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.
The conventional view of the surrender at Appomattox portrays the event as a moment of reconciliation between north and south when Grant’s magnanimity and Lee’s stoic resignation inaugurated a process of national healing that prepared the way for America’s emergence as a world power. Varon declares this a myth. Rather than a moment of reconciliation, the surrender was the first step in a bitter a protracted struggle over the meaning of the surrender and the war itself. Grant saw the surrender as a victory of right over wrong, that vindicated a free society and a future where repentant southerners would join in the march towards “moral and material progress.” Lee, on the other hand, believed Southerners had nothing to repent. Their honor and principles remained intact. What Lee wanted was restoration of the pre-war order and significant restrictions on political rights for the emancipated slaves. He envisioned Virginia as once again leading the nation, as it had before and after the American Revolution. Varon tells a compelling tale of how this argument played out in the press and in politics, as southerners and Northern conservatives sought to restrict the rights of the emancipated slaves and restore the political power of the former Confederates. These efforts were resisted by northern Republicans who wanted repentance from the south for secession and sought to curb the power of the former Confederates by increasing the political power of the emancipated slaves. Robert E. Lee played a leading role in promoting the southern perspective in this debate.
I find Varon’s argument very persuasive and it is consistent with my own understanding of Robert E. Lee actions, not only after the war but before. It was always his position that he resigned from the United States Army to defend Virginia so it is consistent that this attitude persisted after the war. What is more interesting to speculate is what vision of Virginia he was defending. On this point, Varon is not as concise. The emancipation of the slaves made the restoration of the pre-war social and political order impossible. What might be salvaged was the political power of people like Lee and other members of the pre-war leadership. Lee was very much a product of this pre-war order, with its traditions of service and devotion to virtue. His own comments and personal actions, including his service as President of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, is indicative of his commitment to the ideals of public service and virtue defined by his father and Virginians who had led the American Revolution.
These are surely not simple concepts to understand, but perhaps we should look at it this way: the past is always with us whether we are aware of it or not. Not even a disastrous war could completely unburden Lee from the legacy of this past and his family’s history of involvement in leading the nation. It is our mission at Stratford Hall to help people understand how these ideas effected the actions of Robert E. Lee, other members of the Lee family and the history of our nation. If we are to accept Professor Varon’s argument, what we are really debating is the legacy of the American Revolution. The Civil War was supposed to have settled this issue, but because of the aftermath of the surrender at Appomattox the debate rages on yet today.
-Paul Reber, Executive Director