Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Review - "Obstinate Heroism: The Confederate Surrenders after Appomattox" by Steven Ramold

[Obstinate Heroism: The Confederate Surrenders after Appomattox by Steven J. Ramold (University of North Texas Press, 2020). Cloth, 18 maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xiii,365/504. ISBN:978-1-57441-791-3. $34.95]

Appomattox will probably always be popular shorthand for the end of the Civil War, but students of the conflict know that the issue of Confederate surrender was far more complicated and potentially destabilizing than that. With fighting between Union and Confederate forces still raging on multiple fronts while events in Virginia were winding down to their ultimate conclusion, more than two months would pass before the last Confederate general conceded defeat. The capitulation or disbandment of major Confederate forces in North Carolina, Alabama, and the Trans-Mississippi West, along with the final winter and spring 1865 military campaigns that preceded them, are the topics of Steven Ramold's Obstinate Heroism: The Confederate Surrenders after Appomattox.

Situating the post-Appomattox surrenders within their proper military contexts is an essential starting point, but Ramold goes even further with his unexpectedly detailed accounts of the 1865 fighting in North Carolina, the Mobile Campaign, and Wilson's Raid through Alabama and Georgia. Only the Trans-Mississippi surrenders were not immediately preceded by a major military campaign. The evaluations of opposing commanders presented in these lengthy sections (which in total might even comprise more than half the book) are well worth considering, the author's assessment of Richard Taylor's career arguably contrasting most with convention.

The volume appropriately stresses both similarities and differences among the Confederate surrenders of April, May, and June 1865. None exhibited the ceremonial formality that Appomattox did, but all were profoundly affected by the dissolution of Robert E. Lee's army in Virginia. In every active theater and home front, news of Lee's surrender (official confirmation of which spread slower than usual among southern forces due to the breakdown of communications networks) produced general demoralization and steep spikes in desertion rates. Evidence of this reaction further reinforces the view among scholars that the Army of Northern Virginia had by late 1864 become, more than any other institution or individual (even President Davis), the symbolic embodiment of the Confederate cause and nation. With Confederate civilian leadership on the run and out of communication with its armed forces, all of the post-Appomattox surrender negotiations (save those between Sherman and Johnston in North Carolina) were conducted without input from the Davis administration. Additionally, all were carried out under the backdrop of rapidly collapsing military and civilian morale. Another similarity was the near universal lack of support (inside or outside the military) for carrying on the conflict through breaking up remaining armies into independent guerrilla bands.

Outside of Appomattox, Bennett Place in North Carolina is by far the literature's best documented surrender event. Among the most worthwhile modern secondary sources are fine book-length histories from Mark Bradley and, most recently, Eric Wittenberg. Ramold's summarization of the closing moments of the war in North Carolina is broadly in accord with this earlier scholarship, and his sympathetic treatment of Sherman's conduct in controversially mixing politics with military matters persuasively absolves the general of at least the most serious charges made against him at the time. Indeed, Ramold makes a good point that, for all its mistakes and embarrassments, the North Carolina surrender did have a wider positive outcome in that it finally established the military-political guidelines and parameters for surrender negotiations that would smooth subsequent proceedings, all of which occurred under circumstances different from those of Lee's surrounded army at Appomattox.

Though General E.R.S. Canby's occupation of Mobile and General James Wilson's destructive cavalry raid had the combined effect of hemming in Confederate Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana commander Richard Taylor's remaining forces, there remained (as was also the case in North Carolina) at least some possibility of carrying on the conflict. However, Taylor saw no profit in further resistance and instead surrendered his department at Citronelle, Alabama on May 4. Taylor's motivations for giving up while still retaining some freedom of action remain open to interpretation, but the author is likely on to something in surmising that the decision-making process of wealthy citizen-general Taylor was dominated by businessman-like pragmatism. In contrast to that of many professional officers who were considering surrender, Taylor's thinking was not encumbered by military punctilio and West Point-ingrained tenets of military duty and honor.

