Civil War History 50.2 (2004) 205-206
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Walt Whitman once wrote, "Future years will never know the seething hell and the black infernal background of this war—and it is best they should not—the real war will never get in the books." Whitman's prophetic words offer a unique challenge for historians not only to understand the war but also, maybe more importantly, to understand the memory of a tumultuous conflict that tore the nation apart. Memoirs present historians a unique window into viewing and grappling with the power of memory in carving an appropriate history for future generations. In particular, Eric J. Wittenberg's masterfully edited volume bestows an engaging examination of not only the final days of Union cavalry exercises with the Army of the Potomac but also the prominence and necessity of securing an honorable reputation in the catalogues of historical memory.
Wittenberg presents the memoirs of Lt. Col. Frederick C. Newhall, a member of the Sixth Pennsylvania Cavalry, who served under Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan in the waning days of the Civil War. Newhall's memoir focuses on the details of April 1865, highlighting the engagements from Dinwiddie Court House, one of the severest and best fought engagements, according to Newhall, to the pursuit and eventual surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. The memoir conveys the emotion and celebratory atmosphere among the ranks of the Army of the Potomac as the surrender came on April 9, 1865. Newhall also offers an extensive character sketch of Sheridan, calling him "wiry to the last degree" (3). The strength of Newhall's memory resides in the logistical details of the cavalry forces, presented with stunning detail and clarity.
The climax of the memoir emerges with Newhall's evenhanded discussion of the removal of Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren from command of the Army of the Potomac's Fifth Corps. Warren, whose stone figure today stands on the rocky edifice of Little Round Top at Gettysburg, found himself in conflict with Sheridan over the delay of his forces at the Battle of Five Forks. Although Newhall attempts to show no bias, he clearly sides with Sheridan and approves of Warren's removal because of an improper frame of mind to conduct a campaign and his hesitation to boldly strike the enemy. To his credit, Wittenberg includes in the appendix a pamphlet written by Warren that explains his version of the events. Furthermore, Wittenberg also includes Newhall's response to the Warren pamphlet, printed in The Nation. The conflicting memories allow the reader to devour the controversy and come to their own conclusion as to the appropriateness of the removal of Warren. [End Page 205]
Wittenberg provides the reader with solid footnotes, providing biographical information as well as important background details that fill in the gaps of Newhall's reminiscence. Overall, Wittenberg's edited volume presents a useful and important tool in understanding the cavalry's role in ensuring victory for the Army of the Potomac. The work serves as a necessary edition for scholars and enthusiasts who tackle daily the history and memories of the American Civil War.
Brian Craig Miller