The long road ends at Durham
For more than nine months, some 50,000 troops in the Army of Northern Virginia were dug in at Petersburg, in a situation that none other than Robert E. Lee had early on described, in writing, as “untenable.”
During the long face-off, their contributions to the war effort were that they repulsed repeated Union attacks. The battle of The Crater, a breach blasted in the rebels’ line, cost both sides dearly and went into history as an especially dark day for the Federals; yet it did nothing to change the two armies’ relative positions. And at one point cavalry commander Wade Hampton’s horsemen slipped into enemy territory and made off with almost 2,500 head of U.S. cattle.
None of that was insignificant. On both sides, the purchase price of everything was blood. But from the perspective of the Confederacy’s top general, these were forlorn excuses for success.
That’s not to say that Lee had no plan. Lee always had a plan. Toward the end, his plan was to break out and get to Joe Johnston, who had almost twice as many men under him as Lee, then devise a new strategy for winning the war or, perhaps, putting Jeff Davis in a better bargaining position. No rendezvous with Johnston, no second chance. No bargains. No nothing.
That’s why the question of whether the war ended in Virginia or in North Carolina is no mere academic trivia game. It isn’t about who quit the fight last. Other Confederate commanders take whatever honors attach to having been the last to say farewell to their troops and then catch a train for home or prison. But only one Southern commander had upwards of 90,000 men at his disposal and at least a little room left in which to maneuver.
What Johnston might have accomplished had he chosen to fight on can make for lively panel discussions. But the reality is that he chose to disobey his president-on-the-run by surrendering not only the troops at hand but his entire department.
If you’re more comfortable with April 9 and Appomattox, that won’t stop the world’s spinning. By then it was hard to imagine how the Confederacy might turn the tide. But the last door to any course resembling warfare slammed shut on April 26, 1865, at Bennett Place in North Carolina.
Thousands with ancestors who fought on one side or the other — inventors, educators, musicians — might never have been born had the long struggle dragged on another month, another year. The face of our great nation might be radically different today. So, you see, it does matter. Greatly.