Surrender at Appomattox: The (Beginning of the) End

As Robert E. Lee was riding away from the home of Wilmer McLean after meeting with Ulysses S. Grant on the afternoon of Sunday, April 9th, 1865, one thing was clear to most of those involved: The major fighting in Virginia was finally coming to an end. With Lee surrendering to Grant, the Army of Northern Virginia, which at that time numbered under 30,000 men, would soon evaporate, and enter into legend.

The meeting between Lee and Grant at Appomattox.

The meeting between Lee and Grant at Appomattox.

It had been an ending long expected to happen, but at times it seemed a near improbability. At its height, the Army of Northern Virginia numbered over 70,000 men, and seemed poised to deal a major blow to the Union forces in the war. But their major defeat at Gettysburg, followed by Grant’s continual pressure on the army between May of 1864 and April of 1865, slowly brought this once mighty army to it’s knees. And with his army virtually surrounded at Appomattox Court House on April 9th, Lee knew that the only options available to him were to disperse the army, and carry on guerrilla warfare, or surrender. Fighting his instinct to carry on the war, Lee chose to instead meet with Grant, and surrender his forces. Although his men were willing to carry on with the fighting, Lee knew that to do so would be fruitless slaughter for his men.

But as Lee rode away from the meeting, another thing was very clear: the war was not yet over. Although the main Confederate army had been surrendered, there were still roughly 100,000 Confederate troops still in the field. Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston still commanded a small but formidable force of troops in North Carolina, while in the distant west, Confederate forces were still wreaking havoc on Union troops. And Confederate President Jefferson Davis, along with members of his cabinet, were on the run from Federal forces following the fall or Richmond on April 2nd.

In fact, the final battle of the war would take place over a month after the surrender at Appomattox. On May 12-13, 1865, Union forces under Theodore H. Barrett attacked a Confederate force at the Battle of Palmito Ranch in Texas, near the Mexican border. A small battle where forces on both sides numbered less than 500 men, the skirmish ended in a Confederate victory. So, in one of the great ironies of the war, the Confederate army won the final battle in a war that they would ultimately lose.

So, while Appomattox was not the true end of the American Civil War, it is safe to say that it was the beginning of the end. With their most formidable army now gone, Confederate officers still in the field saw the folly of continuing conflict. In the weeks and months to follow, other armies would be surrendered. Before summer set in, the war was all but over, and reconstruction set to begin.

MOVIE REVIEW: “Field of Lost Shoes”

Field of Lost Shoes (Bosch, Tredegar Filmworks, Arc Entertainment, Brookwell McNamara Entertainment, 2014)

Starring: David Arquette, Keith David, Lauren Holly, Jason Isaacs, and Tom Skerritt

Running Time: 96 Minutes

Film Rating: PG-13 for War Violence and Some Thematic Elements

poster-30inx40in-h-frontIn the heart of the Shenandoah Valley lies a little town called New Market. It is a peaceful, quiet little village. But on May 15th, 1864, the peaceful hills would be witness to the horrors of war, as Confederate and Union forces clashed. The battle has never had the fame of Gettysburg, Antietam, or Shiloh. But for the men who fought this horrific battle, the impact would be no less horrific. Perhaps no more so than for the 274 Cadets from the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia, who marched 80 miles to serve as relief troops for General John C. Breckenridge’s Confederates, only to be ordered to take position in the center of their lines. For the only time in American History, an entire student body would come under enemy fire, and prove their mettle in a dramatic charge that turned the tide of battle. The story of those cadets from VMI, and the impact it had on the battle, is the subject of the film Field of Lost Shoes.

Directed by Sean McNamara (Soul Surfer), and featuring a mixed cast of fresh faces and well-knowns, Field of Lost Shoes won the Best Dramatic Feature Award at the GI Film Festival. Sadly, the film came in under the radar, when it received mixed reviews, and an all too brief theatrical release in September of 2014, following a release on DVD and Video on Demand earlier this month. However, after viewing the film, I cannot help but feel that this movie deserved a better release strategy. For this is, in my humble opinion, the finest film yet made on the events of the American Civil War. From the very beginning of the film, to its closing moments, the movie serves as a moving tribute to the Virginia Military Institute, and the cadets who served at the Battle of New Market.

