Two volumes offer new interpretations and shatter some myths about the end of the Civil War.
By A. Wilson Green
William Marvel knows how to tell a good story. He is also a master at debunking myths and reinterpreting historical orthodoxy. Readers familiar with his monograph about the notorious Confederate prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia, or his controversial biography of Union General Ambrose Burnside understand how the iconoclastic New Hampshirite undergirds his sometimes unsettling interpretation of events and personalities with impeccable scholarship.
A Place Called Appomattox (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2000, $34.95) demonstrates that Marvel can bring the same pleasing style and fresh perspective to local history. This engaging inquiry focuses narrowly, as all local studies must, on the history of one Virginia county–or more accurately on that county’s administrative seat. Of course, Appomattox Court House emerged from anonymity during five April days in 1865, and it is those five days that still draw students of the Civil War to the little Virginia town.
The inherent drawback of most local or regional histories is the very nature of the genre itself. Events in a particular jurisdiction are often competently chronicled, but all too rarely are they related to their larger context. Marvel avoids this pitfall with gratifying regularity. “To tell the story of Appomattox Court House is to tell the South’s story of the Civil War,” he writes in his preface, “a struggle that lasted not four years, but many, encompassing more than a lifetime between the first sectionalist rumblings to the last gasp of reactionary rhetoric.”
Appomattox County originated in the expanding economy of central Virginia in the 1840s. It owed much of its early growth to the maneuverings of a local politician who sought to increase the value of his own real estate by steering internal improvements toward the county seat. It was an era, Marvel reminds us, “when public servants had not yet learned to disguise self-interest.” The village and the county it served absorbed the ripples of national events, such as the Dred Scott Decision and the Panic of 1857, and plunged toward secession with an alacrity rare in the conservative state.
Hundreds of Appomattox men, amounting to 20 percent of the entire male population, volunteered for Confederate service by the spring of 1862. Thomas Bocock, the county’s leading political figure, became speaker of the Confederate House of Representatives, joining Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s banjo player, Sam Sweeny, as one of Appomattox’s most celebrated Confederate figures. Marvel weaves the fates of the county’s volunteer soldiers into his narrative as he traces the fortunes of such units as the 18th Virginia Infantry, the 46th Virginia Infantry and the 2nd Virginia Cavalry, which contained Appomattox companies. The impact–not the conduct–of the war occupies Marvel’s attention, and he explores the devastating effect that disease and battle casualties had on a rural community.
Marvel also demonstrates how some of the county’s most outspoken secessionists proved to be reluctant patriots when the time came to take up arms to defend the Confederacy. Many of Appomattox County’s moneyed residents found ways to avoid military service, lending credence to the cliché, “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” “Virginia teemed with entrepreneurs who saw the war as an opportunity for profit,” writes Marvel, as he explains how commodities speculation, obtaining army contracts and even transporting deserters back to the authorities temporarily enriched some county citizens.
Many readers will find the three chapters dealing with General Robert E. Lee’s final campaign and the events surrounding the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia to be the most compelling portion of the book. Avoiding a long and familiar retelling of the meeting between Lee and Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Marvel concentrates instead on the events of April 8 leading to the surrender, and the 72 subsequent hours, to provide the clearest picture yet drawn of those fateful days.
Marvel challenges several articles of faith from the traditional understanding of these events. He finds, for example, little evidence that the armies mingled indiscriminately on April 10, intercourse between the former antagonists being confined almost exclusively to the officers. He also reinterprets the location of the April 10 meeting between Lee and Grant, placing it not near the Peers House on the village’s eastern edge, as generations of visitors have been told, but near the Appomattox River instead. Marvel even corrects Douglas Southall Freeman, who contended that Lee left Appomattox on April 12. Lee actually departed the area a day earlier, according to Marvel.
No aspect of the Appomattox saga has endured longer than the poignant (but apparently fabricated) story of Brig. Gen. Joshua Chamberlain and Maj. Gen. John Gordon exchanging honors as the Confederates wound up the hill to lay down their arms forever. In fact, Marvel questions Chamberlain’s self-proclaimed role as architect of the surrender proceedings. Grant, argues Marvel, never tapped Chamberlain to preside over the ceremony. That responsibility belonged to Chamberlain’s superior, Brig. Gen. Joseph Bartlett.
Marvel sustains the story of the county through the first three decades of the 20th century. A devastating fire in 1892 in effect ended the active life of Appomattox Court House, and by 1932 the village had declined to just one occupied building. By then, the federal government’s effort to reclaim the town and restore it to its April 1865 appearance had commenced, leaving us with the splendid historical set piece with which many readers are familiar.
Marvel mined sources as varied as census records and local tombstones to undergird his work. The book contains some 30 pages of illustrations documenting the most important buildings and citizens of Appomattox Court House, in addition to maps of the village. His careful research has uncovered several errors in the National Park Service’s restoration efforts, including the misidentification or mislocation of a pair of law offices belonging to Crawford Jones and John W. Woodson.
Those who appreciate lively prose laced with irony will enjoy Marvel’s style, and A Place Called Appomattox appeals to such a wide-ranging audience that it almost defies a label. Whether shelved as Civil War history, Virginia history, Southern history or local history, Marvel’s work is sure to stand for generations to come as the most authoritative account of one tiny village’s collision with history.