- Petersburg to Appomattox: The End of the War in Virginia ed. by Caroline E. Janney
A quarter of a century ago, Gary W. Gallagher published the first entry in what went on to become the Military Campaigns of the Civil War series. Since then, students of the war have looked forward to the essays found in successive books. Each volume considers a campaign in the eastern theater through chapters on both military and nonmilitary topics, written by [End Page 161] leading academic scholars as well as public historians. This work, the eleventh in a projected thirteen volumes but the first edited solely by Caroline E. Janney, ably continues the scholarly tradition Gallagher first established in 1994.
Five of the volume's nine essays deal effectively with battles and leaders during the war's final months. Combined, they suggest that the final events at Appomattox were no forgone conclusion. William W. Bergen positively examines Ulysses S. Grant's willingness to purge ineffective commanders after the November 1864 elections, and his skill in replacing them with men who were more attuned to Grant's relentless style of war. Those changes, Bergen concludes, made the triumph at Appomattox possible. Wayne Wei-Siang Hsieh singles out the most prominent and aggressive of those new men, Philip Sheridan, while asserting that a positive evolution of the Federal cavalry that ultimately pursued and trapped Lee predated both Little Phil and Grant. Stephen Cushman, meanwhile, makes a strong case for reconsidering Sheridan's memoirs among the post-war's first-rank autobiographies, instead of consigning them typically to a lesser shelf below Grant's. Sheridan, Cushman contends, wrote with the literary sensibilities of a novelist while describing the eventual triumph of a leader of men named Phil Sheridan. Crossing no-man's land, Peter S. Carmichael reconsiders the Confederate disaster at Five Forks and asserts that Robert E. Lee must bear at least some of the blame usually heaped in the shad-greasy hands of Fitzhugh Lee and George Pickett. William C. Davis finally examines Confederate collapse from within, detailing the ultimately unsuccessful efforts of the War Department's John C. Breckinridge and John A. Campbell to convince Lee to join them in a scheme involving Congress that would have called for an armistice and peace negotiations. Lee's loyalty to his president and sense of duty, Davis concludes, led him to back away and end up at Appomattox. Davis nonetheless questions the popular interpretation that casts Lee as a bitter-ender who wasted his last casualties unthinkingly.
Other issues concern the balance of the collection. Susannah J. Ural shifts the focus from the brass to common soldiers with her essay on camaraderie and surviving high morale in the Army of Northern Virginia's elite Texas Brigade. In an essay that should be required reading for new students of the war, Keith Bohannon explains the relative paucity of Confederate documents in the Official Records as the result of both the burning of Richmond and the subsequent destruction that took place during the retreat from the city. Despite Washington's entreaties, Federal soldiers were uninterested in saving rebel paperwork for posterity with a war still to win. In another model chapter, editor Janney explains in great detail how and where Lee's [End Page 162] Confederates surrendered before and after their commander met Grant at Wilmer McLean's house. In so doing, she does nothing less than redefine the surrender. Instead of a single dramatic moment, we must begin to consider the capitulation of Lee's army as a scattered, staggered, and confusing event that took place across much of Virginia in the chaotic netherworld of April 1865.
Elizabeth R. Varon's insightful final chapter examines the surrender from a different perspective, that of African Americans. Well into the Great Depression, many survivors of slavery maintained that it was the courage of African American soldiers in the final campaign that forced Lee's subsequent surrender to Grant and ended slavery. They celebrated "Surrender Day...