While the film does cover some of the strategic, political and social aspects of the war, the film keeps most of its focus, and rightfully so, on seven members of the Corps of Cadets from the Virginia Military Institute; seven young boys and men who would go on to fight in a battle that would change their lives. Six of these men are based on actual cadets who fought at the battle. It is through these boys that we get to see the affects of war on the men who fought it, and how these young lads, men who had never before been in battle, showed true bravery in the face of an enemy. Making their story the main story, showing the hopes, dreams and beliefs of every single one, gives the story its soul, and creates a very powerful, dramatic, and tragic film.

From an historical standpoint, the film is definitely one of the more historically accurate films made on the war. Like the film Glory, the actual story of the VMI Cadets at New Market is dramatic in itself, and needs little embellishment. The attention to detail in terms of drill, uniforms and equipment is truly remarkable. The Battle of New Market is dramatically recreated, showing the horrors and tragedy of armed conflict without becoming too graphic, making it a film that children over the age of 10 could be shown.

Casting wise, the film does a great job. All of the young actors who portray the Cadets focused on in the film doe a great job in their roles, making us understand who they were, what they believed in. The believability of the actors in their roles makes us care for them, so when the battle comes, and they come under fire, we actually worry about their fate. Of the supporting roles, all are good. But the standout of the cast is Jason Isaacs (The Patriot, the Harry Potter series) as Confederate General John C. Breckenridge. His portrayal of the former Vice President of the United States is truly wonderful. Isaacs has done his homework, and his performance is truly the highlight of this film.

The script for the film, written by David Kennedy, Thomas Farrell and Ron Bass, does a terrific job of presenting this wonderful story in a 96-minute film. Surprisingly, despite covering the story of the Cadets, as well as the overall story of the battle itself from the points of view of Breckenridge, Union Captain Henry S. DuPont (A surprisingly convincing David Arquette), and others who play a part in the making of this battle, is told in a way that anyone who sees it will not need to know the history of the war to understand what is going on. The rest of the crew, and the amazing cast, do a great job of conveying the story.

In closing, Field of Lost Shoes is the finest film ever made on the events of the American Civil War, and the young boys from the Virginia Military Institute who fought at the Battle of New Market on May 15th, 1864. It connects us on a personal level with the characters, making the events more relatable, and more tragic. It presents the story in a way where all those who view it will understand the political, social and military aspects of the story without it becoming confusing, or impersonal. Anyone interested in American history, or in exciting, dramatic stories, will find much to love in Field of Lost Shoes.

Overall Grade: 10/10, or A+

THE GETTYSBURG DIARY: The Glorious Fourth (Saturday, July 4th, 1863).

"The Glorious Fourth," Mort Kuntsler's painting of the victory at Vicksburg.

“The Glorious Fourth,” Mort Kuntsler’s painting of the victory at Vicksburg.

July of 1776 proved to be a pivotal day in the history of the American colonies. In this month, the thirteen separate “countries” finally banded together as one country: the United States of America. On July 2nd, the 2nd Continental Congress, representing all thirteen colonies, unanimously declared independence from Great Britain. John Adams, delegate from Massachusetts, wrote to his wife of the day, stating that July 2nd would “be the most memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the day of deliverance,” to be observed and celebrated “from this time forward forevermore.” He would be right about the celebrations, but proved to be wrong about the date. Two days later, on July 4th, Congress officially adopted Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, and was officially made public for the first time. With this action, July 4th would officially be considered Independence Day, as the day that the colonists officially threw off the chains of Great Britain, and created what officially became the United States of America.

