A Stillness at Appomattox

As last year was the sesquicentennial of the events of 1864, I took the opportunity to reread Bruce Catton’s classic third volume in his Army of the Potomac trilogy.  I probably should have said I treated myself to rereading Bruce Catton’s classic third volume in his Army of the Potomac trilogy, because it was another opportunity to read that wonderful prose.  Here’s an example:

“A New York cavalryman remembered that back in 1862 he and a comrade made friends with a free colored man, an aged Negro called Uncle Jake, who had a log cabin not far from their Virginia camp, and one day the old man asked the two soldiers to come to dinner.  They went, and found themselves in a neat little room with a dirt floor, dinner cooking at the fireplace, table set for two.  They had never imagined a dinner at which host and hostess stood by and ate nothing while the guests sat and ate, so they insisted that Uncle Jake and his wife draw up chairs and dine with them.  Uncle Jake flatly refused, and he appears to have been slightly scandalized.  Never in his eighty years, he said, had he heard of a Negro sitting at table with a white man, and all of their entreaties would not move him.  So the soldiers at the dinner–a good dinner, the cavalryman recalled, with roast possum as the main course–and went away, puzzled and ill at ease about that queer line drawn between host and guest.

“But that had been in the early days.  Nothing in all the world was the same now as it used to be–not the war, nor the army, nor for that matter the colored man himself.  He was coming out of the shadows and a new part was being prepared for him, and although the army did not like the transformation it was nevertheless the army which had brought it to pass.  For the army had created a myth and the myth held a kernel of truth, and no cruel misuse of sword or noose would quite kill it.

“The myth rode with Custer’s men, as they came sloping back fro their stab at Charlottesville–rain frozen on weapons and uniforms, saddles creaking with ice, trees along the way all silver with frozen sleet, tinkling when the branches moved.  They found themselves at the head of a strange procession.  As they went along the Virginia roads their bugles sounded down the wind like the trumpets of jubilee, and the slaves laid down their burdens and came out by the scores to follow.  Before long the cavalrymen were leading an outlandish tatterdemalion parade of refugees, men and women and helpless children, people jubilant and bewildered and wholly defenseless, their eyes on the north star.

“Some of these had carts and wagons, some of them rode on mules or oxen, and some stumped along on foot, carrying their few possessions.  They took their place just ahead of the rear guard, and in the struggle to keep up they endured great hardships.  When the Confederates assailed the retreating Yankees, Custer’s officers would ride through, shouting and pleading and threatening, and there was general bedlam–bullets in the air, crying children, livestock grown either panicky or balky, creating fearful knots and tangles in the traffic, troopers swearing and women screaming, weaklings here and there falling out by the roadside and watching in despair as the column moved on without them.  When they were not storming with rage the troopers were braying with laughter.  It struck them as very funny to see a desperately frightened Negro riding a runaway mule, holding onto one of its ears with one hand and its tail with the other.  Despite all the difficulties most of the refugees kept going, and as they plodded along in the cold rain and mud one of the soldiers felt that the Union Army was ‘the representative to them of the great idea of freedom.’ ” [pp. 19-20]

