Thursday, April 19, 2018

Booknotes: Petersburg to Appomattox

New Arrival:
Petersburg to Appomattox: The End of the War in Virginia edited by Caroline E. Janney (UNC Press, 2018).

The 2015 reappearance of UNC Press's venerable Military Campaigns of the Civil War series was a welcome event after a decade of dormancy. Beyond announcing Gary Gallagher's retirement as series editor and introducing Caroline Janney's ascension to the role, Cold Harbor to the Crater: The End of the Overland Campaign also marked a quite dramatic change in content philosophy. Over a long period of time, the series built a reputation for anthologizing strong essays from leading Civil War scholars that almost exclusively examined leaders, strategy, operations, battles, and deep looks at parts of battles. I recently skimmed through the table of contents of a number of the old titles and that general impression seems accurate enough, though some later volumes dipped their toes in other areas. With the new direction of the series, the focus is now very much 'beyond the battlefield.'

Petersburg to Appomattox: The End of the War in Virginia has nine essays. Together, they "offer a fresh and nuanced view of the eastern war's closing chapter. Assessing events from the siege of Petersburg to the immediate aftermath of Lee's surrender, Petersburg to Appomattox blends military, social, cultural, and political history to reassess the ways in which the war ended and examines anew the meanings attached to one of the Civil War's most significant sites, Appomattox."

William Bergen starts things off with another look at Grant's successful command style as it transitioned to the East, where a new set of political, personal, and battlefield challenges would need to be overcome. The product of in-depth research into the experiences and lives of both fighting front and home front Texans, Susannah Ural's chapter attempts to explain why the Texas soldiers in the Army of Northern Virginia remained so "fiercely committed" to the service. Peter Carmichael's reassessment of the Battle of Five Forks reassigns some of the blame from Fitz Lee and Pickett to Robert E. Lee, whose "loss of operational control of the right flank coupled with his poorly worded orders" contributed to the defeat. Wayne Wei-Siang Hsieh’s essay discusses the performance of the Union cavalry in the final campaign, crediting Philip Sheridan's effective coordination of infantry and cavalry on the offensive as the acme moment of the eastern mounted arm. William C. Davis reminds readers that Appomattox was just one of many possible outcomes. Keith Bohannon next tells the story of the loss or destruction of so much of the Confederate records during the chaos of the first week of April 1865, lamenting how much it still limits our understanding of the final moments of the war. Janney's own contribution focuses on the absentee Army of Northern Virginia soldiers that did not surrender with their comrades at Appomattox, those men either making their way home without formally surrendering or later turning themselves in elsewhere to Union authorities. Stephen Cushman finds much to consider in Sheridan's memoirs. In Cushman's opinion, Sheridan's memoir displays noteworthy literary style and merit that distinguish it from Grant and Sherman's. It also offers key insights into explaining the general's actions during the Appomattox Campaign. Elizabeth Varon's concluding chapter shows how slaves viewed Appomattox as the symbolic beginning of freedom and perhaps also "the promise of racial reconciliation between whites and blacks."

Only a pair of new volumes are planned before the series is wrapped up for good, both covering ground previously skipped over— the two Bull Runs. I'm particularly interested in the First Manassas collection, so hopefully the books will be released in order.


  1. And I am especially interested in the 2 BR volume. A lot of good material has been provided by this series. Here's hoping that SIU Press jump starts the western theater series, which seems to be stalled.

    1. A while back, a contributor to an upcoming volume mentioned that several are in active development. How close any are to publication, I wish I knew.


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