Lee’s last retreat : the flight to Appomattox Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, c 2002 William Marvel Appomattox Campaign, 1865, Lee, Robert E. (Robert Edward), 1807-1870 Hardcover. 1st. ed. and printing. xiii, 308 p.: ill., maps; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. -295) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG
On March 25, 1865, Lee attempted to break out of the Petersburg siege by punching a hole through Ulysses S. Grant’s line at Fort Stedman. Although initially successful, the attack stalled, and the Confederates were driven back into their own lines. Correctly guessing that Lee had stripped other parts of his defenses for this assault, Grant sent Philip Sheridan’s command to Lee’s far right on April 1 and crushed George Pickett‘s division at Five Forks. A general advance the following day sent the Confederates reeling and forced Lee to abandon Petersburg and Richmond. Lee hoped to move west to Amelia Court House and then south to join forces with Joseph E. Johnston in North Carolina. A race began between the Confederates and the pursuing Federal armies.
Marvel recounts numerous clashes that occurred in the confused flight. The author also notes that Lee’s army was still a potent force at High Bridge, for example, Confederate cavalry trounced a Union detachment and captured approximately eight hundred men. A little-known fact is that Lee’s army herded with it a large number of Union prisoners captured during the campaign.
Lee’s retreat progressed fairly well until April 4. When expected rations and a critical pontoon bridge failed to arrive at the Amelia Court House area, Lee was forced to halt for a day. This gave Grant’s armies the needed time to close in on the Confederates. Realizing the enemy had cut off his southern escape route, Lee resumed his flight on April 5 and headed west toward Lynchburg. The following day, Richard S. Ewell’s command was cut to pieces at Sailor’s Creek, and nearly the entire Confederate rearguard was captured.
On April 7, the situation was getting desperate, Lee rejected a surrender demand sent by Grant, but did ask what terms Grant might seek. By now, the Confederates were disorganized and straggling badly. Sheridan’s cavalry managed to gallop ahead and cut off Lee’s route at Appomattox Court House. Fighting erupted in the area on April 8, and Lee made one last attempt to cut his way through on the morning of April 9. When it quickly became apparent that escape was impossible, Lee met with Grant at Wilmer McLean‘s house and surrendered.
The Appomattox Campaign was one of the war’s most dramatic weeks, using soldiers’ letters and diaries Manvel recounts the harrowing retreat and all of its suffering. The real argument of this book is Marvel’s confronting what he believes to be numerous inaccuracies about Appomattox. Among the stories Marvel takes issue with is the popular belief that Union soldiers willingly shared their rations with the surrendered enemy and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain‘s memorable story of saluting the defeated enemy at the final ceremony.
The two greatest inaccuracies Marvel attacks, however, are the number of Confederates under Lee’s command during the campaign and Lee’s assertion that the missing supplies at Amelia Court House caused the fatal one-day delay. In his memoirs, Lee’s aide Walter Taylor wrote that only 25,000 Confederates reached Amelia Court House and only about 8,000 were paroled at Appomattox. He also stated that Grant had over 160,000 men during the pursuit. This set the tone for the popular belief that Lee was cornered and captured because he faced six-to-one odds.
Marvel claims these figures are incorrect and proceeds to play numbers games of his own. For example citing Lee’s “effective” strength (or those men carrying muskets) and not his “aggregate” strength (or those actually present). According to Marvel, Lee had as many as 57,200 men at the campaign’s beginning, about 45,000 at Amelia Court House, and that some 28,000 Confederates actually accepted parole. Taylor explained that the additional 20,000 men who were paroled in the days following the surrender were non-infantrymen and stragglers who finally caught up with the army.
Marvel claims Taylor also manipulated his figures for the Union army. Instead of Grant giving chase with 160,000 men, he actually had about 80,000 available. In other words, Marvel contends Lee faced less than two-to-one odds. The author also takes issue with Lee’s contention that a missing supply train led to the fatal one-day delay at Amelia Court House. Marvel believes that a missing pontoon bridge actually caused the delay. Lee had ordered the bridge to span the Appomattox River, it never arrived and, when Ewell reached the river, he was forced to spend most of April 4 finding another way across. It was essential for Lee to keep the army concentrated to fight his way out of the closing trap, and he had to postpone the retreat until Ewell crossed over.
In the final analysis, even accepting Marvel’s “corrected” troop strength numbers, the fact is that Lee faced a numerically superior enemy who had clear lines of supply while he had none. Marvel may well be correct that the “polite” version of the surrender is highly sanitized since there is nothing in Grant’s history to suggest that he was ever disposed to courtesy or honor and his subordinates were worse than their master. His lack of knowledge of the mechanics of moving an army and fighting battles may be the reasons that he is unable to accept may be why he is unable to accept Lee’s judgement that, After four years of arduous service, marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources, but his work does not constitute a sufficient argument for us not to accept that judgement.