Witness to Appomattox

This is a book by Richard Wheeler. For this book, the author mined first-person accounts to tell the story of the Army of Northern Virginia’s final defeat and the fall of Richmond. Having the vast majority of the book being taken from firsthand accounts means it has the strength of having the voices of the participants. It also has a major weakness in that the author accepts all the accounts uncritically, even LaSalle Corbell Pickett’s fabricated letters she purported to be from her husband.

A major strength is the fact that the book contains eyewitness accounts of what participants did. One really good anecdote is this view of General Charles Griffin, who took over V Corps after Philip H. Sheridan relieved Gouverneur K. Warren of command of that corps: ” ‘In those marches … the General would see a dozen or so of stragglers by the side of the road. He would then rein up his horse and call out to them, ‘Hello there! What is the matter with you fellows?’ ‘Clean tuckered out, General; can’t march another step.’ ‘Look here, boys,’ the General would reply, ‘don’t you know that we have got old Lee on the run, and our corps and the cavalry are trying to head him off? If he escapes from us, old Sherman and his bummers will catch him and get all the glory, and we won’t have anything to show for our four years’ fighting! Try it once more! Get up and pull out and rejoin your commands. Don’t flicker this way at the last moment!’ Then you would see those old fellows straighten up and pull themselves together and shoulder their muskets … and Griffin would ride on to find some other squad of stragglers, and go through the same sermon over again.’ ” [p. 150]

Another weakness is that because the book consists of accounts by participants, it is affected by the fog of war that encompassed those same participants. They necessarily didn’t fully understand their situations and weren’t privy to what was going on elsewhere. Additionally, while Wheeler does a commendable job in weaving the accounts together to provide a cogent narrative, we don’t see any analysis of the events.

The book is good for providing perspectives from the participants. The general reader will probably not mind the book’s weaknesses.


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