One of the more interesting Civil War studies to be released this past year is Elizabeth Varon’s Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War. The book provides a nice counterpoint to Jay Winik’s very successful, but overly reconciliationist interpretation of the Civil War’s final act. Varon recently spoke about her book at the Miller Center in Charlottesville, Virginia. Below is a taste.
In a letter written in 1890, William Mahone recalled spending the night before the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House with an unusual family.
We marched all next day and went into camp in the evening not far from Appomattox Co. Ho. in the most God forsaken neighborhood or can well conceive. My Headquarters were
in a miserable log hut occupied by a family of deformed people – that made one shudder to behold, and whose deformity and condition forcibly suggested that we were near the end. My waggons rich with supplies for a campaign had been captured. It contained nearly a full house of all that one needs [for] sustenance and comfort and my [ ] had been captured and we had no [ ]. The bed in this miserable cabin on which I remember to have spread my oil cloth and blanket was only about four feet long.
Would love to know more about this particular family.
It never fails that at some point during the Q&A following a talk about my Crater book an audience member brings up the subject of black Confederate soldiers. Most of the time the issue is raised in complete innocence. They heard about it from a fellow history enthusiast or, more likely, read about it online. Last week it was the first question following my talk at the Virginia Festival of the Book. I offered my standard response and after the talk I had a nice chat with the individual, who thanked me for clarifying the issue and for suggesting some books for further reading. Earlier that afternoon I had another conversation with a good friend who referenced accounts of black Confederate soldiers during the Appomattox Campaign. Again, the subject was honestly raised and with a sincere interest in wanting clarification. This is one of the more popular accounts that you will find online. It is usually brought up to link the raising of black soldiers during the final weeks of the war in Richmond with the battlefield. Continue reading
I think Gary Gallagher makes a pretty good case for why black soldiers were not present at the Grand Review in Washington D.C. in May 1865. He argues that their absence had little to do with scheming politicians and military brass, who hoped to keep it an all-white affair. The parade was made up primarily of units that were in the process of being demobilized. Since black units were raised later in the war they remained stationed in various parts of the South.
In contrast, black troops under Edward O.C. Ord’s command were at Appomattox Court House in April 1865. Anyone who has read William Marvel’s books on the march out of the Petersburg trenches and surrender knows that these units were kept in camp behind their white comrades once the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered. Before the surrender ceremony on April 12 these men were ordered away from Appomattox. Marvel suggests that this was done “for the sake of serenity.” That seems like a reasonable explanation.
One wonders how their presence might have shaped an account of a salute that may or may not have taken place.
On November 19, Professor Joan Waugh delivered the 2011 Fortenbaugh Lecture at the Majestic Theater in Gettysburg. Professor Waugh’s lecture, “‘The Rebels Are Our Countrymen Again’: U.S. Grant and the Meaning of Appomattox” reexamines the familiar story of the historic surrender of Confederate forces to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865 at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. The surrender at Appomattox is generally considered the end of the American Civil War, enshrining a powerful image of a peaceful, perfectly conducted closure to the bloody conflict. Yet the details of Grant’s magnanimous surrender document provoked debate, anger, and opposition among the Northern public. This mixed reception casts doubt on Appomattox as a shining moment of reunion and reconciliation, predicting the troubles that lay ahead for President Grant and the country in the postwar era.