The Army Of The Potomac: A Stillness At Appomattox, by Bruce Catton
This last book of a series detailing the experience of the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War ends on a strange note. It is almost as if the author expects that the reader has some knowledge of the pageantry of the surrender of Lee to Grant and the sorrow of Lincoln’s assassination and the drama of Sherman and Johnston’s repeated efforts to make a successful peace at Bennett Farm in North Carolina, and so wants this book to end as abruptly as possible on the morning of April 9th. Indeed, for someone who considers the crushing of the Confederacy to be a generally happy (if bittersweet) moment for the United States, this book has a strangely elegiac tone, as if the author is mourning the final suffering of the Civil War and the immense violence that was required to put it down, violence that was exercised somewhat unwillingly by the Union soldiers chronicled in this and the other books of the series. The author conveys a sense of the sorrow that so much loss was required to bring the nation back together again, and that it took so long for the Union to find leaders like Grant who were ruthless enough see to it that this violence was done to help create a new peaceful order for the United States.
This book of nearly 400 pages is divided into six parts with smaller chapters within. First, the author looks at glory being out of date (I), discussing the effects of the Stoneman/Dahlgren raid on Richmond and the reorganization of the Army of the Potomac that took place shortly before the Gettysburg campaign that folded the I and III corps into the rest of the army. After that the author looks at the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania that showed Grant’s intention to move south and to prevent Lee from being able to be free to conduct the sort of dazzling maneuvers that had been done so many times before (II). After that comes a discussion of the failed charge at Cold Harbor and the realization that a change in approach was necessary because the failures of Butler and Sigel had allowed Lee some reinforcements from other fronts (III). After this comes a part of the book that focuses on the Petersburg siege in 1864 and the Battle of the Crater and related efforts to hold the Confederates in place and sap their strength (IV). The author spends a great deal of time discussing Early’s raid and the ultimately successful efforts of Sheridan to clear the Shenandoah Valley of provisions and troops to support rebel efforts (V) before the book closes with a discussion of the successful end of the Petersburg siege and the Appomattox campaign that closed the Civil War in Union victory (VI).
It is worthwhile to reflect upon the sorts of losses that were required for the Civil War to end in victory. Nearly continuous violence was required for a period of almost a year, with the brutal destruction of large parts of Virginia and the slaughter of tens of thousands of people for Lee to be cornered at Appomattox Court House and induced to surrender. This violence was committed by young men who themselves suffered terrible losses and were not always competently led, and who had no great personal hatred for the men who they killed and wounded and captured. The author spends a great deal of time reflecting about the political realities that governed the Northern armies and how that benefited some unsavory characters (like General Ben Butler) until near the end of the Civil War. It is rather melancholy to reflect upon the way that used up officers were either killed (like Sedgwick, via a sniper’s bullet) or put to pasture (like the injured Hancock or the fussy Warren) as Grant and his subordinates sought to ruthlessly end a war that had gone on for long enough already by the beginning of 1865.