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Review In Brief: Lee’s Last Retreat: The Flight to Appomattox

Books on the Appomattox Campaign

Lee’s Last Retreat: The Flight to Appomattox
by William Marvel
328 pp., 6 maps

Within the past two weeks, I’ve reviewed Chris Calkins’ self-published book/pamphlet titled Thirty-Six Hours Before Appomattox and the H.E. Howard published book The Battles of Appomattox Station and Appomattox Court House, April 8-9, 1865, 2nd Edition. In these volumes, Calkins covered the various actions and battles of the last four days of the Appomattox Campaign. His focus is on tactics. William Marvel’s book Lee’s Last Retreat: The Flight to Appomattox switches gears to focus on the Campaign at the strategic level. The author emphasizes that many of the stories handed down through generations do not hold up under careful scrutiny. In writing this book, Marvel was careful only to use primary sources of the participants which were written during or shortly after the campaign. He asserts that many men on both sides attempted to further whatever agendas they had when writing about the campaign in later years. Marvel’s narrative flows well and was an interesting read. I think this book, with its focus on strategy, and Calkins’ books, with their corresponding focus on tactics, go together nicely. I’d recommend reading Marvel’s book first and then moving on to the “battle books” by Calkins. The maps left something to be desired. The major roads, towns, and rivers and streams were represented, but there was no scale on the maps and no troop locations or movements.

Marvel also contends that Robert E. Lee had many more men to start the campaign than is commonly believed. In an interesting and illuminating appendix, Marvel debunks the theory that Lee’s men all stuck manfully to the colors in that first week of April 1865. He believes that many men simply melted away just after Petersburg fell and on the march west. The author commends Chris Calkins for beginning the work on revising the number of men present throughout the campaign, but he believed that more could be done on the subject because Calkins had used Confederate “effectives” versus Present or Present For Duty.

I enjoyed Marvel’s book. It attempts to tell the true story of Appomattox by sifting through legends and myths to get to the facts. I think Marvel has succeeded admirably in this task. Anyone interested in the Appomattox Campaign and the war in the east will want to own this book.

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