A Stillness at Appomattox follows the Army of the Potomac from 1864 through Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.  It’s an outstanding way to learn about what happened in the Eastern Theater of the war during that year.  He tells us about one of the worst problems the Army of the Potomac had: “The provision by which a drafted man could buy his way out of the service was a remarkably effective device for making young men cynical about appeals to their patriotism.  When it went hand in hand with a system of bounties which often ran as high as a thousand dollars per enlistment, there was in operation an almost foolproof system for getting the wrong kind of men into uniform.  this system had created the institution of the substitute broker–the man who for a fee would find potential soldiers and induce them to enlist.  Some of these brokers may have been relatively honest, although there is nothing in any contemporary accounts to make one think so, but for the most part they seem to have inspired army authorities to some of the most glowing invective in Civil war annals.  At times they operated precisely as waterfront crimps operated, making their victims drunk, getting them to sign away their bounty rights, and then rushing them through the enlistment process before they recovered.  Now and then an authentic deep-sea sailor, congenitally disposed to being shanghaied, got caught in this net.  Such men, when they came to, usually made the best of things and went on to become good soldiers.  Most of the time the broker did not need to go to the trouble of drugging anybody.  It was simpler to dredge in the backwaters of city slums and find human derelicts who, for a little cash in hand, would willingly assign their bounty rights and go and enlist.  Hardly any of these men were physically fit to be soldiers, but the broker made such enormous profits that he could usually afford any bribery that might be necessary to get them past the examiners.  Horrified medical officers in the Army of the Potomac were finding that new lots of recruits often included hopeless cripples, lunatics, and men far along in incurable disease.” [pp. 23-24]  He then gives us some examples of the abuses, such as completely disabled recruits, recruits going on the sick list the moment they got to camp, and recruits who were so mentally disabled they met the medical definition of idiots.  He continues, “Even worse than the gangs sent in by the brokers, however, were the professional bounty-jumpers.  These often were out-and-out criminals, who had found that their familiar arts of burglary, highway robbery, and pocket-picking were much more laborious and less rewarding than the racket which was made possible by the high-bounty system.  They made a business of enlisting, collecting a bounty, deserting at the first chance, enlisting somewhere else for another bounty, deserting again, and keeping it up as long as they could get away with it.” [p. 25]  The result of this was “These men brought into the Army of the Potomac an element the army had never had before, and of which it could not possibly make the slightest use.  In camp they were valueless, and early in 1864 the army command stipulated that no bounty men could be used on picket or outpost duty. … The mere business of guarding them to see that they did not desert or plunder their honest comrades took time and effort that should have been used in other ways.  In battle they were a positive handicap.  Under no circumstances could they be induced to fight.  If by tireless effort a regiment succeeded in getting any of them up to the firing line they would immediately desert to the enemy, and their utter unreliability made any regiment which had them in their ranks weaker than it would have been if it had received no recruits at all.” [p. 25]  This led to changes in the volunteer regiments.  “What all of this meant was that the Army of the Potomac had to take on Regular Army discipline.  The Regulars were used to hard cases and knew how to handle them.  In ordinary times a Regular regiment would expect to lose perhaps a fourth of its men through desertion, but it could turn the rest into fighters.  Now the volunteer regiments were following suit, caste lines were hardening, and discipline was enforced by brutality.  The artillerists led the way.  The volunteer batteries had always had more of a Regular Army flavor than the infantry regiments, possibly because in the early days General McClellan had taken pains to brigade one regular battery with every three batteries of volunteers and the force of example had been strong.  In any case, the gunners this winter were pounding their recruits into shape, hurting them with cold ferocity when they needed correction.  Their favorite punishment centered around the fact that every artillery caisson carried a spare wheel, mounted at the rear of the caisson a couple of feet off the ground at a slight angle from the vertical.  An insubordinate artillerist was made to step on the lower rim of this wheel, and then he was spread-eagled, wrists and ankles firmly lashed to the rim.  This done, the wheel was given a quarter turn so that the man was in effect suspended by one wrist and one ankle.  He would be left in this position for several hours, and if he cried out in pain–as he usually did, before long–a rough stick was tied in his mouth for a gag.  Even worse was being tied on the rack.  At the rear end of every battery wagon was a heavy rack for forage–a stout wooden box, running across the end of the wagon and protruding a couple of feet back of the rear wheels.  The man who was up for punishment was made to stand with his chest against this rack while his wrists were tied to the upper rims of the wheels.  Then his feet were lifted and tied to the lower rims, so that he was left hanging with all of his weight pressing against the sharp wooden edge of the rack.  He was always gagged first, because not even the toughest customer could stand this punishment without screaming.  The man generally fainted after a few minutes of it, and some men were permanently disabled. … The infantry had no spare wheels or forage racks, but it had its little ways.  Commonest punishment was the ‘buck and gag.’  The erring soldier was made to sit on the ground, his knees drawn up to his chin and his hands clasped over his shins.  After his wrists were bound together a heavy stick was thrust under his knees and over his arms, and a gag was tied in his mouth.  He was then left to sit there for some hours, suffering no extreme of pain but utterly helpless and voiceless, enduring cramps, thirst, and the jibes of unfeeling soldiers.  It was also found effective to tie a man by his thumbs to the branch of a tree, pulling him just high enough so that he could keep his thumbs from being torn out of joint only by standing on tiptoe.” [pp. 31-33]

