Why Appomattox?

In Military History, Featured

There is always something compelling about the end-game of a major war. Usually, at such times, one-side has gained a decisive advantage over the other, and it is just a matter of time and manoeuvre before its superior forces finally surrounded and capture the enemy. And yet, there is always that last hope, the last desperate throws of the dice by the losing side that maybe, just maybe, they can somehow turn the tide. So it was during the Civil War in 1865. So it was in the Appomattox campaign.

After their defeat at Petersburg, the Confederate army basically went on the run, fighting a series rear-guard actions in the hope of escaping capture and linking up with the other major Confederate army in the field under Gen. Joseph Johnston.  My own ancestor, my great (x4) uncle, David Stewart, was with the Confederate army, during the campaign. He was an officer of an artillery battery, though by the end of the campaign, his unit had destroyed their guns and picked up rifles for the last fight.

I often wonder, was my ancestor foolish to keep fighting a battle (and a war) that he could not win? Or was he bold and brave to keep fighting while there was even a little spark of hope that somehow his country might somehow salvage even a partial victory? Well, David Stewart was lucky. He survived to the surrender, and Appomattox was close enough to his home that he could easily walk there. Thousands of others were not so lucky.

So, why read about a crushing defeat that led to a total surrender? Because it is in these stories that the greatest of human drama takes place. How long will people stand and fight? How long will people risk their lives in a lost cause? How long will the generals risk their men? 

Post Comments

PAUL W posted on 20 Mar 2015 22:38:31
Well after that debate I can't wait for the book. It will sit very nicely at the end of my American Civil War section (until my girlfriends ocd kicks in and she refiles it numerically!)
Mark Lardas posted on 12 Mar 2015 19:49:35
I was answering McCullough's question as to what motivated the Confederates to keep fighting more than addressing an argument as to whether Appomattox merited a Campaign.

As to comments, I generally try to comment when I have something to say. This time I did. I understood what motivated the ongoing Confederate resistance through my research when I wrote my Command on Grant. He understood grand strategy better than any other Civil War commander (including Lee), and better than most other great military commanders, both in winning wars and winning peaces.
Aetius453 posted on 12 Mar 2015 16:10:20
Wow, some very spirited discussion on the validity of this topic. Love it! Good points by Paintybeard and Mr. Lardas. It's nice to see some actual comments now that the new site has been established. Seemed like the Comments section was becoming a ghost town.
Paintybeard posted on 12 Mar 2015 15:36:13
Mr Lardas, I fully agree with you on the POLITICAL significance of the surrender at Appomattox and I greatly admire the good sense of Grant (and others) in managing events in a manner that at least allowed the possibility of an amicable peace. What I'm not persuaded of is the need for a book covering the MILITARY events of the days immediately after the fall of Petersberg. I would be very interested in a book on the conclusion of the American Civil War and the transition to peace, but I feel this would be far better suited to the General Military series rather than a "Campaign" title that is meant to describe and analyse events of military significance.
Mark Lardas posted on 12 Mar 2015 12:43:13
I may be able to provide part of the answer.

Fighting against the established government constitutes treason - if as it is said, it does not prosper (for if it prospers, none dare call it treason). Many in the Confederate army feared being tried for treason, especially the officers. Others potentially faced other Federal charges. (Rafael Semmes, who commanded the naval brigade in the Army of Northern Virginia, was facing piracy charges for actions as captain of the Sumter and Alabama.)

Under those circumstances, why not fight on? Better to die on your feet than at the end of a rope. And if the Army fell apart take to the hills and fight on as guerrillas. Many, many civil wars have ended this way. Certainly there are plenty of precedents in Britain.

That the American Civil War did not follow this path was largely due to the genius of Ulysses Grant, backed up by his principle lieutenants. When Grant offered terms at Appomattox Courthouse, the surrender instrument stated the officers and men of the Army of Northern Virginia were released on parole, not to be disturbed by the United States Government until properly exchanged unless they, in the future, violated the laws of the United States of America.

Grant was aware these individuals could not be properly exchanged, ever. So, his terms were in essence amnesty for any actions of the Civil War, unless the individual broke Federal law in the future. Suddenly the choice was not whether you died fighting or were hanged. It was go home, behave yourself, and be unmolested or take to the hills and fight until you died. The choice was not a difficult one. With one stroke, Grant eliminated the possibility of lingering guerrilla warfare in the wake of the Civil War.

Winning the peace was Grant's greatest victory, and the one he seems to get the least amount of credit for. Many generals have won outstanding victories on the battlefield, but few are the number who ensure an enduring peace afterwards.
Mark Lardas posted on 12 Mar 2015 12:43:11
I may be able to provide part of the answer.

Fighting against the established government constitutes treason - if as it is said, it does not prosper (for if it prospers, none dare call it treason). Many in the Confederate army feared being tried for treason, especially the officers. Others potentially faced other Federal charges. (Rafael Semmes, who commanded the naval brigade in the Army of Northern Virginia, was facing piracy charges for actions as captain of the Sumter and Alabama.)

Under those circumstances, why not fight on? Better to die on your feet than at the end of a rope. And if the Army fell apart take to the hills and fight on as guerrillas. Many, many civil wars have ended this way. Certainly there are plenty of precedents in Britain.

That the American Civil War did not follow this path was largely due to the genius of Ulysses Grant, backed up by his principle lieutenants. When Grant offered terms at Appomattox Courthouse, the surrender instrument stated the officers and men of the Army of Northern Virginia were released on parole, not to be disturbed by the United States Government until properly exchanged unless they, in the future, violated the laws of the United States of America.

Grant was aware these individuals could not be properly exchanged, ever. So, his terms were in essence amnesty for any actions of the Civil War, unless the individual broke Federal law in the future. Suddenly the choice was not whether you died fighting or were hanged. It was go home, behave yourself, and be unmolested or take to the hills and fight until you died. The choice was not a difficult one. With one stroke, Grant eliminated the possibility of lingering guerrilla warfare in the wake of the Civil War.

Winning the peace was Grant's greatest victory, and the one he seems to get the least amount of credit for. Many generals have won outstanding victories on the battlefield, but few are the number who ensure an enduring peace afterwards.
Paintybeard posted on 12 Mar 2015 08:15:39
Regrettably I cannot agree that this is a worthwhile title. To quote page 87 of Campaign title No.208: "...Lee...fought his last battle at Sayler's Creek on 6th. April 1865, which achieved little except the loss of a further 8,000 men...". Frankly this book strikes me as a cynical attempt to cash in on the name recognition of the event which has little military significance. A great shame when so many interesting battles remain to be covered.

Please understand me, I mean no disrespect to the brave men who fought on both sides, but I do NOT think that the prime purpose of the series is to read about the "Human dramas" of those involved. The strength of the series has been the ability to describe the plans, forces and actions of each battle in a concise, readable manner.

And lastly, please, please can Osprey fix the Forum so I can actually post in it?
Aetius453 posted on 11 Mar 2015 18:07:43
Thanks for the posting Joseph. Great questions and stories about your family's past. I look forward to reading this title.

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