Segment from Mission Accomplished

Appomattox: What Ends?

Ed talks with historian Liz Varon about what actually ended when Grant and Lee shook hands at Appomattox, and how competing — and persisting — understandings of the war grew up around it.

00:00:00 / 00:00:00
View Transcript

ED: Suffice it to say, though, that’s not how it seemed in 1865. Even Lee and Grant themselves didn’t agree on what had happened that April day at Appomattox.

ELIZABETH VARON: Grant and Lee had fundamentally and utterly irreconcilable understandings of the meaning of the peace of the terms, and of the war itself.

ED: This is Elizabeth Varon, a historian at the University of Virginia.

ELIZABETH VARON: Grant believed that the Union victory was a victory of right over wrong. Lee believed that the Union victory was a victory of might over right. Those are not compatible views of things.

ED: This conflict played out in a lot of ways. But let’s just look at one of them. The question of what would happen to the defeated Confederates. Lee’s army had just surrendered. And his soldiers were therefore prisoners of war. In theory, they could be tried for treason. But the two generals made a deal. As long as the POWs quit fighting, they could go home, resume their civilian lives, and they would not be disturbed. They were paroled, in the language of the day.

BRIAN: For Grant and his soldiers, the emphasis was on the first part of the agreement. As long as they stopped fighting.

ELIZABETH VARON: Essentially for Union men, this was a kind of reminder of the obligations attendant upon the Confederate status as prisoners.

BRIAN: Obligations like obeying the law, not starting a guerrilla war.

ED: But Lee and his men saw this in a completely different light. For them, the emphasis was on the second part of the agreement. The idea that ex-Confederates quote, “would not be disturbed.”

ELIZABETH VARON: For Southerners, this “would not be disturbed” was a promise that the North would not ask anything more of them than the surrender of their arms. And we see once Northerners begin to speak about things like black civil rights and black enfranchisement, Confederates will turn on them and say, but we didn’t agree to that at Appomattox. You promised we would not be disturbed. This disturbs us.

BRIAN: Ex-Conferderates felt like they had been betrayed. But Northern Republicans thought, hey, you said you’d obey Federal law. This is Federal law. Deal with it.

ED: This conflict over the POW question reflected a much deeper difference. Grant and Lee fundamentally disagreed about what the peace should accomplish. For Lee, it was all about recapturing a lost golden age.

ELIZABETH VARON: And his view of a peace is one in which somehow, the values of the early Republic are restored. He has this kind of imagined view of the past, Halcyon days in the early republic, before the politics of slavery had alienated North and South. Before the Union’s fall from grace. He believes that his army, his army, somehow embodies in a sort of pure form the very virtues of that founding era, and the virtues that the Union needs to preserve if it’s going to survive.

BRIAN: But Grant isn’t looking backwards. In fact, he was looking forward to the future of industrial and economic growth. He figured that defeated Confederates needed to accept that the war was over. Get on board with this new reality.

ED: These divergent views played out in the national stage the very next year. In February of 1866, Lee travelled to Washington to testify to a congressional committee. The committee had already heard dozens of witnesses, black and white, testify to the racial violence erupting across the defeated South.

But in his testimony, Lee insisted that black Southerners were being well-treated by their former masters. He was frustrated by what he saw as a betrayal of the terms of Appomattox. His fighters had laid down their arms as promised, and yet the radical Republicans kept pushing for deeper change.

ELIZABETH VARON: By May of 1866, when Grant gives an interview with a Northern paper, he says, Lee, he says in this interview, Lee is behaving badly. That Lee is setting an example of forced acquiescence so grudging and pernicious in its effects as to hardly be realized. Lee’s behavior, pernicious in Grant’s mind. Now Lee himself had very little taste for vigilante violence and didn’t favorite it.

But the cluster of ideas that justified the Confederate cause and denigrated the Union one inspired resistance, including violent resistance to reconstruction. So to imagine that these men’s handshake meant that they ceased to be enemies is a terrible oversimplification. And my point, in effect, is that to understand the surrender, we have to see Lee and Grant as their contemporaries saw them. And that is as consummate leaders who had a responsibility to champion their respective causes in peace, as they had championed those causes in war, not as people who would move to the sidelines and fade into the history books.

ED: That’s Elizabeth Varon, an historian at the University of Virginia. She’s the author of the forthcoming book, Appomattox, Victory, Defeat and Freedom at the end of the Civil War.

BRIAN: We’re going to take another break now. When we come back, we’re going to calculate just how many years the United States has been at peace since World War II. And here’s a hint. It’s a single digit.

PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.