It was important to fill up the ranks not only to replace combat losses but also Union forces were up against a timeline.  “The great danger now was that the veterans might presently get out of the army altogether and leave everything to the newcomers.  Under the law they might do this, and nobody could stop them, and if that happened the war was lost forever, because conscripts and bounty men could not make Robert E. Lee’s incomparable soldiers even pause to take a breath.  Federal regiments in the Civil War enlisted, usually, for three years.  There had been a number of nine-month regiments, earlier, and some had come in to do a two-year hitch, but the three-year enlistment was the rule.  Now the time was running out.  The old 1861 regiments had just about finished their terms.  In May and June and July and August they would come to the end of their enlistments, and under the law there was no way to compel their members to remain in service if they did not choose to remain.  Fighting was expected to begin in April or May.  The prospect, therefore, was that just as the campaign got well under way the army would begin to fall apart.  The army authorities could see this coming but there was nothing on earth they could do to keep it from happening except to go to the veterans–hat in hand, so to speak–and beg them to re-enlist.  The big thing was to get them to re-enlist as regiments, and inducements were offered.  If three fourths of the men in any regiment would re-enlist, the regiment could go home as a unit for a thirty-day furlough, and when it got back to camp it would keep its organization, its regimental number, its flag, and so on.  In addition, the veterans would be cut in on some of this bounty money.  Adding state and Federal bounties together, the average soldier who signed on for a second enlistment would get about $700, on which he might have quite a time for himself during that month’s furlough. … The record of these three-year regiments contained the whole story of the war in the East, down to date–Bull Run and the Seven Days, Antietam and Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, plus the mean little skirmishes and minor battles in between, the hard marches in dust or mud, the dreary months in unsavory camps.  Whatever there could possibly be in war to make a man say, ‘Never again!’ these soldiers knew about it.  There were in the North thousands upon thousands of young men who had had no part in the war, and the veterans knew all about them and knew that if they themselves re-enlisted these men would remain civilians, with every night in bed and nobody shooting at them.  They knew, too, that the thousands of recruits who were coming in now were corrupting the army and giving it little of value.  when the fighting began again the load would have to be carried by the old-timers, the men who had survived many terrible battles and whose numbers, by the mere law of averages, must be about due to come up.  The veteran who was asked to re-enlist had a good many things to think about.” [pp. 33-34]  Say what you will about the World War II generation being the “greatest generation,” and this is to take nothing away from them, we have to give our due to the Civil War generation of veterans who decided to continue to fight to save the country.  “Altogether, there are few facts in American history more remarkable than the fact that so many of these veterans did finally re-enlist–probably slightly more than half of the total number whose terms were expiring.  The proffered bounty seems to have had little influence.  The furlough was much better bait. … In the 6th Wisconsin, which had done as much costly fighting as any regiment in the army, it was noted that the combat men were re-enlisting almost to a man; it was the cooks, hostlers, clerks, teamsters, and others on non-combat duty who were holding back.  And the dominant motive, finally, seems to have been a simple desire to see the job through.  The government in its wisdom might be doing everything possible to show the men that patriotism was for fools; in the end, the veterans simply refused to believe it.  A solid nucleus did sign the papers, pledging that the army would go on, and by the end of March Meade was able to tell the War Department that 26,767 veterans had re-enlisted.” [p. 35]

Ulysses S. Grant took over as the commander of all Union armies and things began to change for the Army of the Potomac.  “Yet there was a change, and before long the men felt it.  There was a perceptible tightening up, as if someone who meant business had his hands on the reins now.  Orders went forth to corps and division commanders to make a radical cut in the number of men who were borne on the returns as ‘on special, extra, or daily duty,’ and attention was called to the discrepancies between the numbers reported ‘present for duty’ and those listed as ‘present for duty, equipped.’  In brigades and divisions the inspectors general became busy, and where equipment had been lacking it suddenly materialized. … Cavalry found that a new day had dawned.  The Pleasontons and Kilpatricks were gone, and at the top there was another Westerner–a tough little man named Phil Sheridan. … Cavalry’s camps were better policed, the endless picket details were reduced, and it appeared that Sheridan was going to insist on using his corps as a compact fighting unit.” [pp. 44-45]  The soldiers liked what they saw with this new general.  “What the soldiers liked most of all was the far-reaching hand with which Grant hauled men out of the safe dugouts in Washington and brought them into the army.” [p. 47]  They didn’t like one change, though.  “One which was bitterly resented by thousands of the best soldiers in the army was a shake-up which consolidated the five infantry corps into three.  Actually, this was none of Grant’s doing, Meade having put it I the works before Grant took over, but it was announced while all the other changes were taking place and it was generally accepted as part of Grant’s program. …  What made this shake-up unpopular with so many men was the fact that the I Corps and the III Corps ceased to exist, their brigades being distributed among the three corps which survived.  These two corps had been famous and their men had been cocky, wearing their corps badges with vast pride, and they were brought almost to the verge of mutiny by the change.” [p. 49]

