --James Percoco, Civil War News

"A careful, scholarly consideration of how the ambiguities surrounding the defeat of the South resolved into the bitter eras of Reconstruction and Jim Crow." --Kirkus Reviews

"In this powerful analysis of the substantive and symbolic meanings of the surrender at Appomattox, Elizabeth Varon shows how that iconic moment has shaped a range of perceptions of the Civil War and its consequences. Grant and Lee emerge with new richness and complexity in this important book, one of the best to appear during these years of the war's sesquicentennial anniversaries." --James McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom

"In lively prose, Elizabeth Varon demonstrates that much of what we think we know about Lee's surrender to Grant in April 1865 is misleading, embellished, or just plain wrong, but even more important, she portrays the ending of the Civil War less as a moment of innocence than as long process, begun before the ink on the surrender signatures had dried, in which white and black Americans of all regions and varying political stripes shrewdly contested the meaning of the war." --Chandra Manning, author of What This Cruel War Was Over

"In a short space, Elizabeth Varon has not only given us a graceful narrative of the epochal surrender at Appomattox, but has also awakened us to the bitterly-contested meanings of that surrender. The war that ended at Appomattox did not subside into a happy story of fraternal reconciliation, but into an ongoing struggle between those who believed the war had brought a new age of freedom and equality into existence, and those who fought to keep the South's feudal past upon its throne. We will not be able to look at Appomattox, or the legacy of the Civil War, in simplistic terms again." --Allen C. Guelzo, author of Gettysburg: The Last Invasion

"Elizabeth Varon's elegant meditation on the complex legacy of the Appomattox surrender combines finely grained social history with penetrating analysis of one of the great mythic moments in American history. Closing out the Civil War, Lee and Grant's fateful meeting ushered in a harmonious reunion of a country destined for greatness. Or did it? Varon's meticulous unpacking of the layers of falsehood surrounding the myth lays bare a painful truth-that there was no unified vision of what peace might bring to a troubled and still bitterly divided nation." --Joan Waugh, University of California, Los Angeles

"Based on exceptionally thorough research, Elizabeth Varon's study meticulously dissects the sentimental, romantic version of the Appomattox story, which portrays it as an apolitical, magnanimous event. Varon shows convincingly that Robert E. Lee and other Confederates made the Army of Northern Virginia's surrender the opening shot in the battle over Reconstruction, and that the seeds of Reconstruction's failure were sown at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865." --Michael Burlingame, author of Abraham Lincoln: A Life

"Varon probes deep into the psyches of Lee and Grant and analyzes them with fresh eyes to understand what kind of nation they envisioned emerging from the wreckage of war... Varon also delves into the letters, diaries, and memoirs left by the men of the two armies who fought each other during those last desperate days... In her clear, confident, yet elegant, prose, Varon gives renewed life to many of the players in the last act of America's greatest tragedy." --Gordon Berg, Civil War Round Table of the District of Columbia

"We are always looking for books that enable us to see the Lees in a new way. Elizabeth Varon's new book, Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War does just that... A compelling tale." --Paul Reber, Executive Director, Stratford Hall

"Varon is effective in dispelling the various myths that have sprung up over the surrender itself, including the fabled meeting under an apple tree, which never happened. Using a wealth of primary and secondary sources, the work is excellent in never treating either North or South as monolithic. The author thoroughly discusses the roles of African Americans in both sections, and gives the political opponents in both regions their say." --K.L. Gorman, Minnesota State University, Mankato, CHOICE

"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." --Southern Literary Review

"A compelling account of the courses taken by Grant and Lee and a superb look at how the public in both sections endeavored to understand what had happened-and what it portended for the future." --Ethan S. Rafuse, America's Civil War

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199751716
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 10/4/2013
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 263,370
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Elizabeth R. Varon is Langbourne M. Williams Professor of American History at the University of Virginia. A noted Civil War historian, she is the author of Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859; We Mean to be Counted: White Women and Politics in Antebellum Virginia; and Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, A Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy, which was named one of the "Five Best" books on the "Civil War away from the battlefield" by the Wall Street Journal.

