Book Review: Appomattox 1865

Appomattox 1865:  Lee’s Last Campaign, by Ron Field, illustrated by Adam Hook

Although I am a prolific reader of books relating to the American Civil War and have been since my youth, I have not read very much of the works published by Osprey concerning various military campaigns, and figured this would be a worthwhile introduction to the series as a whole.  After all, this is one of the most satisfying campaigns for me personally in the annals of military history, the final defeat of an army of traitors who were treated with far more kindness than they deserved, the realization that the dream of a Southern nationalism based on chattel slavery was not what God ad in mind and the beginning of a slow national reconciliation as well as a slow process of justice for those whom the Southern rebels and their forebears had wronged.  This book doesn’t get into that larger context at all.  Instead, this particular work is a fairly narrowly targeted campaign history that attempts to make the reader feel as if the Army of Northern Virginia’s last campaign was a noble defeat, a moral victory, in the face of overwhelming strength.  It’s not an argument I happen to buy, as my thoughts on the cause of the Confederacy are fairly clear [1] and particularly negative.  Nevertheless, the book is still worth reading even if I am not on board with its pro-Southern bias.

The structure of this short book is fairly straightforward and pleasing, especially given that the book as a whole is just under 100 pages, making this an easy read.  The author begins with the origins of the campaign in Grant’s 1864 Wilderness campaign and the resulting siege of Petersburg.  After this the author discusses the chronology of the campaign, in this case a particularly straightforward task since the whole campaign itself was only about two weeks long or so.  Following this is a series of chapters that look at the opposing commanders for both sides (starting with the Confederate side), the opposing forces (ditto, this time with a fairly exhaustive order of battle), along with a discussion of the opposing plans.  In this particular case, Lee was looking to escape from the siege and unite with Johnston in North Carolina so that he had the strength to defeat the Northern armies of Grant and Sherman in detail.  Grant was looking to take Richmond and put the Army of Northern Virginia hors de combat.  Spoiler alert:  Grant succeeded.  The majority of the book is taken up with an account of the campaign itself, from the fall of Petersburg and Richmond to the Union occupation and pursuit, and finally the surrender at Appomattox.  This account is full of thoughtful discussion, quotes, pictures, photographs, and especially some very useful and detailed maps that discuss some of the more obscure battles of this decisive campaign.  The book ends with a brief discussion of the aftermath of the campaign and a look at the battlefield today along with a bibliography and index.

So, is this book worth reading?  If you are interested in the Civil War and particularly want to read a thoughtful and reasonably complete account of the last major campaign of that war and are willing to put up with a writer who wants to make the best case for the Confederacy, then yes.  The author talks over and over about delaying actions and efforts to buy time for the escape, and also comments on matters like the acoustic shadow of Five Forks as offering at least some sort of “moral victory” for the South in certain engagements, but this is a particularly difficult campaign for readers to enjoy unless they are fond of the North or have a sense of negative nostalgia about the defeat of the Confederacy that they like to indulge in.  The book is written for an audience fond of the Confederacy, as the subtitle of the book (“Lee’s Last Campaign”) makes plain.  As a reader with no sympathy for the Confederacy whatsoever, I found the book enjoyable in the sense of watching people try to put the best face on what they would consider a disaster, and what I consider particularly fortunate.  It is perhaps not the most charitable pleasure in the world, but I suppose I am a person of decidedly uncharitable pleasures sometimes.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History, Military History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Book Review: Appomattox 1865

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