In making his plans for the upcoming campaign, Grant considered his options.  “He could move by his right flank, sliding along the line of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad in the general direction of Gordonsville, swinging past Lee to the west, and forcing him to fight in open country; or he could go by his left, slipping quickly through the Wilderness, heading for a position behind Lee’s right–where, as in the other case, there could be fighting in the open.  He had taken the second choice, for reasons which seemed good to him  Chief reason was the matter of supply.  Counting everybody, he would be taking some 116,000 men with him, and more than 50,000 horses, and it seemed improbable that the single-tracked railway line could supply all of them adequately.  Furthermore, the railroad led through country infested with guerillas–John S. Mosby’s famous irregulars, mostly, who attacked Yankee supply lines and outposts so viciously and effectively that the region between Brandy Station and Alexandria was commonly known as ‘Mosby’s Confederacy.’  If the Federal army dangled at the end of a hundred miles of railroad, these men would have a field day, and so would Jeb Stuart’s far-ranging cavalry, and half of the army would have to be left behind to cope with them.  So the army was going to the left, where if it made progress there would be seacoast bases, with a short roadway for the enormous wagon train.  There might have been a third choice: McClellan’s old route of 1862, putting the army on boats and going down by water to the tip of the Virginia peninsula, with a landing at Fortress Monroe and a quick march toward Richmond between York and James rivers. … Before he got to Brandy Station Grant felt that was the way to go, and soldiers as good as John Sedgwick agreed. … The trouble was that it was not that kind of war any more.  Meade’s soldiers had noticed many changes this spring, but what they had not seen was the fact that the role of the Army of the Potomac itself had changed.  The goal now was not to capture Richmond but to fight the Army of Northern Virginia–to begin to fight it as soon as possible and to keep on fighting it until one side or the other could fight no more.  Whatever happened, Lee must never again be allowed to take the initiative.  It might or it might not be possible to beat him, but it was all-important to keep him busy.  It must be made impossible for him to detach troops to oppose Sherman, who was breaking his way into Georgia with the contemptuous remark that when you pierced the shell of the Confederacy you found hollowness within.  Also, Ben Butler was advancing toward Richmond on the south side of the James, and if the Army of the Potomac spent the first month of the campaign getting on and off of steamboats Lee could concentrate against Butler, destroy him and his army, and thus win a dazzling victory at comparatively low cost.  For all of these reasons, then, the Army of the Potomac had one paramount responsibility: it must get close to the enemy as soon as possible and it must stay close until the war ended.  If it did that, victory would come.  It might not come in Virginia, and the price paid for it might be terribly high, but it would come in the end.” [pp. 57-58]

