Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Book Review: A Stillness at Appomattox

Last weekend, I finally finished reading the final book in Bruce Catton's Army of the Potomac trilogy, A Stillness at Appomattox. I picked this book up at a used book sale last year after it was mentioned during a debate in a military history class at GW. We were having a hypothetical discussion about the Schlieffen Plan and what lead the German General Staff to ignore the factors that would lead to the trench warfare that dominated World War I. My background is in Asian history, so I naturally pointed to the blood battles of the Russo-Japanese War just a decade earlier, while some of my classmates mentioned the German experience in the closing months of the Franco-Prussian War as further evidence.

At this point, our professor interjected to mention that the American Civil War had degenerated into trench warfare as early as the Battle of Cold Harbor in early June 1864. I remembered seeing some pictures of trenches from the Siege of Petersburg in an undergrad military history course that reminded me of the Western Front. They were shocking, but I didn't comprehend their true gravity until it was mentioned again at GW. How could the German General Staff completely miss warning signs warning signs, such as the Siege of Petersburg and the Battle of Mukden?

Since my knowledge of the final year of the Civil War was basically limited to a chapter from Russ Weigley's The American Way of War, I asked my professor for some recommendations. I was particularly interested in Catton's book because it fleshed out the actions of my favorite Civil War figure, Emory Upton. During the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, then 25 year-old Colonel Upton came up with a tactic that helped the Army of the Potomac overcome Confederate fortifications -- line up troops in a column formation and force them through a single weak point in the Confederate line. The German General Staff eventually used the same tactics during their Spring Offensive in 1918 and managed to make some serious gains late in the war. But I digress...

The book was compelling and well-written. You can really feel the exhaustion of the Union troops and you will probably also enjoy the quixotic relationship they develop with the Confederate troops in the opposing trench lines. I even found myself sympathizing with General Grant as he racked up huge casualties in each engagement. Breaking Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was a difficult task, particularly with the Union's absolutely poor standards of generalship. It also spends a fair amount of time describing just how tenuous Lincoln's re-election felt as late as March 1864.

That is not to say the book is entirely about Lincoln or his generals. Most of it is written from the perspective of front line soldiers and Catton draws heavily on the correspondence of enlisted troops to illustrate their attitudes and opinions. Although Catton offers a some insight into Grant's thoughts, the general is more often described from the perspective of his troops. Even the momentous meeting of Grant and Lee at the Appomattox Court House is a blip compared to a single Union soldier who crosses over to the Confederate line to chat with his former foes.

A Stillness at Appomattox clearly deserved the Pulitzer Prize it received shortly after publication in 1954. It is a wonderful read and is worth the time of anyone with even small interest in American history or the Civil War. The only problem is that it was last reprinted as an individual volume back in 1990, so you may have to buy the whole 'Army of the Potomac' trilogy just to get it -- and I hear the first two books aren't nearly as good.

Update: Has anyone read Stephen Ambrose's Upton and the Army? I want to know if its any good before I spend a weekend hunting down a copy.

1 comment:

david santos said...

Thanks for you work and have a good weekend