by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Bruce Catton’s A Stillness at Appomattox won the Pulitzer Prize for history and a National Book Award in 1954. Catton set a standard for history-writing, hailing uncommon bravery occasionally but focusing more on ordinary soldiers and mostly honoring their common endurance of the unendurable. The title refers less to the guns falling silent, and more to the exhaustion of the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia by the end of the war.
The weightiest part of the book is about the running battle of May and June 1864 that exhausted them. We should commemorate that anniversary, which has been neglected and not well understood.
The 1864 campaign in Virginia is known by several battle names: the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, Cold Harbor, and the siege of Petersburg. Catton tells us it was all a single battle, with advances and defeats, triumphs and disasters muddled together.
Generals George McClellan and George Meade had allowed Robert E. Lee’s army to disengage from many battlefields, without ordering pursuit. Ulysses S. Grant led his army out of the ferocious Battle of the Wilderness, outside of Fredericksburg, Va., in order to pursue the Army of Northern Virginia and force it to surrender.
The Wilderness was “a mean gloomy woodland” where there were few places a man could see as far as 20 yards. The armies did not intend to fight there; they simply ran into each other and fought like that, tangled, confused, and desperate. The battle ended two days and 15,000 Union casualties later as it had begun, unintentionally and inconclusively.
What would Grant have the wounded army do next—retreat to lick its wounds as it had under previous leaders? He took it south.
“This army,” says Catton of that turning point, “had known dramatic moments of inspiration in the past—massed flags and many bugles and broad blue ranks spread out in the sunlight, with leadership bearing a drawn sword and riding a prancing horse, and it had been grand and stirring. Now there was nothing more than a bent shadow in the night, a stoop-shouldered man who was saying nothing to anyone, methodically making his way to the head of the column—and all of a moment the tired column came alive, and a wild cheer broke the night, and men tossed their caps in the darkness.
“They had had their fill of desperate fighting, and this pitiless little man was leading them into nothing except more fighting, and probably there would be no end to it, but at least he was not leading them back in sullen acceptance of defeat, and somewhere, many miles ahead, there would be victory for those who lived to see it.”
This eloquent passage speaks across time: War should not be started lightly, but once entangled in combat, seek victory. Do not disengage. Wear down the enemy until surrender becomes his best option.