Friday, July 24, 2009

Six Days: Marching To Appomattox: The Footrace That Ended the Civil War by Ken Stark

If the Civil War began with the bang of exploding artillery shells over Fort Sumter, it ended quietly, with the scratch of two pens and the silence of two generals' handshakes. But the six days preceding this moment were a raucous death-stalking race against time and fate to Appomattox Court House. There General Lee hoped to find food and munitions for his gaunt and starving Army of Northern Virginia, which still numbered nearly 50,000. With provisions, he hoped somehow to escape capture and possible annihilation by the Union Army, 80,000 strong, and unite with General Joe Johnston's forces to the south to continue the war.

But the Union forces under Grant could taste victory, believing that if they could overtake Lee, they would have won the war's last battle. Grimly, Lee's starving men marched on to the west, inspired by the dignity and courage of their general. Secretly, however, many top officers doubted that they could carry out Lee's strategy. General Henry Wise faced up to this reality in his meeting with Lee:

This Army is hopelessly whipped... the blood of every man who is killed from this time forth is on your head, General Lee.

Author-illustrator Ken Stark traces the continuing free fall of the Confederacy's will to continue fighting. As the Union forces drew closer by the hour, even sending swift cavalry along the route of the Confederate foot soldiers to pillage their meagre waiting stores ahead of the marchers, men and horses dropped by the wayside and the Confederates abandoned arms for which they had no ammunition and ditched wagons and even cannons which they could not use. Still, Lee rejected Grant's personal pleas for surrender, hoping to reach the cache of food and ammunition waiting for his faltering army at Appomattox.

But when the Union raiders seized these supplies and the Army of Northern Virginia was surrounded by Grant's forces, Lee had to face the grim truth that standing to fight would not advance his cause, but lead to an inevitable and meaningless slaughter of his loyal forces. When Grant sent word by personal courier that his terms would require only that each rebel soldier lay down his arms and vow to fight no more, Lee wearily dressed himself in his best uniform, sash, and sword, and rode Traveller into the dooryard of the McLean family farm to make peace with the United States.

In Marching to Appomattox: The Footrace That Ended the Civil War (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2009) Ken Stark narrates the last days of the war and the peace which changed the nation forever in an account which puts the young reader in the middle of the action. To do so the author shows great attention to detail, even to the rag doll of little Lula McLean, hurriedly left behind on the parlor sofa, which became an ironic "silent witness" to the surrender which ended a war which cost 600,000 deaths. His illustrations artfully portray the drama of those six days when the nation's future hung in the balance. An author's note, summarizing the final years of Generals Lee and Grant and the assassination of President Lincoln, and a useful bibliography and index make up the backmatter of this excellent and accessible book on the last days of the nation's war within.



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