Judgment at Appomattox: A Novel

Judgment at Appomattox: A Novel

by Ralph Peters


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Judgment at Appomattox: A Novel by Ralph Peters

The fifth historical novel of New York Times bestselling author Ralph Peters's breathtaking, Boyd Award-winning Civil War series

Written with the literary flair and historical accuracy readers expect from Ralph Peters, Judgment at Appomattox takes readers through the Civil War’s last grim interludes of combat as flags fall and hearts break.

A great war nears its end. Robert E. Lee makes a desperate, dramatic gamble that fails. Richmond falls. Each day brings new combat and more casualties, as Lee’s exhausted, hungry troops race to preserve the Confederacy. But Grant does not intend to let Lee escape. . . . In one of the most thrilling episodes in American history, heroes North and South battle each other across southern Virginia as the armies converge on a sleepy country court house.

Capping the author’s acclaimed five-novel cycle on the war in the East, this “dramatized history” pays homage to all the soldiers who fought, from an Irish-immigrant private wearing gray, to the “boy generals” who mastered modern war. This is a grand climax to a great, prize-winning series that honors—and reveals—America’s past.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780765381729
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Publication date: 08/21/2018
Series: The Battle Hymn Cycle , #5
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 175,260
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

RALPH PETERS isan award-winning, bestselling novelist; a retired U.S. Army officer and formerenlisted man; the author of numerous works on strategy; and a popular mediacommentator. In uniform and as a researcher and journalist, he has coverednumerous conflicts and trouble spots, from Africa to the Caucasus, from Iraq toPakistan.
Renowned for accuracy and authenticity, his Civil War writing, under his ownname and as Owen Parry, has won numerous prizes, including the American LibraryAssociation’s Boyd Award (three times), the Hammett Prize, the Herodotus Award,the Grady McWhiney Award, and the Meade Society’s Order of Merit. The recipientof the 2015 Andrew J. Goodpaster prize as an outstanding Americansoldier-scholar, in 2017 he was inducted into the U.S. Army's Officer CandidateSchool Hall of Fame.
His Civil War series, the Battle Hymn Cycle, spans five books: Cain at Gettysburg, Hellor Richmond, Valley of the Shadow, The Damned of Petersburg, and Judgmentat Appomattox.

Read an Excerpt


Three fifty a.m., March 25, 1865 Petersburg, Virginia

Gordon stood at the earthen wall, fingers attacked by the cold. Winter still fought rearguard actions before dawn broke. Two days back, a tempest of warm dust had scourged the lines. Now the ill-clad soldiers at his back, fifteen thousand present and more on the way — almost half of Lee's army — shivered as they waited for his signal.

A private knelt beside him, calm in the deathdark. The soldiers who still clung to the Army of Northern Virginia, those who had not deserted to the Yankees or slipped off homeward, breathed the fatalism of Homer's heroes, mythical figures cherished by Gordon and now made real by war. Two hundred yards stretched eastward to the night-draped Yankee fort, ground that might have been the plains of Troy, the waiting multitude his bronze-clad Greeks. Fierce, these men would fight. And Major General John Brown Gordon would lead them.

To victory?

Despite the good-tempered confidence he displayed to other men, Gordon was glad of the darkness. Not only would it shield his advancing soldiers, it masked concerns he feared he could not hide. This was his plan, his offering, produced at an order from Lee that had been almost plaintive. And the old man had only blessed the scheme for want of better choices: Lee, whose nights were ravaged now, who summoned generals from their beds to talk out the graveyard hours, dreading what might come when he closed his eyes.

The old man expected Gordon to work a miracle, to split the Federal line in two, to roll it up, to slash beyond it, to ravage the Yankee base at City Point, to defy the gods ...

No longer Agamemnon, but doomed Priam: Poor Lee, grown cantankerous and haunted, complaining of poor lamp oil and bad candles, his fabled self-discipline cracking. By day, he remained a lion to the men, though, all they had left to believe in, the last worth of the Confederacy.

