Saturday, May 8, 2010

From the Shelves of the Paco Library

Burke Davis, one of our most distinguished historians of the American Civil War, captures the chaotic, desperate atmosphere of the final weeks of the Confederacy in The Long Surrender.

The time is late March, 1865; the place, Richmond, Virginia. The American Civil War was approaching its fourth anniversary.
It seemed unlikely that the Confederate capital would survive to celebrate the anniversary. A perceptive diarist saw symptoms of approaching crisis in the disintegration of the army defending the capital:

“Desertions from the army were assuming fearful proportions that no legislative or executive rigor could diminish. Every day saw brigades double-quicking back and forth through the suburbs…inadequate to man the vast extent of the lines.”
In addition to the melting away of the army, there were plenty of other signs of the impending collapse.
Inflation ravaged the city and threatened the unfortunate with starvation. Flour sold for $1,500 per barrel, live hens for $50 each, butter for $20 per pound and beef for $15…But there were those who suffered more keenly. Young A.R. Tomlinson, a wounded soldier serving as a hospital guard, though so weak that he could barely stand watch, could not bring himself to eat as his companions did: “The surgeons and matrons ate rats and said they were as good as squirrels, but having seen the rats running over the bodies of dead soldiers, I had no relish for them.”
The author provides comprehensive descriptions of Lee’s last dash for freedom, and the moving surrender at Appomattox, as well as the controversial capture of Jefferson Davis (he was rumored to have disguised himself in his wife’s clothes, a story denied by the Union officers present at his capture, but nonetheless picked up as gospel truth by the Northern press, which began running cartoons of the ex-President of the Confederacy attired in hoop skirts). There is also a harrowing account of the escape of Confederate Treasurer Judah P. Benjamin (who made his way to England where he began a second career as a barrister), and a fine description of General Jo Shelby and his troops, who halted momentarily at the Rio Grande and conducted a brief, but somber ceremony, wrapping their battle flag around a large rock and sinking it in the river, before crossing into Mexico to seek service, variously, with the Emperor Maximilian or the Juaristas, or simply settling down to become farmers and ranchers (many, including Shelby, ultimately returned to the United States).

The Long Surrender draws heavily on diaries, letters and official dispatches from the men and women who lived through the battlefront destruction and civilian privation of this period, thus affording an immediacy that brings the history of the time to life. No library of Civil War history should be without it.


bruce said...

Just watched Gods and Generals for the first time. Personally I prefer this formal and tactical type of presentation to the Speilberg style, and would rather watch G&G than Pacific.

Paco said...

I'm with you.