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Table of Contents

Part One: Battlefront
Ch 1 No Escape
Ch 2 Councils of War
Ch 3 The Surrender Conference
Ch 4 Rank-and-File
Part Two: Homefront
Ch 5: Tidings of Peace
Ch 6: Victory and Mourning
Ch 7: Defeat and Liberation
Part Three: Aftermath
Ch 8: The Trials of Robert E. Lee
Ch 9: The Education of U.S. Grant
Epilogue: The Apple Tree

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 4 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 7, 2014

    Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom At The End Of The Civi

    Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom At The End Of The Civil War, Elizabeth R. Varon, Oxford University Press, 2014, 305 pp., 1 map, 33 b/w illustrations, endnotes, index, $27.95.

    Francis August Schaeffer, a 20th century American theologian, philosopher, and pastor, held to a particular approach to answering the questions of the age. His illustration of ‘the universe viewed from two chairs’ promoted the examination of worldviews. Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom At The End Of The Civil War, offers a discussion of two worldviews; one typified by Robert E. Lee and one typified by Ulysses S. Grant.

    In popular culture, ‘The Brothers War’ comes to an end at Appomattox Courthouse, April 9, 1865. The very dignified Robert E. Lee surrenders to the very muddy Ulysses S. Grant. Lee is accompanied by one other staff officer; Grant brings about a half dozen generals and their staffs. At the surrender ceremony Lee, like during the war, is vastly outnumbered. Varon’s work views the surrender ceremony from two chairs: Lee’s and Grant’s personal interpretation of the surrender. For Varon, Grant’s terms for surrender created one spirit of Appomattox; Lee’s interpretation of the terms created another spirit of Appomattox. Grant’s view understood the surrender as offering reconciliation; Lee’s view understood the surrender to recognize that he was overwhelmed by numbers but unbowed. Lee felt Grant understood this. Grant’s terms were not his usual unconditional surrender terms; Lee’s soldiers left the surrender site with some of their arms, their horses and food in their stomachs.

    Grant’s and Lee’s understandings are contested by Andrew Johnson, northern Peace Democrats and Copperheads, moderate Republicans and radical Republicans, the war’s white and black veterans. Should Reconstruction become the war waged by non-military means and achieve a racial reformation of the South? Varon states and supports the argument that war left most questions set forth in 1860 unanswered and created new problems. The author is explicit in stating that the political problems of 1860 were not solved upon the surrender of the Confederate armies.

    Both Lee and Grant believed they transcended politics on April 9, 1865. For northern soldiers and politicians, individual courage and God’s cause of justice won the war. For southern soldiers and politicians, individual courage and the rightness of their cause was not enough to fend off the immigrant hordes in the Federal army which supplied by the North’s vast agriculture to deliver food and industry’s capacity to deliver armaments.

    The familiar story of Appomattox is opened up by Varon and in it she sees a variety of interpretations which the participants held. The author offers both an event based and a worldview based telling of the surrender and its immediate implications. Confederate, Federal, and African-American veterans, civilians, and politicians on both sides are well described in their own words. Using a narrative style that is accessible to most readers, Varon presents both worldviews with sharp details. Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom At The End Of The Civil War is superb.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 30, 2014

    a cohesive descriptor of the Civil War's bipolar interpretations of the surrender at Appomattox.

    This is not a detailed explanation of the consequences of the surrender and peace established at Appomattox. It does cover many bases not usually covered in a tome of this subject. It is an excellent starting point for anyone who wants to understand the period of Reconstruction and the figures who influenced it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 3, 2014

    Highly Recommended

    For those who want to know what happened after Lee's surrender and how that effected life in the South for years to come, this is a good place to start.

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  • Posted February 15, 2014

    I am surprised that after 150 years, all of a sudden history rev

    I am surprised that after 150 years, all of a sudden history revisionists like Varon have found "new" data that "rewrites" what many historians, over the years, have somehow forgotten to covered. I am more disturbed and perplexed that ultra liberal Varon connects Northern Conservatives to Southerners through her conspirators theory. Funny how it all connects to ultra liberals present day fight against present day Conservatives.

    0 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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