Archive | April, 2023

Review of To the Bitter End: Appomattox, Bennett Place and The Surrenders of the Confederacy, by Robert M. Dunkerly

25 Apr

Contrary to popular belief, the Confederacy’s surrender was not a neat and tidy affair. The various armies and troop contingents spread across the Deep South did not all give up when Robert E. Lee finally laid down his arms at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. In truth that most famous of Civil War surrenders would prove to be the exception in the series of disjointed agreements by which the various Rebel forces recognized their defeat in the spring and early summer of 1865 at a variety of places across the breadth of the former Confederacy and even at sea. Historian Robert M. Dunkerly charts the somewhat chaotic, piecemeal surrender of the several Confederate armies in his To the Bitter End: Appomattox, Bennett Place and the Surrenders of the Confederacy.

Dunkerly, an historian who worked at Appomattox Court House National Park and is author of The Confederate Surrender at Greensboro, has written a concise tale of a poorly understood aspect of the war for the Emerging Civil War Series, a popular catalog of books that provide succinct summaries of Civil War events for the general public. Dunkerly states in his opening author’s note that there was no clear closure of the war and that each surrender was unique in its own way. He then provides brief narratives of all the surrenders starting with the Army of Northern Virginia, which after giving up Petersburg and Richmond, was hounded continuously and eventually trapped. Unlike other Southern army surrenders, there was a final battle between the opposing forces and the end was sudden and unexpected. Terms given by Grant set the tone for those across the country in their generosity. But Robert E. Lee surrendered only his army in the parlor of the McLean House at Appomattox—numerous others, amounting to almost 200,000 troops, remained in the field.

Soon after Lee’s surrender, William T. Sherman offered even more generous terms to Joseph E. Johnston’s army at the Bennett Place in Durham, North Carolina. These terms were presented back to the authorities in Washington, who were still reeling after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, and rejected. Foreshadowing other surrenders to come, more meetings and delays prevented a final agreement until weeks later when nearly 90,000 Confederate soldiers in the Army of Tennessee and in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida were all surrendered, making it the largest of the war.

The author recaps the additional surrenders further westward detailing the events in Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas involving the remaining substantial Confederate forces which were compelled to lay down their arms. He even devotes a small chapter to Indian nations allied with the Confederacy when he describes Cherokee General Stand Waite surrendering one of the final Confederate forces to remain in the field. Unlike previous events in the east, most of the soldiers further west gave up and went home before official agreements were signed, even as some officers attempted to keep their armies intact for some chance of continued resistance. Word had spread of Lee and Johnston’s surrenders and mass desertions took place. Most Confederate leaders understood the end had come and did all in their power to assist this transition, with the exception of E. Kirby Smith who in his final address to troops in Houston Texas, exclaimed “You have made your choice. It was unwise and unpatriotic, but it is final. I pray you will not live to regret it.” Others apparently shared the general’s thoughts as it estimated nearly 10,000 soldiers left the Confederacy for Mexico, Canada, England, and South America rather than face repercussions from the Federal government. How many soldiers never formally surrendered, and simply returned home to civilian life after realizing the end had come, will perhaps never be known.

To the Bitter End is a solid summation of the Confederacy’s end and provides information on a topic rarely covered in such detail. Dunkerly’s concise, well-written narrative conveys to the reader the chaotic nature of the war’s final weeks virtually across the continent and beyond, dispelling popular notions of a tidy ending in a single orderly event. Interesting appendices also provide details on related topics such as USCT involvement at Appomattox, the long journey home by surrendered Southern soldiers, and the last voyage of the CSS Shenandoah, which did not sail into Liverpool Harbor until November 1865 to finally give up. The author concludes with a suggested reading list of books for those that want more information on this topic, but this book provides a succinct wrap-up of the war in one compact volume. Highly recommended if you have an interest in the final days of the war.


Review of The War that Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters, by James M. McPherson

11 Apr

There seems to be no end to writing about the Civil War. Although thousands of volumes have been published over more than a century and a half and seemingly every major event thoroughly investigated, we continue to want to learn more about the conflict and historians continue to debate the many ways it influenced American history. It seems surprising, then, that on occasion we as Americans seem to be inclined to collectively lose sight of the centrality of that landmark event to our past, present, and future. Judging from what often passes for history instruction in public schools, it sometimes appears the next generation is barely getting exposed to the fact there was a Civil War, much less learning about its cause, course, and consequence. It would appear, then, that scholarship explaining why the Civil War is a seminal event in American history will continue to need to be produced each generation.

For over five decades one of the best writers helping us make sense of the conflict and how it impacted American history has been James M. McPherson. The George Henry Davis Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University, McPherson has published numerous volumes on the Civil War, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom and For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War, which won the Lincoln Prize. In 2016 he published The War that Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters. In the pages of the book this master historian presents a series of his best essays chronicling the many ways the war transformed the nation which are of note today and promise to be important resources for those wanting to understand the war’s place in America’s past far into the future. I recently listened to an audiobook version of the title.

I will admit I am not usually a big fan of books of essays, as collections of them written at different times for varying reasons inherently prevent a narrative flow and are usually overly academic by nature. Those contained in The War that Forged a Nation, however, are less traditional essays but more elaborations of McPherson’s understanding of key concepts in the study of the Civil War. In other words, they speak to much broader themes than typical monographs, and their arrangement is roughly chronological as it concerns secession, military and political developments, and the evolution of the ending of slavery as a war aim for the Union. It is truly a catalogue of some of McPherson’s best work over a period of about two decades. It takes the form of twelve essays which, written as book reviews, commentary on trends in historiography, and summaries of his previous publications, collectively address major issues in the study of the Civil War as a landmark event in American history.

McPherson makes powerful and persuasive arguments for the continuing relevance of the war to all of American history, citing as paramount considerations its preservation of the Union, establishment of the authority of the national government in relation to the states, and ending of slavery and redefinition of freedom. He alludes to the failures of Reconstruction as having perhaps almost as much significance as the war which brought it about, mentioning that that era of conflict might actually qualify as America’s longest war when viewed as a contest for autonomy within several Southern states. While this is all rather familiar territory for most Civil War historians, McPherson writes from a position of more than a half-century of scholarship and experience. His words ring as authoritative.

Above all, though, McPherson provides a clear and compelling statement within the book on why we simply cannot understand the problems of our own time in America unless we better grasp the events of the war, what brought it about, and what course we took after peace. Ironically, he admits in his introduction, it was that very realization that spurred his interest in the Civil War back in the 1960s as a college student witnessing social turmoil in the South which was rooted deep in its troubled antebellum past. The War that Forged a Nation is well worth your time if you have an interest in the Civil War and its impact on national history, even if it covers some well-covered and often-written about topics.