87 years later, the very existence of the country those men created was at stake. For the argument over slavery and states’ rights had culminated in the costliest war in American history. At its heart lay not only the existence of the United States as a whole, but the idea of freedom as well. In September of 1862, following the Battle of Antietam, Union President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring freedom to all of those slaves in the states still in rebellion. But Lincoln knew that, for it to truly work, the Union would have to win the war. And by the end of June, 1863, it looked as though the war was turning against the Union yet again. Not only were troops in the west bogged down in an endless siege around Vicksburg, Mississippi, but Confederate troops were again moving north, this time into Pennsylvania. IT seemed that, at this moment, the fate of the nation truly hang in the balance. However, on July 4th, 1863, 87 years to the day of the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence, the tide of war changed in favor of the United States.

The first of these changes, and the one which has been the subject of this series of articles, was the culmination of the Battle of Gettysburg. After three days of brutal fighting (July 1st-3rd), Confederate forces under General Robert E. Lee struggled hard against Union troops under Major General George Gordon Meade. Despite a great amount of courage and heroism, the Confederates were unsuccessful at driving Meade’s troops from the field. After a disastrous attack on July 3rd, an assault that would forever be known as “Pickett’s Charge,” Lee’s troops were beaten. Although official casualties have never been fully confirmed, Confederate losses have been estimated at nearly 28,000 of the 75,000 men in the Army of Northern Virginia, over a third of Lee’s forces. Union casualties numbered nearly 23,000. 51,000 men killed, wounded and captured/missing in three days of fighting. On July 4th, Lee finally acknowledged defeat, and began his retreat back to Virginia. Meade and his troops failed to take the initiative and pursue Lee. By the time they finally moved, Confederates were across the Potomac, and back in Virginia. Lee would never again attempt such an audacious invasion again, and was forced to fight a defensive war that would eventually lead to their ultimate defeat two years later.

On the same day that Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia began the retreat from Gettysburg, Union troops in the western theater achieved an equally important victory. For several weeks, the forces of Major General Ulysses S. Grant had laid siege to the Confederate city of Vicksburg, a vital city along the Mississippi River. At last, with food supplies spent, and the troops no longer able to hold out against the continual assault, the Confederates finally surrendered on July 4th. With Vicksburg gone, control of the Mississippi lay almost entirely in the hands of the Union armies. The Confederacy was officially split in half, and Grant’s start reached its highest peak in the west. With further success at Chattanooga in November, Lincoln knew that Grant was the man who could win the war for him. In March of 1864, Grant was called to Washington, where he was promoted to Lieutenant General, and placed in command of all Union forces in the field. And now, he would face Lee on the fields of Virginia, and one of the greatest contests in military history would soon begin.

With the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the Confederate momentum was officially rocked to its core. With Lee’s great army decimated at Gettysburg, and the vital city of Vicksburg in Union hands, the tide of war shifted to the side of the United States. In less than two years, the war would successfully be won, and the United States restored. It is for this reason that July 4th, 1863, has the right to be called “the Glorious Fourth.”

In the next edition of THE GETTYSBURG DIARY, we will look at Lincoln’s famous address at the dedication of the National Cemetery in Gettysburg, and how his words showed the transformation of the man revered by many as “the Great Emancipator.” Due for release on Tuesday, November 19th, 2013.

THE GETTYSBURG DIARY: Culp’s Hill – Gettysburg’s Often-overlooked Front (Friday, July 3rd, 1863)

One the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee planned for a massive assault against the Union center. This attack would become legendary, and forever be remembered as “Pickett’s Charge.” In this assault, over 12,000 Confederates under General James Longstreet would move on the Union troops on Cemetery Ridge. The attack was easily repulsed, with over half of the troops who attacked killed, wounded or captured. It was a terrible gamble that several of the officers, including Longstreet himself, felt was not worth the risk. And those men were proven right at a terrible cost.

View of Culp's Hill, where the Union left flank was situated.

View of Culp’s Hill, where the Union left flank was situated.

