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Customer Review

on January 21, 2004
The denouement of the Civil War in the East has been the subject of many volumes from noted historians and battle participants. All seem to paint this episode as some grandiloquent occasion with diplomatic surrender actions from both sides. William Marvel's latest work attempts to refute many of these myths and he indeed does succeed at making this seem like any other Civil War skirmish with "Lee's Last Retreat: The Flight to Appomattox".
Targeting mainly the versions of the Confederate surrender rendered in later post-war years by John B. Gordon and Joshua Chamberlain, Marvel proves that these accounts are largely ficticious and laiden with numerous self aggrandizing points. Marvel systematically shows that the Confederate retreat from Petersburg and the subsequent chase by the Union forces was a desperate action bent on consolidating Southern forces in North Carolina and (hopefully) extending the struggle. The final surrender at Appomattox then, under Marvel's pen, is an anti-climactic action by an exhausted army and leader.
Using in depth narrative and many first-person accounts and diary/journal entries, Marvel recreates the military atmosphere prevelant during the early April 1865 timeframe when the Confederate rebellion reached it's conclusion. The end of the Petersburg siege starts the book and Marvel discusses in detail the actions taken by R.E. Lee's forces to escape from this front and the capital at Richmond to march West towards Amelia Courthouse. Many rearguard battles ensue as the escape route gets very complex with many Confederate divisions and brigades involved. The first myth is dissolved when Marvel refutes the long-held opinion that this escape was essentially doomed by the lack of Confederate provisions at Amelia Courthouse. Marvel shows us that Lee's inability to coordinate troop movements from this hamlet were much more restrictive than the lack of food and is very convincing in his analysis of this argument.
The Confederate plans for troop consolidation at Farmville are overlayed with the multi-pronged Union pursuit and Marvel presents a compelling account of the "race" westward. The seminal battle at Sailor's Creek is analyzed and shown to be the epoch that finally demoralizes the rebellion. Confederate infantry movement and subsequent Union pursuit ultimately end at Appomattox Courthouse and Marvel discusses the details that lead Lee to ask for surrender terms and for U.S. Grant to agree. The soldier actions following the surrender meeting between Grant and Lee at the Wilmer McLean house (the height of the Gordon and Chamberlain accounts) are given short shrift in Marvel's look...this implies that the mythical emotional surrender cerimonies were largely fabrications.
For criticisms, the major problem with this book is the lack of maps...Marvel discusses in detail virtually all of the military actions from Petersburg to Appomattox and the maps that he uses show no troop movements or battle fronts at all. Because this story encompasses many complex maneuvers, the narrative subsequently becomes very limited in terms of following the action due to paucity of maps and the reading quality suffers severely. Another criticism (though not as critical as the map critique) is the fact that although we understand where and when troops move, we don't necessarily get a true feeling of desperation on the part of the Confederate forces. The frustration and hopelesness of the military actions must have been palpable at this point but Marvel continues with the narrative like this was a discussion of Antietam or Fredericksburg...not the end of the war. This point, if expanded, would also have led greatly to improved reading quality and ultimately leaves the Civil War reader no other recourse than to wait for the final Gordon Rhea book in his excellent analysis of this period of the war to (hopefully) get this perspective.
Revisionist history is sometimes a dangerous undertaking. Many pantheons in history die hard and much criticism is levied at writers that try to change the accepted story. William Marvel, then, is to be commended for his courageous attempt at righting the wrong long assumed in the surrender of the Confederate forces at Appomattox Courthouse. Lacking some key components that would make this a stellar work, he succeeds nontheless in presenting a comprehensive and important account concerning the end of the Civil War in the East and I would recommend that all interested readers of this conflict attempt this work.
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