Gordon told himself — insisted — that there was a chance this attack would work, bedazzling Grant's hordes sufficiently long for Lee and the army's remnants to slip away, to join Joe Johnston in North Carolina and stretch out the war, combining to beat Sherman and then wheeling to confront Grant. Lee had spoken of Napoleon's strategy of the central position and of Frederick's ultimate victory — despite the fall of his capital — as Gordon listened, nodding but pierced by doubt. At times, Lee seemed unmoored from the army's reality. And all the while Jeff Davis carped and badgered him.

Gordon would not, could not, say no to Lee, that was the gist of it. Not now. Not when the end was near and those who appeared true would retain ascendance over their kind, even in disaster: A victorious people lauded their heroes, but defeated folks needed theirs.

The future of the South would fall to those few left untarnished and alive.

A cold gust combed Gordon's beard, which was as carefully groomed as ever. The men behind the rampart rustled, chilled but heeding their orders to keep silent. Aware down deep of how much lay at stake.

Surely word would reach him soon that the last obstacles had been cleared. Then it would all begin at a signal shot.

He had done his best, striving to plan this fight with the guile of Ulysses. He'd studied the Federal lines, selecting the earthen bastion the Yankees called Fort Stedman, along with its flanking batteries, as the attack's first objective. The fort stood where the lines veered close and the road at its back ran straight to the Yankee rear. But the key to ultimate success would be the seizure of a trio of forts half a mile behind the Federal line, masked positions spotted by spies and confirmed, if vaguely, by Union deserters. Take those rear forts and you had that road, and you split Grant's army in two.

They just might pull it off. It wasn't impossible.

Gordon felt he'd done all within human power to craft a victory. And if the attack succeeded, he, John Brown Gordon, stood to be the late hero of the war, an advantage not inconsiderable to a man of high ambition.

Managing defeat would take more skill.

So the plan had been honed in fine detail, key officers taught their tasks. Working in a hush just short of silence, his engineers were clearing lanes through their own side's defenses. When they finished, picked units, relying on bayonets, would rush the Yankee picket line, posing as deserters coming over. With the pickets taken, his best regiments would rush toward Fort Stedman, accompanied by more engineers with axes and grapples to breach the Yankee obstacles. All would be done without firing a shot, for as long as possible. Letting the great blue legions sleep until it was too late.

Following the units tasked to seize the fort and the batteries on its flanks, three columns of one hundred soldiers each, officers and men hand-chosen and led by scouts sent by Lee, would thrust deeper into the Yankee lines to seize those rearward forts and open the road. Gordon's staff had taken pains to learn the names of the Federal officers — Ninth Corps men — along this stretch of line. If challenged, his "Three Hundred" would pass themselves off in the dark as Union soldiers returning from picket duty.

Full divisions, led by his best subordinates, would widen the breach in the meantime, rolling up the Yankee line north to the river and southward as far as possible before dawn.

Once the secondary forts had been taken, more divisions would follow. By first light, a cavalry force would fly down the road to the Union headquarters and depot at City Point.

It could work. There really was a chance that it could work.

There had been doubters, of course, not least among Lee's self-appointed guardians, his staff triumvirate of empowered boys. Marshall said bluntly that the plan was too complicated. Taylor reserved judgment, but smirked like a wealthy schoolboy. Worn out by Lee, poor Venable only shrugged.

The thing was, it had to work. Or the army was doomed and damned. Along with the Confederacy. It would all end right here, perhaps in weeks, with Grant unleashed by fair weather and the last of them trapped against this played-out city. Not beaten manfully, just beaten down. And he might be held responsible.

A voice startled Gordon: a Yankee voice.

"What're you doing over there, Johnny? What's that ruckus?" After a hold-your-breath silence, he added, "You answer real quick, or I'll shoot."

Calm as a front-porch philosopher in August, the soldier beside Gordon rose and drawled, "Ain't no never mind, Yank. Go on back to sleep. Just the boys gathering up the last hard corn, what's left hereabouts. Rations been mighty short."

Cold doubt. Vast night. Waiting thousands.