However, on the morning of Friday, July 3rd, while Lee planned the massive assault on the Federal center, another Confederate assault took place on the Union left, on a ridge known as Culp’s Hill. This hill was the part of the high ground that Lee had hoped to secure in the latter part of July 1st, and for which General Richard Ewell became a scapegoat for the Confederate loss by not continuing the successful momentum of that day and taking that heights beyond the town. On the afternoon of July 2nd, Ewell ordered his men to attempt to take the ridge, but the attack was unsuccessful. The following morning, and against Lee’s orders, the attack was resumed on the hill.

Instead of writing a lengthy summary of the battle here, I have decided to link to an article from the website called North against South, which has a great article on the fighting at Culp’s Hill on July 3rd. That article can be read here.

The failure to take Culp’s Hill on the morning of July 3rd, added to the additional failures of “Pickett’s Charge,” as well as the cavalry attack to the rear of the Union lines by Jeb Stuart, helped make Gettysburg a complete failure for the Confederates. Had General Ewell pushed on after the successes of July 1st and taken Culp’s Hill then, the outcome of the battle may have been different. But alas, Confederate fortunes at Gettysburg, which had been high following the first day’s actions, petered out, and turned in favor of the North. And with the end of the day on July 3rd, Lee and his men knew that the battle had ended disastrously for them.

In the next edition of THE GETTYSBURG DIARY, we look at July 4th, 1863, and how the combined Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg proved to be another major turning point in the war.

THE GETTYSBURG DIARY: James Jackson Purman – Medal of Honor Recipient (Thursday, July 2nd, 1863)

The Medal of Honor is the highest military award given to the soldiers of the United States Army. It is awarded for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty.” At the Battle of Gettysburg, only 63 of the 80,000 Union soldiers who fought there received the honor. One of those men to receive America’s highest award was James Jackson Purman. His gallantry may not have been as high as those of other men who won the award, but for the men he led, his actions were no less important.

James Jackson Purman, after the war.

James Jackson Purman, after the war.

James Jackson Purman was born in Pennsylvania in 1841. At the time of Gettysburg, he was serving as a Lieutenant in Company A of the 140th Pennsylvania. On July 2nd, 1863, his company was involved in the fighting in the Wheatfield on the Union left flank. At the risk of his own life, he, along with Captain James Pipes, voluntarily moved a wounded comrade to safety, before falling himself with a wound to the leg. He lay on the ground there until the next day, when he was finally removed from the field. His leg was amputated, but while being treated, he fell in love with one of the nurses, Mary Witherow, whom he later married. On October 30th, 1896, over thirty-three years after the fight at Gettysburg, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery under fire in moving his comrade to safety (Captain Pipes was also awarded the same honor).

Following Gettysburg, he worked as a schoolteacher before starting work with the U.S. Pension office in 1881. James Jackson Purman died in Washington, D.C. on May 11, 1915, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery along with his wife. But his legacy, and the legacy of those men who fought at Gettysburg, continues to inspire the people of America to this day. Recently, acclaimed actor Stephen Lang brought Purman to life in a one-man performance, where he portrayed Purman as if he was giving a speech at the 50th Anniversary Commemorations of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1913. That performance, as well as a Q&A with the actor, can be found here.

In the next edition of THE GETTYSBURG DIARY, a look at the often-overlooked attack on Culp’s Hill on the third day of the battle.


THE GETTYSBURG DIARY: John Buford, Unsung Hero of Gettysburg (Wednesday, July 1st, 1863)

Some will say that the largest battle of the American Civil War was destined to be fought at Gettysburg in July of 1863. Because many roads led to the small Pennsylvania town, it was an ideal place for all the scattered divisions of the Confederate and Union army to converge. And since both armies were moving along those same roads toward Gettysburg, a conflict there did appear inevitable. However, it can also be said that the selection of the place that would become the bloodiest battleground of the war was done by a relatively unknown cavalry commander: Brigadier General John Buford.

