The Road to Appomattox. – Review

The Road to Appomattox. – Review – book review

David Grimsted

The Road to Appomattox. By Robert Hendrickson (New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1998. Pp. ix, 241. $24.95.)

This book provides an account of the major military engagements in the final thirteen months of the Civil War. Centered on the personalities and strategies of Ulysses Grant and Robert E. Lee, it offers a vigorous account of the basic military struggles of that long year, with some brief looks at domestic response, North and South, to the end of the conflict. Hendrickson’s interest is not in bringing out new data or exploring interpretive issues about this well-known struggle, but in providing Civil War buffs with a reasonably brisk account of the conventional wisdom about these events.

“Popular” histories commonly stress personal heroism, and this book is cut to this pattern. It centers on the conventional glorification of Lee, whose only flaw Hendrickson sees as too much gentleness with incompetent inferiors. Grant’s ability, decencies, and, especially, tenacity are respected, but he is portrayed as a flawed commoner compared to the chivalric and brilliant Lee. For example, Hendrickson condemns Grant’s refusal to exchange prisoners as a “strategic move” about numbers that proved “a deathblow to Union prisoners suffering horribly in Andersonville” (67). No mention is made of Grant’s willingness to continue exchanges if Lee and Jefferson Davis would agree to treat surrendering black soldiers as prisoners of war.

Hendrickson also stresses Grant’s alleged alcoholism. The author’s brief mention of many scholars’ doubts about this trait is followed by his quoting at length the rather improbable tale of Sylvanus Cadwallader, written in 1896, in which the journalist saved a drink-crazed Grant and the Union by tossing whiskey into the river, twice imprisoning the general, and keeping him from riding alone through rebel-held territory. Perhaps this was, as Hendrickson claims, “one of the most spectacular sprees in American military history” (14). It seems more likely it was a journalist’s rather self-serving tall tale.

While Hendrickson is far from highly partisan in his judgements, the slant of most of his evaluation tends to be southward, doubtless partly because of the deficiencies in numbers and material with which the Confederacy fought. There is throughout the book neglect of the social context of military operations, which is especially noticeable in the omission of the contributions of African Americans to the Northern cause and to their own freedom and respected manhood. It is surely odd to have more space devoted to the Confederacy’s last-minute flirtation with the idea of giving freedom to slaves who would join their army than to the Union’s adoption of this important policy.

Hendrickson’s account, for all of its evocation of human cost and suffering, is almost as distant from the moving and detailed accounts of Bruce Carton or Shelby Foote as it is from the interpretive arguments of academic scholars. Despite crisp writing and many good quotations, the book’s road is the one so often taken that the trip proves neither intellectually nor emotionally engaging.

David Grimsted University of Maryland, College Park

COPYRIGHT 2000 Phi Alpha Theta, History Honor Society, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group