Lee's Last Retreat: The Flight to Appomattox

By Simpson, Brooks D. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, January 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

Lee's Last Retreat: The Flight to Appomattox


Simpson, Brooks D., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Lee's Last Retreat: The Flight to Appomattox, By WILLIAM MARVEL. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. xiv, 308 pp. $29.95.

IN the last quarter century the Lost Cause version of the American Civil War has taken more than its share of hits from Civil War historians. That fanciful tale featured courageous Confederate soldiers commanded by a set of superior leaders holding out to the last against a numerically superior foe until the sheer weight of numbers, employed in ham-handed ways by mediocre Union generals, finally beat down the brave butternuts. That was the story told by none other than Robert E. Lee (and his ghostwriter Charles Marshall) as early as the appearance of the legendary General Orders No. 9, issued the day after Lee had surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant. In years to come, one would hear that Lee's tattered command, reduced to a shell of its former self, had evacuated Richmond and Petersburg in a last valiant attempt to prolong the struggle for Confederate independence, only to be dogged by a combination of bad luck, confusion, and the tidal wave of Yankees that swept over the Rebels and finally forced them to bow to the inevitable. Even then, the magnanimous conquerors paid touching tribute to their worthy adversaries in saluting them during a simple but elegant surrender ceremony presided over by those twin knights who wielded pen as skillfully as they did their swords, Joshua L. Chamberlain and John B. Gordon.

This romance was almost too good to be true: in fact, as William Marvel argues in this rather tightly argued study of the last weeks of the Army of Northern Virginia, it is simply not true. Lee's army was larger on the eve of the final campaign than it was the previous May at the beginning of the Overland campaign, while Grant fielded approximately the same number of men as had been under his immediate supervision when he had entered the Wilderness. However, desertion, especially among Virginia and North Carolina soldiers, cut deeply into Confederate strength, and the army collapsed during the retreat from Richmond as many of the soldiers who did not fall in battle threw away weapons or vanished altogether, leaving some 8,000 men ready for combat on Palm Sunday 1865. …

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