Reconstructing Appomattox

By Elizabeth R. Varon | February 5th, 2015

Historian and distinguished UVA professor Elizabeth R. Varon takes a look at the ending of the American Civil War, and what it means today

University of Virginia Professor of American History

[Editor’s Note: In the first days of April 1865, Petersburg and Richmond fell to the Union Army, and the Civil War effectively was over. On the afternoon of April 9, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, a small town near Lynchburg, officially ending the war. But things would prove not that simple. BOOMER asked historian Elizabeth R. Varon of the University of Virginia, author of the award-winning book, Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War, to put that day’s event in continuing perspective.]

Robert E. Lee’s surrender to U.S. Grant is for most Americans a familiar tableau. The two men met in the parlor of Wilmer McLean, in the modest central Virginia hamlet of Appomattox Court House. Lee wore a fine dress uniform, and embodied the proud gentility of the South’s planter elite. Grant, dressed casually in a mud-spattered uniform, represented the hardscrabble farmers and wage-earners he had molded into a formidable fighting machine. After awkwardly exchanging some pleasantries about their service in the Mexican War, the two men agreed to the surrender terms that effectively ended the Civil War. In essence, Grant’s terms set free the conquered soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia, on their honor: the promise that they would never again take up arms against the United States. Grant’s magnanimity in this hour, and Lee’s stoic resignation in defeat, not only reunited the North and South, but prepared the way for America’s emergence as a world power. This is an edifying story that casts Appomattox as a “gentlemen’s agreement” between two selfless leaders. But in truth, the surrender scene was not so serene: There was no meeting of the minds at Appomattox. Instead, the surrender was an inherently political moment that would set the terms of bitter and protracted debates about the meaning of the war. Lee and Grant, consummate leaders both, each moved to stake out a position – and their two positions were fundamentally incompatible.


Lee sought at Appomattox to turn military defeat into moral victory. In his view, the Union victory was illegitimate: a victory of might over right. “The Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources,” Lee intoned in his April 10 Farewell Address to his troops. He was implying, unmistakably, that the Yankees had won not because of skill or bravery but instead because of brute force, and that the North therefore had no right to impose its political will on the South. In Lee’s eyes, the war had cost the nation dearly, and the peace would ideally obliterate the “grievous effects” of the war and restore to the country what it had lost: the civic virtue Lee associated with the halcyon days of an imagined past, the era of the early Republic, when Americans had taken it for granted that Virginians would lead the nation.

From April 1865 on, “restoration” would be Lee’s political keyword. Six months after the surrender he wrote to his friend Matthew Fontaine Maury the following lament: “As long as virtue was dominant in the Republic, so long was the happiness of the people secure … [May] an ever merciful God save us from destruction and restore us [to] the bright hopes and prospects of the past.” This was a fundamentally backward-looking view of the peace.

Lee also moved at Appomattox to cast the surrender terms in the best possible light. He believed that the surrender was a negotiation in which he extracted concessions from Grant, and that the peace was contingent on the North’s good behavior. Eager to protect his troops against any possible reprisals at the hands of the victorious Yankees, Lee requested of Grant, at Appomattox, that each individual Confederate be issued a printed certificate, a parole pass, as proof that such a soldier came under the surrender terms of April 9. The certificates vouched that if a surrendered Confederate soldier went home and observed the laws in force where he resided, he would “remain undisturbed.” For Confederates, Appomattox paroles represented the promise that honorable men would not be treated dishonorably. Lee intended to hold the Union to that promise. In an April 29, 1865, interview he gave New York Herald – just a few weeks after the surrender – Lee warned that if “arbitrary or vindictive or revengeful policies” were adopted by the Yankee government, Southerners would consider the surrender terms breached and would renew the fight. Ten months later, testifying before a Congressional committee investigating the waves of anti-black violence in the South, Lee defended the lenient policies of President Andrew Johnson, which had brought ex-Confederates back to power. He again cautioned that the North must be restrained and generous in its approach to reunion, for that was the best way, Lee declared provocatively, for Northerners to regain the “good opinion” of the South.

In the year after the war, Confederates not only again and again invoked the “overwhelming numbers” interpretation of their defeat – they also invoked the Appomattox terms, and particularly the “remain undisturbed” clause, as a shield against social change, and a weapon in the looming battle over black civil rights. Republican efforts to give the freedpeople a measure of equality and opportunity and protection were met by Confederate protests that such a radical agenda was a betrayal of the Appomattox terms – that the prospect of black citizenship, as one Virginia newspaper put it, “molests and disturbs us.” In short, Confederates believed Lee had drawn a line in the sand at Appomattox. The North Carolina poet Mary Bayard Clarke put it most succinctly. Urging Southerners to model their behavior on that of Lee, she wrote in the summer of 1866 that Confederates would observe their parole terms, but “more than this,” she insisted, “an honorable enemy should not desire. It is idle to attempt to force them to say and feel they were wrong.”


From the start, this view of things was resoundingly rejected by U.S. Grant, by his inner circle, and by the vast majority of Union soldiers and civilians. It was precisely an admission of wrongdoing, and a change of heart, that Grant sought from his defeated foes. His mercy was designed not to exonerate the Confederates but to effect their repentance. Grant believed he could be merciful precisely because he had rendered Lee utterly powerless and his cause discredited, and hopeless. For Grant, the Union victory was one of right over wrong, not might over right.

