Friday, March 07, 2014

New And Noteworthy: Appomattox--A Defeat? A Victory? The End of The War?

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,  end notes, 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.

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