In April 1865, the confederate capital of Richmond fell after Robert E. Lee led the Army of Northern Virginia first south to Petersburg, and then westward to the Appomattox area in southwestern Virginia. His first goal was to reach supply trains, waiting with food and munitions. The Army of the Potomac, under Ulysses S. Grant, was moving even faster to capture the trains and cut off Lee’s escape.
If he couldn’t reach the trains, Lee hoped to join up with the army of General William Johnston, now in North Carolina and pursued by Union forces under William Tecumseh Sherman. A series of battles and skirmishes occurred. In No One Wants to Be the Last to Die: The Battles of Appomattox, April 8-9, 1865, historian Chris Calkins details those final days of Lee’s army, often hour by hour.
There’s likely no one more knowledgeable to tell the story. Calkins is considered the foremost authority on Appomattox and the Appomattox campaigns. Part of his career was spent with the National Park Service at Appomattox Court House. And what a story he tells.
It’s a top-down, bottoms-up account. Calkins draws from official reports, newspaper accounts, military records, memoirs (by combatants and non-combatants alike), letters written to and from soldiers on both sides, claims for reimbursement filed by store owners, itineraries, mileage tables, weather reports, and more. It’s a considerable amount of information to put into context and make sense of, and Calkins does exactly that. And he does it with an engaging, easy-to-read and easy-to-follow narrative.
The battles didn’t all go the Union’s way, but soldiers on both sides were realizing that this might be the final climactic moment for the Army of Northern Virginia.
Calkins recently retired as site manager for the Sailor’s Creek Battlefield State Park. In addition to his work at Appomattox, he also worked for the National Park Service at the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park and Petersburg National Battlefield. He’s published more than a dozen publications, authored numerous articles, and has spoken at many Civil War and preservation groups. A native of Detroit, he graduated from Longwood University.
Perhaps the most poignant account in No One Wants to Be the Last to Die is what happened when the men of Lee’s army hear that their general is surrendering. Some became angry and rode off to find Johnston’s army on their own or to head to the mountains to regroup. Some decided to simply leave for home. Some soldiers and officers wept privately; others wept openly.
It’s a fine, richly detailed story.
Top photograph: The McLean House in Appomattox, Virginia, where Rober E. Lee signed the terms of surrender offered by Ulysses S. Grant.