Toward Appomatttox

In the footsteps of Grant and Lee

Since the federal government is now all but out of the business of buying up land for federal parks, Greene and some of his historian friends have started a private foundation to prevent battle sites and cemeteries like the one at Spotsylvania from being obliterated or stained by progress. "We've got about ten years left," he said. "If these places aren't saved now, they will be gone in a decade." Readers who want to help preserve our common past should write the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites, P.O. Box 23, Arlington, Va. 22210.

GRANT AND LEE, at the close of Spotsylvania, were about halfway through "the forty days" - the period when their armies were engaged some part of every day, Grant losing an average of 2,000 men a day and Lee, who could spare them less, losing fewer. Grant sidling to the left, Lee following, the armies next met at the North Anna River. The site of the standoff that resulted there is not on park property, and the surviving earthworks left by the armies are threatened, I was told, by a neighboring gravel pit whose owner wants to expand his business not only in space but in time as well.

The next fullscale battle came at Cold Harbor, a crossroads northeast of Richmond, which was named after a colonial inn that had provided its guests with a cold hospitality - room but no board. In front of Cold Harbor, on June 3, 1864, Grant attacked Lee's entrenchments straight on, across a sevenmile front. It was one of the greatest infantry charges of the war. It lasted less than a half hour and took more than 7,000 lives. The night before the attack an aide to Grant noticed Federal soldiers pinning notes on the backs of their coats - notes that said, "Here lies the body of . . ." They knew, what to expect. Grant later repented of the attack. Still, in his Memoirs he obfuscated his decision to leave his wounded men unattended between the lines for four days after the battle rather than lose face by asking Lee for a proper truce. "While they lay there," William McFeeley writes, in his sympathetic biography of Grant, "Grant sat down and wrote the most affectionate of fatherly letters to [his daughter] Nellie. She would soon be nine, and he told her he would get her a buggy for the family pony. He simply shut out the horrors for which he was responsible and retreated into a fantasy of comfortable domesticity." Of the hundreds of wounded men left between the lines for the four days, only two were found alive.

Cold Harbor is a National Historical Park today. It's not much to look at - just a row of old earthworks fronting on a clear field of fire. A beautiful wooded glade surrounds the battlefield, but my rambles in the woods were inhibited by the fine print in a park brochure disclaiming responsibility for any damage done to me by "poisonous snakes." Caveat tourist.

FACING ANOTHER stalemate, Grant shifted his troops out of the trenches at Cold Harbor and, for all that the baffled Confederates knew, into thin air. Lee was in the dark for several vital days as the Army of the Potomac moved not against Richmond but against Petersburg, below Richmond. If Petersburg fell, the supply line to Richmond would be cut. Starved of supplies, Lee would have no choice but to quit his entrenchments and fight it out with Grant in the open.

 

In the event, Grant managed to get his whole army across the James River (by a 2,100foot pontoon bridge) and to the gates of Petersburg before Lee knew where he was. But dithering by the Union generals charged with making the initial assault on the lightly held Petersburg trenches cost irreplaceable time. Taking advantage of it, Lee was just able to get enough men into Petersburg to cheat Grant of his victory and prolong the war by ten months.

The siege of Petersburg and Richmond that now commenced was a vast undertaking, with the opposing trenches covering nearly thirtyfive miles. Grant's strategy was to exploit his advantage in numbers by slowly extending his lines to the southwest of Petersburg. Lee would be forced to follow suit, and eventually his lines would thin out to the breaking point. To fill those stretched lines, Lee would in time contemplate the desperate step of drafting Negroes to fight in the cause of slavery.

No short article can convey the wealth of Civil War sites in and around Richmond - the visitor should pick up a map to history at the headquarters of the Richmond National Battlefield Park on Chimborazo Hill. The Petersburg National Battlefield takes two hours to tour by car. Its highlights include a remnant of the famous crater left when the Federals tried to blow up a section of the confederate line ("The effort was a stupendous failure," Grant wrote in his Memoirs, using one of his rare adjectives) and the place where Lee mounted his last offensive of the war - a bloody, failed attempt to punch a hole in the Union line.

THE CITY OF Petersburg itself is worth at least a day's tour. It boasts a fascinating Siege Museum, where the visitor can gain a vivid idea of what life was like under Grant's guns. In addition, many houses that were damaged by those guns are still standing, among them the house where Grant and Lincoln met on April 3, 1865, just after Lee had pulled out of Petersburg. The owner invited the men into the parlor, but Grant said, "Thank you, sir, but I am smoking," and he and Lincoln stayed on the porch. While they were sitting there, a courier rode up and Grant was handed a telegram announcing that Richmond had fallen.

The house where this historic event took place is today deserted, run down; it borders a tobacco factory, also deserted. Yet it was here that Abraham Lincoln knew what might have been the greatest happiness of his life. Think of it; picture it. Grant opens the envelope and says, "Mr. President, Richmond is ours…. And Lincoln, delivered from his years-long nightmare - how would he react to such news? He had only days to live; this was his blessed moment. That the place where Lincoln's dream came true (Richmond captured, the end of the war at hand) should be a shabby wreck is appalling.

When Grant's sidling to the southwest of Petersburg finally menaced the railroad connecting the city to the remaining Rebel supply depots in western Virginia and North Carolina, Lee had no choice but to abandon Petersburg and Richmond. On forced night marches that left the roads littered with his exhausted men - scarecrows by now - he drove his dwindling army southwestward, hoping to link up with Joe Johnston in North Carolina, and then to turn on Sherman, coming up from the south, before dealing with Grant, coming down from the north. As everybody knows, he didn't make it. Surrounded at the village of Appomattox Court House, he surrendered the remnant of the Army of Northern Virginia to the Army of the Potomac on April 9, 1865.

Every American who has read anything about the Civil War has been to Appomattox in imagination. It is the village of our coming together, the hallowed ground, where, all passion spent, we became the United States. The real Appomattox Court House matched my vision of it; rarely have federal dollars been spent more wisely than to keep it preserved as a nineteenthcentury village. Properly, in my view, the Park Service nowhere mentions that the McLean House, where the surrender took place, was virtually looted by Grant's souvenir-crazed staff after he and Lee had finished with History.

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Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America, which was named one of the top ten books of 2001 by Business Week. His previous books are The World According to Peter Drucker (1998) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992). More

Jack Beatty"The Atlantic Monthly is an American tradition; since 1857 it has helped to shape the American mind and conscience," senior editor Jack Beatty explains. "We are proud of that tradition. It is the tradition of excellence for which we were awarded the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. It is the tie that binds us to our past. It is a standard we won't betray."

Beatty joined The Atlantic Monthly as a senior editor in September of 1983, having previously worked as a book reviewer at Newsweek and as the literary editor of The New Republic.

Born, raised, and educated in Boston, Beatty wrote a best-selling biography of James Michael Curley, the Massachusetts congressman and governor and Boston mayor, which Addison-Wesley published in 1992 to enthusiastic reviews. The Washington Post said, "The Rascal King is an exemplary political biography. It is thorough, balanced, reflective, and gracefully written." The Chicago Sun-Times called it a ". . . beautifully written, richly detailed, vibrant biography." The book was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle award.

His 1993 contribution to The Atlantic Monthly's Travel pages, "The Bounteous Berkshires," earned these words of praise from The Washington Post: "The best travel writers make you want to travel with them. I, for instance, would like to travel somewhere with Jack Beatty, having read his superb account of a cultural journey to the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts." Beatty is also the author of The World According to Peter Drucker, published in 1998 by The Free Press and called "a fine intellectual portrait" by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Book Review.

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