Bruce Catton

A Stillness at Appomattox

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A Stillness at Appomattox Summary

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A Stillness at Appomattox is a 1953 work of historical nonfiction by American journalist and historian Bruce Catton. The third book in a trilogy, it chronicles the final campaign of the Civil War in Virginia, which culminated at a courthouse at the titular location in Virginia. The book received widespread acclaim for historicizing the last phase of the war more comprehensively than most history books of its time. It looked not only at evidence about the strategies and messages that were deployed and exchanged, but also attempted to reconstruct the attitudes and perspectives of the individuals who faced the war’s violence and precarity. The book received a Pulitzer Prize in 1954.

The book begins early in January 1864. In those final days of the war, the Union’s victory was gradually becoming inevitable. General Ulysses S. Grant marched further and further into the American South, overcoming Confederate forces in a swift string of battles. In April 1865, Grant would finally dispatch the core of the Confederate Army, trapping General Lee in the courthouse of Appomattox. Catton credits Grant’s leadership, as well as the perseverance of his friends in battle, Phil Sheridan and George Meade, for turning the tide of the war over so many months.

Catton explains the high-level play-by-play of the year before Appomattox, delving into the inner lives of soldiers. He shows that most of the existing historical artifacts point to a general disillusionment among the Union ranks. These soldiers were more bent on their individual survival than the idea that the Confederacy could be conquered, or that they could emerge as heroic figures. Fatigued from three long years of battle (which Catton covers in the earlier installments), they pressed on, having no confidence that an end was in sight. They dealt also with an increase in casualties, since battle tactics lagged behind the advances in war technology that had been implemented during this interval. Battles were longer and more gruesome than ever before.

Grant waited until spring of 1864 to advance towards Lee’s army. His intention was to remain close to the Confederate troops without actually engaging them, shifting them so that the Union could put itself between Lee and Richmond, Virginia. A battle in the wilderness of Virginia was particularly bloody. Afterward, they fought again, in a battle known as “Mule Shoe” at Spotsylvania Courthouse, which was a big Union loss. Catton shows that Grant’s forces did not move southward inexorably; the loss at Mule Shoe and at the following battle, Cold Harbor, pushed back strongly on the North. At last, Lee managed to stop the Union for a while at Petersburg, a rail hub south of Richmond. There, Grant tried to take the city; though he succeeded in the Battle of Crater, the lost men outweighed the gained ground.

Meanwhile, Lee tried to create a diversion by ordering an attack on Washington via his commander Jubal Early. The attack largely failed, as the city was well fortified. Grant’s response was swift and strong: he ordered Phil Sheridan to occupy the nearby Shenandoah Valley, a critical tactical location for the Confederates. Sheridan’s success coincided with Abraham Lincoln’s reelection and the Union’s taking of Atlanta, Georgia.

In the spring of 1865, Lee tried to escape from the encroaching Union to join with Joe Johnston further south. The goal was to unify the remaining army and then, turn back against Grant. In March, Lee sent out a diversionary deployment and began to move southward. Grant’s army destroyed the decoy and went after Lee. On April 9, Lee was surrounded. He tried to escape a final time, but failed, surrendering himself and his men at Appomattox Courthouse.

Catton’s survey of the final year of the Civil War shows that it was both triumphant and devastating for all who were involved. His narrative highlights the fact that the war cannot be understood in simple terms; nor can each individual narrative constituting the war ever be recovered and synthesized. Though the prevailing American narrative of his time looked back on the Civil War with a degree of relief, he memorializes it with persistent attention to its under-acknowledged ambivalence and suffering.