Lee’s rhetoric of restoration held no charm for the Union general. Grant’s eyes were fixed firmly on the future. He would not countenance the rolling back of the transformations that the war had wrought: the consolidation of Republican power, repudiation of states’ rights, emancipation of the slaves and enlistment of black troops.

Grant also rejected the notion that he had in any sense negotiated with Lee at Appomattox. In Grant’s view, he had all the cards on April 9, 1865. He had issued the parole passes not to pay tribute to Confederates but to remind them of the obligations attendant upon their status as prisoners of war. Technically, that’s what the paroled Confederates were: Grant had released them on the promise of their good behavior. Grant felt the meaning of the surrender terms to be unmistakable. “I never claimed that the parole gave these prisoners any political rights whatever,” he wrote in the spring of 1866. “I thought that that was a matter entirely with Congress, over which I had no control.” In other words, the fraught questions of when and if the conquered Confederates would again be permitted to vote and hold office were to be settled in the civil realm, by politicians and elected officials. Surrender by parole by contrast was a military convention, and the terms rested on military calculations. Grant felt certain that his lenience to Lee would forestall the possibility of guerrilla warfare and would help to bring about the swift surrender of the remaining Confederate armies in the field. This calculation was sound: once Lee had capitulated, the other dominoes fell. More than anything, the surrender in Grant’s eyes was a vindication – the triumph of a just cause, namely the cause of Union. The North’s triumph vindicated the principle of rule by the majority; the founders’ belief in a perpetual Union; and the capacity of citizen-soldiers, representing democracy, to out-fight the conscripts and dupes of an aristocratic society. The downfall of the Confederacy unburdened the South and the nation of slavery, “an institution abhorrent to all civilized people not brought up under it,” as Grant put it in his memoirs. Now the way was open for the Union’s ethos of moral and material progress – and the mass of white southerners could be disenthralled from their subservience to the slaveholding class. Grant did not believe Lee and his men to be blameless; he believed instead that for every sin there must be a chance at atonement.

Grant’s view of the surrender as the triumph of right over wrong proved just as resonant and enduring among Northerners as Lee’s did among white Southerners. In essence, Northerners who embraced Grant’s terms said to the South: “We don’t want to inflict further punishments –we want you to change.” And Confederates responded, following Lee, that the demand for change was a form of punishment.


This contest over the surrender’s meaning did not simply pit South against North or even Confederacy against Union. Instead it pitted those who favored a thoroughgoing social transformation of the South – not only emancipation but black civil rights – against those who rejected such a transformation, and who wanted to turn back the clock. There were anti-change forces in the North. Northern Democrats, who had opposed Lincoln’s Republican party and the Emancipation Proclamation, rallied behind the Confederate interpretation of Appomattox, and insisted that the Confederacy had been subdued not by Lincoln’s skill as commander-in-chief or by Union bravery but instead by overwhelming numbers. But the South too was divided. White Southern Unionists, a beleaguered minority that had opposed the Confederacy during the war, rallied behind Grant’s interpretation, and reveled in the fact the noble Grant and his army had brought Lee to heel.

Moreover, in the eyes of former slaves, Lee’ surrender signified not only vindication but liberation: For many of them, Lee’s surrender was a freedom day, the moment they first experienced emancipation. In the Civil War, freedom followed the Union army – the promise of Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation could be fulfilled only in those areas of the South under Union control. Thus the demise of Lee’s army, a pillar of the Confederacy and symbol of slaveholder society, was rich in meaning. At Appomattox, African-Americans were liberators as well as the liberated. Seven regiments of the United States Colored Troops participated in the campaign that secured Lee’s surrender. Black soldiers saw the U.S.C.T.’s critical role in the final fighting as a vindication of their right to equal citizenship. As William McCoslin of the 29th Regiment U.S.C.T. put it, “we the colored soldiers, have fairly won our rights by loyalty and bravery.” They insisted that U.S.C.T. regiments in particular exemplified the superior virtue and courage of the Union army.

In the year after the surrender, Lee and Grant drifted farther and farther apart politically. Lee enthusiastically supported Lincoln’s successor, President Andrew Johnson, who capitulated to Lee’s idea that peace must bring the restoration of power to elite Southerners. Grant by contrast grew disgusted with Johnson and Lee alike. Grant was deeply disappointed by Lee’s refusal to give the victors their due. In a May 1866 newspaper interview, Grant took Lee to task, saying that Lee was “behaving badly”: “setting an example of forced acquiescence so grudging and pernicious in its effects as to be hardly realized.” Grant resented Lee for denigrating the Union victory as a mere show of force, and encouraging Confederates to resist change in the name of restoration.

As Reconstruction unfolded, Lee symbolized a South committed to peace, but unbowed and unrepentant, and determined to protect itself against Northern interference. Grant symbolized a Union righteous and vindicated, committed to instructing Southerners in a new moral order. It is impossible to reconcile Lee’s and Grant’s interpretations of the surrender, because they represented two positions in a perennial debate in American political life: Did the nation’s best days lie in its past or in its future?

More from Boomer