Brigadier General John Buford

Brigadier General John Buford

John Buford came from a somewhat distinguished military background. His grandfather had served with Robert E. Lee’s father, “Lighthorse Harry” Lee, during the American Revolution. Graduating 16th in his class from West Point in 1848, Buford primarily fought against the Native Americans out west, until the outbreak of civil war. Although tempted to join the Confederacy (As a native Kentuckian, and from a slave-owning family), he chose to remain loyal to the United States and the Union Army. During the early years of the conflict, he served as assistant inspector general to the army, before being promoted to Brigadier General and placed in command of cavalry brigade of the II Corps of the Army of Virginia, under Major General John Pope. Under his command, the cavalry fought well at Second Manassas in August of 1862. Buford received a wound to the knee while personally leading a charge in the battle. The wound was not serious, and he returned to active duty, serving as chief of cavalry in the Army of the Potomac in the latter part of 1862, and saw action at Antietam and Fredericksburg.

When Joseph Hooker took command of the Army of the Potomac in 1863, Buford was made commander of Reserve Cavalry in the 1st Division of the Cavalry Corps. In June, he saw action at the Battle of Brandy Station, considered the opening battle of the Gettysburg Campaign. But it would be at Gettysburg that he and his cavalry would play a crucial role in the campaign. Riding into town on June 30th, Buford learned from scouts that the entire Confederate army was concentrating in their direction, and that he would soon face a large force. Buford already saw the value of the ground around Gettysburg, and vowed to hold his men against an assault until the I Corps under Major General John Reynolds arrived.

On the morning of Wednesday, July 1st, Confederate troops under General Harry Heth of A.P. Hill’s Corps moved toward Gettysburg hoping to acquire some shoes for the men, many of them barefoot. He expected that there would be no resistance, except maybe for some local militia. Instead, coming down the Chambersburg Pike, his men ran into Buford’s two cavalry brigades under Colonels Gamble and Devin. The first assault was done with just one brigade, and was quickly repulsed. Heth then decided to deploy his entire division to attack them. Over the next couple of hours, the fighting was intense, and Buford’s men came close to breaking. However, before his men broke, Reynolds’ I Corps arrived on the field. As the infantry moved into position to face the Confederates, Buford and his men were able to fall back, knowing that they had held the field. For the rest of the Battle, Buford’s men would be responsible for guarding the supply wagons for the Army.

Following the battle, Buford continued to serve with great distinction. However, by December of 1863, it was apparent that the General was falling gravely ill, possibly from typhoid fever. He was at the Washington home of his good friend, General George Stoneman, when he died at 2 P.M. on December 16th. That same day, Abraham Lincoln promoted Buford to Major General for his meritorious service at the Battle of Gettysburg.

John Buford’s legacy is a great one. He may not have achieved the fame of men like Lee, Meade, Longstreet or Hancock, but his contribution to the war was just as vital. And if he is remembered for nothing else, we should remember this man as the one who chose to make a stand against the Confederates at Gettysburg. It was his decision to defend the ground there, and this decision led to Gettysburg being the site of the largest and costliest battle of the American Civil War. This battle served as a major turning point in the war, leading to ultimate Union victory not only in the battle, but in the conflict itself. For this reason alone, John Buford should be remembered as one of the greatest Union officers of the American Civil War.

In the next edition of THE GETTYSBURG DIARY, we look at the actions of one of the officers serving in the Wheatfield, and how his bravery won him the Medal of Honor.

FILM REVIEW: “Copperhead”

Copperhead (The Film Collective, Swordspoint Productions, 2013)

Starring: Billy Campbell, Angus MacFayden, Francois Arnaud, Josh Cruddas, and Peter Fonda

Running Time: 118 Minutes

Film Rating: PG-13 for an Unsettling Sequence


Filmmaker Ronald F. Maxwell is considered by some to be the foremost cinematic interpreter of the American Civil War. With his last two films, Gettysburg and Gods and Generals, Maxwell has given us a glimpse at the heroism and sacrifice of men and women on the battlefields. With these films, he has examined how good, ethical, and moral people, could choose to go to war for what they believed in. Now, with his latest foray into the era, he has chosen to examine the opposite spectrum: how good people could choose not to go to war, or show support for the conflict. The idea of speaking out against war, even when it is not popular to do so, lies at the heart of his latest endeavor: Copperhead.

