- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 2, 2002

William Marvel, who numbers "A Place Called Appomattox" among his many earlier works, sets out in this fine new book to remove some of the myths and mistakes in the historical record surrounding the final days of Gen. Robert E. Lee's army, culminating in Lee's surrender to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. He challenges at the outset the traditional picture of "the tattered, starving, but irrepressibly devoted remnant closely pursued by vast hordes of well-fed, meticulously equipped Federals."

Mr. Marvel is meticulous in his calculations, and his conclusion is that when Lee began the long retreat that ended at Appomattox, he had a force of more than 50,000 men twice as many as Lee's adjutant, Col. Walter Taylor, claimed in his memoir published a dozen years after the war.

The pursuing Union force must therefore, Mr. Marvel shows, initially have outnumbered the Confederates by about 2-to-1, and not by 6-to-1 as claimed by Taylor. The odds, however, grew worse as the retreat went on, because thousands of Confederate soldiers deserted. If 50,000 began the retreat, there were just 28,231 Confederate officers and men who were paroled at Appomattox. While Southern losses in killed, wounded and captured were not inconsequential in the final month, Mr. Marvel finds that between 14,000 and 20,000 of Lee's soldiers "disappeared without an honorable explanation." (The author might have done readers a service had he compared this desertion rate with that of, for example, the Continental army in the dark days of 1777.)

Mr. Marvel warns readers against relying too heavily on memoirs published years, sometimes decades, after the war. Such memoirs are often our only available evidence. But journals and diaries kept by soldiers during the battles and campaigns are, when available, more likely to be candid and reflect the feel of the moment.

The author has gone far beyond published memoirs, winding into his narrative the information from more than five dozen unpublished diaries and journals, plus letters sent home from the field.

His rich array of sources has not always helped him to write a clear narrative. The poignant description of a Louisiana corporal burning love letters in Richmond may distract the reader from the overall scene. I was myself especially interested to read how an officer from Maine came upon a Bible belonging to the ordnance sergeant of the 34th Virginia Infantry my great-grandfather was then the sergeant of Company A of the 34th but again, the detail distracted me.

All in all, though, these details of human experience that Mr. Marvel weaves in do help make the scene come alive.

It was a scene of human disaster, compounded by human error. As Mr. Marvel makes clear, Lee still has his uncritical defenders, even if they are fewer than in earlier decades. But Lee made mistakes in the beginning of the war, when he commanded in western Virginia; he made mistakes in the middle of the war, perhaps most notably in the Gettysburg campaign; and he made, as Mr. Marvel shows us, at least one fatal mistake during the retreat to Appomattox, in failing to provide for the resupply of his army at Amelia Court House.

The author sets out the facts in convincing detail in one of several appendixes. It will not, one suspects, keep Lee's defenders from blaming his subordinates. Mr. Marvel does not refrain from attacking fabrications on the Northern as well as the Southern side. He is scathing but accurate in his description of how Joshua Chamberlain, that brave Maine officer we saw in the film "Gettysburg" (1993), "supplied his most polished version of a moving Appomattox fable that involved promoting himself to command of the surrender ceremony."

One regrets that in this good book the author left out some of the details of the surrender ceremony in Wilmer McLean's house at Appomattox Court House. As he says, Grant and Lee fell to reminiscing about the Mexican War; but the picture should be drawn a little more clearly of how Grant kept on talking of the old days until finally Lee had to remind him that they were meeting, after all, to arrange the surrender of his army.

Another moment that the author might have included came when Lee looked up at the Union officer handing him the final surrender document and saw to his surprise an Indian, Col. Ely Parker, Grant's senior aide and the high chief of the Senecas.

Mr. Marvel has cut away much distortion and hyperbole from the Appomattox story. The army that made its way west to final defeat was not so small as often claimed, and it lost more men from desertion than its leaders wanted to admit.

We are left, nevertheless, with the picture of more than 28,000 men, under the command of a great if fallible general, who followed his lead down many miles of dusty Virginia roads, tired and hungry and sometimes barefoot, until the day came when their four-year struggle simply could not be continued.

Their cause was lost, and it was good for the American nation that it was lost; but theirs was a tale of hardihood and devotion.

The tale of Appomattox is one that, despite books like this one, present-day Americans find increasingly difficult to comprehend. Mr. Marvel is critical of Lee for telling his men, in his brief farewell to them, that the surrender was no fault of theirs; that they had been crushed by the overwhelming material and numerical strength of their opponents. As Mr. Marvel says, Lee was more forthright in his subsequent report to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, admitting that his troops had become seriously demoralized.

But if Lee perhaps praised his men a little more than they deserved, that bitter day at Appomattox, he knew how much they had suffered with him, and certainly he was not wrong in trying to give them something to hold onto as they returned home to a ravaged and defeated country and an uncertain future.

Peter Bridges served 29 years in the U.S. Foreign Service, his last post as ambassador to Somalia. His just published book, from Kent State University Press, is "Pen of Fire," a biography of Richmond editor John Moncure Daniel. Mr. Bridges lives in Northern Virginia.

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