Witness to Appomattox

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House in April of 1865 is perhaps second only to the Battle of Gettysburg as the most memorable event of the Civil War. Scholarly and popular accounts of the final months of the conflict abound, yet WITNESS TO APPOMATTOX presents the events of this period in the words of the soldiers and civilians who experienced them.

By interspersing the chronological narrative with excerpts from diaries and memoirs, Richard Wheeler conveys to the reader the human dimension of the war. An effective example of this technique appears in the chapter on Lee’s westward retreat. The troops of a Confederate battalion resting at a farmhouse overhear a young woman’s demand that her husband be asked to desert the army and protect her from the approaching Union soldiers. Disturbed by her outburst, the battalion commander tries to rally his men by challenging the woman’s arguments, but he meets with little success. Finally, he inquires about her husband’s war record and learns that the husband had been granted a special furlough by General Lee in recognition of his bravery and long service. The woman’s pride in her husband’s war record convinces her to change her mind, and the witnessing troops cheer her decision.

By going beyond history through the eyes of presidents and generals to include the everyday experiences of foot soldiers and farm wives, WITNESS TO APPOMATTOX combines the narrative flow of traditional history and the attention to commonplace details of social history.