Based on the novel by Harold Frederic, Copperhead is different from about every other American historical film set in the era of the Civil War. The film is set in a small community in upstate New York, far away from the horrors of war. Yet, the conflict being waged far south is being felt here as well. The central character of the story is Abner Beech (Billy Campbell, The Rocketeer, AMC’s “The Killing”), a farmer who is against the war Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans are waging. He, along with his adopted son Jimmy (Josh Cruddas) and an Irish immigrant, are labeled “copperheads” for their stance against the war. His views alienate him from the community, including Jee Hagadorn (Angus MacFayden, Braveheart), a righteous man who supports the war, and abolition, wholeheartedly, and not caring about the thousands of men who are fighting and dying, as long as they achieve victory. As Hagadorn and the community turn against Abner Beech, his son Jeff (Casey Brown) begins a romantic relationship with Hagadorn’s daughter, Esther (Lucy Boynton, Miss Potter), and ultimately decides to enlist in the army without the consent of his parents. The bitterness the townsfolk feel against Beech and the copperheads boils over into hatred, setting the stage for a tragic event.

Unlike his other Civil War films, which were epic in scope, and presented some of the major battles of the war, Copperhead is a film that deals with the impact of the war on a small community, and how differences in opinion can lead to violence and hatred. The film looks at the price of dissent in a time of war, when those who speak out against the it are considered traitors. The film delivers its story, and the message of why it is important to live together in peace despite political differences, in a piece that is very well-written and directed, and features a terrific cast. MacFayden nearly steals the show as Hagadorn, a man who is full of intense passion for the cause he believes in. Some will call his performance over-the-top, but he never overdoes it, and makes the character believable. The supporting cast does a terrific job of bringing this 19th-Century community to life.

But the film truly belongs to its lead actor, Billy Campbell. Fresh off portraying Abraham Lincoln in NatGeo’s docudrama Killing Lincoln, Copperhead features Mr. Campbell in a role different from the Great Emancipator. He infuses Abner Beech with a strong sense of right and wrong; a man who stands for what he believes in, even when others say he is wrong. Even if you do not agree with his views, you cannot help but understand why he has come to the conclusion. Beech is a man that is against war, not because it’s the cool thing, but because he believes that war is wrong, and brings nothing but death and destruction in its wake. He does appear stubborn at times, but also has a compassionate side that draws you close to him as a character. I sincerely hope that Mr. Campbell gets some recognition for his amazing performance in this film.

Bill Kauffman’s screenplay is constructed very well. Now, keep in mind, because Copperhead is not a war movie, it is a slower-paced film. But that is actually a great thing in this case. The slower pace gives us a chance to get to know the characters of the film, and understand their views, their hopes, and their beliefs. Any weaknesses in the script are made up for by the brilliant performances from an amazing cast.

One of the things that I always enjoy about Ron Maxwell’s films are the beautiful cinematography, and the music. And in both cases, the film delivers. Maxwell and his cinematographer, Kees Van Oostrum, do a fantastic job of capturing the beautiful images shot at King’s Landing in Ontario, Canada. The scenery is picturesque, and each shot in the film is beautifully-lit and photographed. The original score by Laurent Eyquem is very beautiful, and haunting. And at times, his music reminds you of the classic westerns, as villagers mill about the town in excitement. Both Mr. Oostrum and Mr. Eyquem should also be recognized for their work come awards season.

Overall, Copperhead is a powerful film that looks at a little-known, but just as important, chapter from the history of the American Civil War, and how politics can truly be damaging to communities in a time of conflict. If you enjoyed the previous films by Ronald F. Maxwell, or enjoy serious, thought provoking character drama and historical films, then I highly recommend you see Copperhead, which serves as powerful reminder of the price of dissent, and the need for civility in the realm of politics.

Grade: 9/10, or A-