The Federal called over, "All right, Johnny. Get your corn. Ain't going to shoot a man who's drawing his rations."

Gordon closed his eyes in thanks. But the men clearing off the last obstacles seemed as loud as a stampede.

He flexed raw hands, gloves left behind in his urgency. Why was it taking the engineers so long? The attack had been scheduled for four a.m. But he knew without resort to his watch that the hour had passed.

Unbidden, but ever welcome, Fanny swept into his thoughts. Hardly a mile behind him, still in Petersburg, in a lodging just fair and no better, ready to bring their fourth child into the world, a child of war.


Reaching up from the firing stoop, someone tugged his sleeve: his assistant adjutant general, who would lead a brigade this day, at age twenty-six.

Gordon bent down.

"Lanes are clear, General," Major Douglas whispered. "The men are ready."

Gordon straightened. For a moment, he glanced backward, into the complicit darkness, able to make out the nearest troops only because they wore strips of white cloth diagonally over their chests or tied round their upper arms for recognition when the fighting began.

Gordon turned to the soldier waiting beside him.

"Fire your shot."

The signal that would unleash it all.

The soldier delayed. Just long enough to do what he thought fair to a trusting enemy. He called to the Yankee picket, "Halloo there, Yank. Wake up, look out! We're coming."

He shouldered his rifle, aimed high, and pulled the trigger.

Four fifteen a.m. Hare's Hill

'Twas black as an Englishman's soul, this dark, and bleak as bloody Ireland. Danny Riordan rushed out with the rest, the sweet weight of his rifle in his mitts, a rifle left unloaded on bitter orders, but tipped with a bayonet kept sharp as sin. And every wild-elbowed lad, this wave of scrunty Irishmen swept from Louisiana into the war, every man of them hoped he wouldn't be skewered by a messmate, careful to keep the touch of the stinker next to him as feet felt forward in the dark, all the earth black as the cassock on a priest.

Whole lives passed in the seconds it took to stumble and fumble forward in rough silence. Not a man spoke to warn the Yankees, but small sudden noises there were and enough, the brief cries of blue-bellied pickets surprised and not asked to surrender, and the thunk of axes on winter-worn wood, no shots yet but a terrible tapping of hundreds — nay, thousands — of shoes worn thin as muslin, thin as famine dead.

One shot, two. The grump of a bucko tripped up. Riordan himself legged wild at a trick of the ground, recovering to leap the berm of a rifle pit, sensing his way uncannily in the dark: a very acrobat he should have been, gone off with the circus, larks! A landing foot found a belly, its man-meat tension recognized from battles and prisons and brawls.

Dead, that one was.

Shouts of struggle tore at the surprise.

"Jaysus," cried the man next to him, a comment on this world and the hereafter.

More shots.

"Help the colonel," cawed a Leinster crow.

Riordan turned from curiosity — a vice more trouble than drink — and lent a mitt to Colonel Waggaman, who commanded what the war had left of them: not much, that was, not many. A hurry of hands pulled the colonel out of the clabber, and hard he snarled, mud-covered in the cold. The high marsh grabbed at Riordan's shredded shoes.

Waggaman cursed, a priest run out of the whiskey.

But why were they running downhill? Their purpose was to attack a fort or the like, but even a fool would not put such on a downslope. Had they mistaken their way in this devil's dark?

In answer, an officer's voice — so different they sounded, you always knew the high lads — called out, "Half-left, halfleft!" and then came lightning, the bright spew of cannon, a greeting.

By the flash he saw murderous faces. Like his own.

By another gun's flare they spotted the rampart ahead. Sworn to silence still, they raced for the earthen wall, fearful of waking cannon to their front. But there were none, or none tended.

Up and over. A few men howled from habit, but soon were hushed.

Forms dark against darkness. The white bands his kind sported helped, but unreliably. Instinct led his rifle as he blocked a blundering man. One who wore no ribbon.

