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

 By Elizabeth R. Varon, Oxford University Press 2013, $27.95

Wars, as Thucydides observed, are driven by fear, honor and interest. Consequently, as Americans have painfully learned over the past decade, bringing them to a close can be a tricky business. Political differences so profound that they lead societies to take up arms against each other are rarely resolved neatly, while the passions violent tactics arouse are difficult to cage once unleashed.

Americans have traditionally taken pride that our Civil War offers an exception. The meeting in April 1865 at Appomattox Court House between Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, it is believed, brought a decent end to the conflict, with honor serving the cause  of peace rather than war. Rising above petty politics, Grant offered generous terms and Lee accepted them, which created a “spirit of Appomattox” powerful enough to allow a reconciliation that laid the foundation for the country’s rise to greatness. The fact that such a satisfactory end to a civil war was achieved made what took place in 1865 all the more remarkable.

In her new book, Elizabeth R. Varon offers a powerful dissent to this image of Appomattox, 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. Tragically, rather than serving the cause of conciliation, Varon argues, Grant’s magnanimity had the opposite effect. It helped Lee fashion an explanation for the war’s outcome that, combined with the malignantly misguided policies of Andrew Johnson and Copperhead conservatism in the North, fueled Southern defiance in the war’s aftermath and  helped explain why the North’s victory on the battlefield failed to achieve all it  should have politically.

Of course, in light of more than a generation of scholarship emphasizing the failure of the war to bring about a true reformation of Southern society, it is no surprise that the idealized image of Appomattox would be found wanting. As Varon points out, the war left profound questions incompletely answered, deep conflicts between and  within the sections intact, and created new problems. No matter how comforting the thought may be that the war’s issues were resolved by two soldiers seeking to rise above politics and simply doing their duty to their country, this book superbly reminds us that trying to transcend politics in ending the war rendered it impossible for Grant and Lee to overcome the problems that started it.


Originally published in the May 2014 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.