Lessons from the last fortnight of the Civil War


A stunning irony accompanies the concluding novel in Ralph Peters' epic Civil War series: His just-released "Judgment at Appomattox" appears just as a second American civil war suddenly looms out of the mists.

The confederacy of dunces recently descending on Charlottesville is matched by a gutless sheriff in Durham and a witless mayor in Baltimore, co-conspirators who remove monuments from our greatest conflict. All seem blissfully unmindful of Santayana's warning that those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.

Lt. Col. Peters has equally stark lessons for his readers, setting his story over the last fortnight of the war, when the months-long siege of Petersburg gave way to a pursuit finally ending at Appomattox. While most historians insert the word "inevitable" in such descriptions, Col. Peters knows better, a soldier who understands that all warfare is uncertainty as desperate men savage each other.

That fortnight began with an attack on Fort Steadman, a Union strongpoint. Confederate infantryman Danny Riordan, Col. Peters writes, "gave the nearest Yankee a taste of his rifle's butt, smack in the teeth and hunting the back of his gullet Yankee guns pounded and swept the ground, erasing men's existence, leaving but shredded meat. The lucky victims - still alive at least - writhed in agony, flailing the limbs left to them."

Yet at Appomattox, only hours before Lee reluctantly set off to meet Grant, "Forward they went with a Rebel yell to wake the dead and terrify the living A bullet met flesh beside him with a thup, but the next man's misfortune didn't cost Riordan a step, for he was Cain in search of a thousand Abels."

Though starving and threadbare, Lee's forces surrendered only when "Long lines of Yankee infantry had formed to advance toward them."

The pursuit from Petersburg was punctuated by a thousand movements to contact as Lee fled west, bloody engagements at Five Forks, Amelia Court House, Farmville and Sailor's Creek. These battles explode from Ralph Peters' pen, giving the reader a meticulously reconstructed history that vividly depicts how our greatest national cataclysm affected soldiers and generals on both sides.

His book is never more remarkable than when Col. Peters applies the novelist's flair and the historian's discipline as his characters wonder how it had all come to this.

Confederate Gen. Longstreet ponders why Lee had so often defeated Grant, "just whipped him so badly that the Army of Northern Virginia had backed up a hundred miles." Meanwhile, Union generals wonder why Northern abolitionists were so vocal in opposing slavery yet so notably absent from the fields of conflict - much like today's veterans given a perfunctory "Thank-you for your service."

But Lincoln's voice speaks loudest of all, reflecting on the South's lethal pride:

"The war had sprouted from the planter class, whose members believed they were not only better than the Negro but better than other whites, especially Northern ‘shopkeepers.' (These aristocrats) valued indolence above honest work, wealth above rectitude, position above justice and the horsewhip above apology."

If pride can best be cured by redemption and forgiveness, then the book's emotional summits emerge as Lincoln is cheered by throngs of freed slaves in Richmond, when, "The president of the United States tipped his hat to a Negro." He urges Grant to "press the thing" to win Lee's unconditional surrender. But equally important: "If I were in your place, General, I'd let ‘em up easy, let ‘em up easy."

Lincoln's generosity of spirit allows Grant to extend the olive branch of honorable surrender to Lee - and to feed his starving soldiers from Union rations. Finally, Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon glumly leads the Army of Northern Virginia at the formal surrender ceremony: But is shocked when Maj. Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain brings the Union ranks to attention, saluting this poignant reunion with their brothers-in-arms.

With his five-novel masterwork - from Gettysburg to Appomattox - Ralph Peters has become one of our most important historians. The study of military history on today's politically correct campuses ranks somewhat below Latin. What better way for faculty, students and general readers to rediscover the Civil War than through these enthralling books, recalling those of Shelby Foote and Douglas Southall Freeman?

And just in time. When professional athletes refuse to stand for the National Anthem because of gross indifference to the sacrifices of history, what better way to remind them?

In the aftermath of Charlottesville, Lincoln's successors exchanged rival tweets blaming all sides or spouting platitudes that "People must learn to hate and can be taught to love." Yet our own history answers that love without self-sacrifice amounts to little more than empty slogans mimed by ambitious men.

Remember Mr. President: We have been down this road once before.

A version of this piece also appeared on Washington Times

Colonel Ken Allard is a widely known commentator on foreign policy and security issues. For more than a decade, he was a featured military analyst on NBC News, MSNBC and CNBC. That experience provided the backdrop for his most recent book, Warheads: Cable News and the Fog of War. 

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