A Place Called Appomattox, by William Marvel, University of North Carolina Press, 400 pages, $34.95.
The history industry is replete with scholars hawking startling, or at least intriguing, reinterpretations of familiar stories. Revisionism is the engine that keeps the history presses rolling, and in past years William Marvel has made a fair dollar–and inspired a good amount of indignation–by riding the revisionist juggernaut. Even Ambrose Burnside has been rehabilitated at his hands, and that’s no small achievement.
Far less common among authors revising the accepted view of the past is taking an entirely fresh approach to an old subject. In A Place Called Appomattox, however, that is just what Marvel does. By focusing a new lens on one of America’s legendary places, Marvel delivers a book that is much more than a simple reinvestigation of a story often told.
Historians (and the reading public) love the exceptional and ignore the commonplace. Marvel turns this formula on its head by focusing his work on the commonplace: the history of a typical Virginia tobacco-growing and courthouse community that happened to be the place where (in the public eye) the Civil War came to its conclusion. This book puts the dramatic 1865 events in the context not of the Civil War, but of the history of the sleepy Virginia community that hosted them.
Anyone who has had the privilege of walking the dirt roadways of Appomattox Court House has likely found the town to be a quaint place once peopled briefly by giant figures–Lee and Grant. Armed with Marvel’s book, the place takes on a different hue and context altogether. The giants of the community become not Lee and Grant and Custer and Longstreet, but Samuel McDearmon (the developer of the town), John Raine (a tavern-owner at the heart of the early town), Wilson and William Hix (long-time sheriffs), Thomas Bocock (local politician and speaker of the Confederate house in Richmond), and a host of others. The familiar places that still inhabit the landscape–Clover Hill Tavern, the Court House, the Wilmer McLean House, and the Peers House–assume a significance quite separate from their associations with the events of April 8-12, 1865.
More than establishing the physical and social context for one of America’s most famous days, this book offers us Appomattox as a metaphor for the Southern experience during the Middle Period. Here emerges a prewar community built upon a slave-based economy, dependent upon agriculture, desperate for regional internal improvements that would ease access to markets, and whose growth was still to some measure dependent upon birth rates (a concept hard to fathom in today’s mobile society). The modern reader will find much that is familiar here, for Appomattox, like today’s Fairfax County and Los Angeles, grew out of determined individual efforts to turn a profit–be it through land speculation, political influence, or old-fashioned hard work (sometimes all three). Marvel’s is an antebellum portrait not often attempted, and his work in this realm is arguably his most useful.
Marvel’s Appomattox is a community that suffers immense wartime upheaval quite aside from the brief physical imprint the armies put on the place. This is the story of the people the soldiers left behind. Marvel chronicles with facility the profound impact of illness, inflation, conscription, casualties, domestic mortality, and emancipation. He documents profound manpower shortages in the local community–shortages caused not just by the enlistment (or conscription) of local white males, but by the impressment into government service of dozens of local slaves to labor all over Virginia. Like recent work on Staunton, Virginia, and Chambersburg, Pennsylvania (see other book review), Marvel’s work documents a non-military aspect of the war that is often lost in the historical wash of military ink. And, of course, Marvel offers an excellent, almost understated account of the surrender itself, exploding along the way some persistent myths–including some of those spun by one of the North’s greatest mythmakers, Joshua Chamberlain.
And here, in the aftermath of surrender, is a postwar town that would, like most of the South, never be the same again. To be certain, Marvel’s chronicling of postwar Appomattox is briefer than it might be. Still, he offers important insights into the home-front struggles in the months immediately following the conflict. He breaks new ground in recounting the difficult transformation of a purely hierarchical relationship between local whites and blacks to a relationship striving toward that of neighbors. Marvel pulls few punches in all this, though much more work remains to be done.
Finally, there is the mournful demise of this famous place–the familiar names dying right along with the place they had prepared for fame. It’s hard to imagine this storied crossroads, now a bustling national park, being largely forgotten. But indeed it was, the local efforts at historical marketing notwithstanding. In fact, the town died altogether in the wake of a fire that destroyed the courthouse in 1892. The structure was rebuilt three miles closer to the railroad that in the 1850s had come so tantalizingly close to the old village, but ended up far enough away to ensure its economic mediocrity.
Rare is the historian who strikes a happy chord in all three of the disciplines necessary to produce a quality work of history: research, analysis, and writing. Marvel garners high marks on all counts. His research goes beyond solid to the creative. He has dug deeply and thoroughly into sometimes obscure source material–much of it foreign to traditional Civil War researchers. He uses that material well (though he does occasionally descend to speculation) and offers a balanced narrative, not succumbing to the temptation to blare about the new or the sensational. Finally, Marvel’s prose is always solid, and sometimes delightfully clever. Commoners and great men stride the pages with equal emphasis, and both contribute to a book that will find a comfortable place on the shelf of anyone interested in communities that once characterized America, but which now seem all but gone.