General Robert E. Lee's surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia to General Ulysses S. Grant's Army of the Potomac might look serene in the amber-tinted popular images of two gentlemen sharing cigars, but that image conceals seething debate over precisely what the surrender meant and what kind of United States would emerge from war. The combatants in that debate included the iconic Lee and Grant, but they also included a cast of characters previously overlooked, who brought their own understanding of the war's causes, consequences, and meaning. Whereas April 1865 has been commonly viewed as a clear breaking point, Elizabeth Varon's Appomattox promises to connect the war to the immediate postwar in ways that have the potential to tell us far more than we currently know about how the creative potential generated by the destruction of war went unfulfilled in the decades that followed.
Painting a portrait of this event between the triumphalist version of 1865 as a moment of strength and healing and a more persuasive but still incomplete portrait of the postwar painted by David Blight in Race and Reunion, Varon's work seeks to examine the surrender at Appomattox with an eye toward (a) narrating the events of April 1865, (b) exploring the immediate reactions, North and South, to the surrender, (c) exploring the political uses of the surrender during Reconstruction, and (d) challenging the popular, and comforting, perception that Appomattox inaugurated an easy end to a tragic war by beginning a process of reunion that reminded Americans that they were, after all, one people who shared far more similarities than differences. Varon will bring African American voices and attitudes into a story typically limited to white actors.