Catton gives us a masterful account of the Overland Campaign, delving into the battles the Army of the Potomac fought and the leadership its officers provided.  As an example, “In a Wisconsin regiment a devout chaplain somehow found a quiet hour and managed to hold divine services, and to the tanned veterans who were grouped about him in the firelight he preached a thumping sermon full of hell-fire and eternal punishment, predestination darkly illumined by grace abounding and the regiment’s colonel was rubbed where it hurt.  He called the chaplain to his tent after the services and told him off.  ‘I don’t want any more of that doctrine preached in this regiment,’ said the colonel sternly.  ‘Every one of my boys who fall fighting this great battle of liberty is going to Heaven, and I won’t allow any other principle to be promulgated to them while I command the regiment,’ ” [pp. 134-135]  Throughout, he lets us know what it was like to live as a common soldier in that army.  “No night’s rest was every unbroken.  there would always be picket firing, or some unexplained call to arms at midnight, and if nothing else happened there was a constant trickle of tired laggards going through the camp waking up those who slept to ask where their own regiments might be.  If infantry and cavalry happened to bivouac together, dawn would reveal an oddity.  Cavalry was always awakened by bugle calls, but the morning summons to infantry was the long roll beaten on the drums.  The cavalrymen would sleep soundly through the beating of the drums but would rouse instantly when their own bugles sounded, while it was just the other way around with infantry–bugles would not awaken them, but they got up at once when the drums began to beat.  Sometimes a wakeful battery would fire a few salvos in the night, and get answering salvos from an unseen Rebel battery, and the troops would remain asleep.  But the same men would come out of their blankets at once, fumble for their muskets, and fall into line if a few musket shots were fired by their own pickets.” [p. 139]  Catton takes us from the Wilderness to Spotsylvania, the North Anna River, and Totopotomoy Creek, down to Cold Harbor, where Grant wanted an attack on July 2.  “Bu the reflexes of the chain of command in the Army of the Potomac had never yet been trained for speed.  there was power here, and bravery, and simple determination–but the furious, implacable insistence on doing simple things quickly was not there at all.  It had been bred out of the army in the leisurely days of 1862, when half a month one way or the other did not seem to make very much difference and the delay of a mere day or so did not make any difference at all, and nothing that the tough little man from the West had been able to do had changed things very much.  In all the history of this army, no general had yet been disciplined for being just a little bit late.  Back of almost every defeat there was the story of chances lost because some commander had not done what he set out to do with the necessary vigor and speed.  The assumption always seems to have been that the man on the firing line would somehow make up for all the slackness and all delays.  In other ways, too, the generals had been brought up wrong.  The tradition they had learned was that of close-order fighting in open country, where men with bayonets bravely charged a line of men firing smooth-bore muskets.  That used to work well enough, because the range at which defenders could begin to kill their assailants was very short.  Between the moment when charging men got into that range and the moment when they actually reached the enemy line, the defenders could fire no more than one or two shots apiece.  Given a proper advantage in numbers, a charging line was bound to get to close quarters provided the men could just stand the gaff during the last hundred yards of their advance.  But the rifle came in and it changed all of that.  The range at which charging men began to be killed was at least five times as great as it used to be, which meant that about five times as many of the assailants were likely to be hit.  Furthermore, men on the defense had learned how to dig deep, solid trenches instead of sanding up unprotected in the open; and the trench and the rifle put together meant that the old tradition was as dead as Hannibal.” [pp. 154-155]

Catton takes us from Cold Harbor across the James River and into the trenches of Petersburg with the Army of the Potomac.  He takes us through the siege, the Crater, and the breakthrough at Five Forks, followed by the pursuit to Appomattox Court House.  “Down by the roadside near Appomattox Court House, Sheridan and Ord and other officers sat and waited while a brown-bearded little man in a mud-spattered uniform road up.  They all saluted him, and there was a quiet interchange of greetings, and then General Grant tilted his head toward the village and asked: ‘Is General Lee up there?’ Sheridan replied that he was, and Grant said: ‘Very well.  Let’s go up.’  The little cavalcade went trotting along the road to the village, and all around them the two armies waited in silence.  As the generals neared the end of their ride, a Yankee band in a field near the town struck up ‘Auld Lang Syne.’ ” [p. 380]

Any time you read Bruce Catton, it’s going to be a treat, and this is Catton at his best.  If you haven’t read this book yet, you should make it the next book you read.



  1. Mike Rogers · · Reply

    Like you, reading it again. Catton could certainly turn a phrase

  2. Neil Hamilton · · Reply

    It was Catton who first got me interested in the Civil War. I feel lucky that I met him first out of all the others I read later.


  3. I read Catton’s trilogy during the 1960s. In the early 2000s I was dating a newspaper journalist who was born and raised in California. She had ‘limited’ knowledge of the American Civil War. She asked for something to read about the war. I bought a used copy of Volume One for her to read on the bus to work. She read it and asked for the next two. She told me that Catton was a exceptionally fine writer. Now there two sets of the Army of the Potomac trilogy in the house.

  4. jfepperson · · Reply

    My copy was my grandfather’s, and it is a prized possession. The man could turn a phrase, indeed!

  5. Bob Nelson · · Reply

    Fantastic books, Al — all 6. His “Centennial History” series is the first I ever bought and read. I still have them although they are a bit tattered and worn now after some 25 years of reading and re-reading. Like Shelby Foote, he was a fantastic story teller. Unlike Foote, he has a wealth of — wait for it — Foote notes. The AoP trilogy is equally good. Many years ago, my wife dropped me off by the Lee statue at GB and then drove around to pick me up while I walked across to the Copse of Trees following the path of that awful Confederate charge. As I walked, I ran across small CBFs in the ground, then more, then still more. She got hung up in traffic (and also got lost) so when she finally found me, I was sitting on that little stone wall reading the last few pages of “Glory Road.” I was crying. She asked me why. I couldn’t find the right words to explain. Without a doubt, it was the most emotional experience I ever had on any battlefield. And of course, he was from Michigan. I have visited his grave in Benzonia where he is buried in the G.A.R. section with the veterans he idolized in his childhood.

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