Richard's Reviews > A Stillness at Appomattox

A Stillness at Appomattox by Bruce Catton
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May 25, 2011

it was amazing
Read in January, 1983

This is the third installment in Bruce Catton's great Civil War trilogy. Similar to the first two volumes, "A Stillness at Appomattox" continues the style of writing history for modern readers, concentrating on the human motivations central to important events. These books are as readable and enjoyable today as they were originally in the 1950's. Beyond the broad appeal inherent in them, these three volumes, and especially "A Stillness..." were important components in the mid-twentieth century's rediscovery of the American Civil War, and the awakening of enthusiasm for the epic struggle, which continues.

This volume runs from early 1864 until the end of the war in April, 1865. The populace supporting each side in the conflict was becoming extremely war-weary, but the events of the previous few years showed that General Robert E. Lee's Confederate army was willing to suffer any hardship and keep fighting as long as the slimmest hope for survival existed. President Abraham Lincoln finally found the individual who would be capable of leading his army to ultimate victory. He placed Ulysses S. Grant in charge of all of the armies of the United States. Although this position involved huge organizational responsibilities, the commanding general would not spend the rest of the war behind a desk in Washington, D.C. Grant's previous brilliant field leadership in the western army theater would be needed to directly manage the army on the ground. He established his headquarters with General George Meade. Meade was thanked by a grateful nation for his effective leadership at Gettysburg, and he retained the role of commanding general of the Army of the Potomac. However, he would be kept under direct, daily supervision by his superior, Grant, who would be in charge for devising and carrying out the army's strategies.

The overall strategy at the beginning of 1864 would be similar to earlier Army of the Potomac plans, namely, to get the army into Virginia and defeat the Confederates in the field, enabling the capture of the Confederate capital, Richmond. The significant difference this time was that the federal army was not going to return home until the job was done. There would be no fighting the enemy to a bloody standstill, followed by a disengagement by both armies to prepare for the next battle, until the changing seasons allowed all of the forces to go into winter quarters and contemplate the next year's objectives. Grant, and his core leadership cadre, consisting of generals who fought with him in the West the last several years, infused the spirit of winning into the army. The federal army's existing leaders, including Meade, were forced to re-think their approach to fighting a war. The basics of this new way of thinking rapidly spread through the ranks and became the foundation for a surge of wide-spread higher morale and tenacity among the soldiers.

Catton describes the ensuing clashes between the two armies as Grant tried to maneuver between Lee and Richmond, and Lee worked his characteristic magic of constantly falling back with his army in time to prevent the federal army from forcing an end of the war with its superior strength. The death tolls mounted in battles as bad, if not worse, than some of the scenes of horror already enacted in previous years. Thus, Catton tells us how events unfolded at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, and Cold Harbor. Lee finally stopped Grant's advance at Petersburg, just outside Richmond, and the war settled into armies fighting from entrenched, fixed positions. Catton shows how, when the end finally came with Lee breaking out of his fortified position in the spring of 1865, and having his exhausted army's movements finally blocked at Appomattox Court House, the prevailing mood in the Army of the Potomac was relief instead of jubilation. So much would happen during the time period covered in this volume, and Catton tells it masterfully.


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