Differing from Taylor's strictly realist mindset was Edmund Kirby Smith's determination to fight on in his Trans-Mississippi department. With available forces under his command still large (at least on paper) and Union forces mostly distant, Kirby Smith felt duty bound to continue the war until actually compelled to surrender, his actions further guided by his belief that he could not stop fighting without first consulting the Confederacy's civilian leadership (President Davis was widely rumored to be on his way to the Trans-Mississippi). However, his own officers and men took matters into their own hands in what the author persuasively terms "self-demobilization." Kirby Smith himself did not help matters by transferring his headquarters to distant Texas, an ill-advised action that created a leadership vacuum at a critical time while convincing already anxious Confederate Missourians, Arkansans, and Louisianans that their states were being wholly abandoned. When word of surrender negotiations (both rumored and real) leaked out, morale and discipline in the ranks eroded quickly. Almost overnight mass desertion left many Trans-Mississippi regiments with only token remnants, and many of those who remained were determined to give up at the first honorable opportunity. Soon an entire military district surrendered independently, and General Simon B. Buckner came to an even larger agreement with Union forces in New Orleans without permission from department commander Kirby Smith, who could only endorse it in resigned dismay.

Though bibliography and notes indicate a prodigious volume of research went into Obstinate Heroism's detailed narrative and convincing analysis, the book's authority is hampered somewhat by editing problems. The volume's flurry of typos, errors in general officer rank, carelessness with names, and occasional factual mistakes have the cumulative effect of causing some concern. The manuscript would have benefited greatly from another thorough proofreading pass. Given the substantial length of the study, it's also not as comprehensive as it might have been. Just a little judicious trimming of military events here and there could have freed up space for coverage of surrenders in Indian Territory, which were important on their own terms but also included what is considered the war's very last surrender of organized Confederate forces on June 23.

In spite of all that, the book clearly possesses considerable insights and value. Though many of the military campaigns and surrenders recounted in Obstinate Heroism have received good and often quite substantial coverage elsewhere, Ramold's thoughtful analysis and multi-contextual integration of those events represent a unique and quite useful scholarly contribution. Recommended.

5 comments:

  1. Thanks for the review. I was holding off on purchasing this book until you review. As you note plenty has been written about the surrender at Appomattox. Also as of recent Bennett Place with first Wittenburg, Dunkerly's the Confederate Surrender at Greensboro, and Bradley's book This Astounding Close. I also have Dunkerly's ECW BookTo the Bitter End: Appomattox, Bennett Place and the Surrenders of the Confederacy but it sounds like between (1) The context provided and (2) the address of Taylor's surrender in Alabama and (3) Smiths/Buckner's surrender in the Trans Mississippi it put the book over the top to purchase in my opinion. I would need to check my Mobile 1865 Campaign book to see if Taylor's surrender is covered in detail, and the most I have ever found on Smith's surrender is several JSTOR articles. My ECW book is out on loan so I cant' recall how in depth coverage is all 4 of these surrenders but I am sure like all ECW coverage it is meant to be a cursory but neccessary introduction to the topic. Curt Thomasco

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    1. Do you have a list of the JSTOR articles?

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    2. Hi Curt,
      Brueske's 1865 Mobile Campaign book (if that's the one you're thinking about) covers Taylor's surrender in two short chapters (around 15 pages total). Another recent book, Perry Jamieson's "Spring 1865" references the Alabama and T-M surrenders only in passing.

      When I was writing the above review, I blanked on which book(s) prior to this one contain the best sections dealing with some or all of the T-M surrenders. It will come to me someday. IIRC, the long out-of-print locally published books (from now defunct outfits such as Two Trails Publishing) dealing with surrenders in Arkansas and Louisiana were pretty much just parole lists for reference use.

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  2. Drew..The Mobile book I noted is by Sean O'Brien titled Mobile, 1865: Last Stand of the Confederacy (2001). For Conan Smith the JSTOR articles are titled (1) Confederate Soldiers take matters into their own hands: The End of the Civil war in North Louisiana by John Kelly Damico - Louisiana History - The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Society -Spring 1998 and (2) The Breakup : The collapse of the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Army in Texas 1865 - Brad R. Clampitt- The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol 108 No 4 (April 2005) - Texas Historical Association. Curt Thomasco

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  3. Thank you Curtis.

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