Too close for the bayonet. Riordan slammed the butt of his rifle into the man's belly, bending him to a gasp. The wood of an ill-managed weapon grazed Riordan's head and clattered down. He gave the doubled-up fellow a knee in the face, then brought the butt down onto the fellow's shoulders or parts similar, beating him to the ground.

When the Yankee had been laid out properly, Riordan smashed down the butt where the bugger's head should be. And he heard the lovely crack of splintering bone, not even a last cry from the fallen Federal.

"That's for Point Lookout, ye bastard," Riordan grunted.

Men packed around him, dangerous, querying each other in hushed brogues.

By the light of a last Yankee musket flash, he saw Daniel Keegan before him, bereft of his tin whistle now but with stripes sewn to his sleeve, promoted while Riordan rotted in Yankee prison pens, one and then another, taken not once in the war, but twice, to his mortification, and worth a fight it was when a man claimed that he'd been swept up three times, for third time there had been none, just sickness in a hospital hungry for corpses.

"Cripes, I almost killed ye," Riordan told him.

"Take a bolder one than you, it will."

The donnybrook was done for the moment, though. Officers hissed at them to re-form, still lacking the light to know the east from west.

Whispers ran down the regathered line that the colonel had welcomed a bayonet in his meat. As like from one of their own as one of the Yankees, and damn the confusion. Captain Bresnan took over, unbothered.

"Come on," he called, though still not battle shouting.

They filed out of the fort's rump, most of them in some order, though others went over the walls just for the pleasure. What were they now, this handful of men that remained of the proud Louisiana Brigade, melted into the Consolidated Brigade, with Company E, the old Mercer Guards, as Irish as want and pride, reduced to a mere handful of ragged wraiths?

Forward they went. Or someone believed it was forward.

A rumpus of shooting rose to the left: a tougher time for Grimes' lads in their glory, and let them keep it.

"We should've held back till the Yankees cooked up breakfast," a soldier griped, voice unfamiliar. "I've got the hunger on me, I do."

Riordan snorted. Hardly a man knew hunger as he did. The prison rations at Point Lookout, spare enough, had been a feast compared to the black years in Ireland. Many a man in the army claimed he was starving, but you never heard that word from Irish lips. Hunger, yes. Starvation, no. Starvation was a girl got thin and dried out as a woman of fourscore; starvation was a village abandoned to corpses — those not dead of chewing winter grass gone black with the cholera or flecked blue with typhus, starvation's eager companions.

Yankees. Surprised. Surrendering.

Some fought, though. A ragged volley crackled ahead.

"Load, load!" Bresnan's voice. But the boys were after more than that, for they'd gotten into a white maze of tents, pitched foolishly close to the line. And tents meant treasures.

"Time for that later," the captain pleaded.

When Riordan had been exchanged in January — a surprise to all concerned — he'd grown so thin the Yankees had counted him done. And more than a friend or two had suggested he come along into the byways as winter bit, for they'd had enough, those buckos, and were either going home or going over. It made sense, Riordan allowed. Why fight for an army that wouldn't trouble to feed you? But he'd come back stubborn from the camps, with a mind to kill at least a few Yankees before the fiddler stopped and the jig broke off.

Away they'd gone, all those who'd had enough, but Riordan stayed. A fool, they called him, an idiot. But the army pleased him better than digging ditches, addled with Louisiana's heat and Irishmen valued so low they put them to work next to chained-up niggers. Used to the heat, like animals, the darkies had mocked the misery of white men. Nor were the sons of Africa the worst of it: Shoveling along the levees, a man learned fast that Pádraic had driven the snakes out of Ireland only to pack them off to Louisiana. Seamus McGintey had reared up sudden with a monstrous gurgle, gripping a great serpent, its fangs so deep in his neck that it couldn't free itself, and Seamus danced out his minutes, swinging the snake back and forth, until he yanked it off and fell over and died.

A rifle was a finer tool than any pick or shovel.

They got themselves into a tangle of trenches, tripping and tumbling. Officers whipped men with the flat of their sabers to drive them on.

Back up on a spit of flatland, the line reformed, ragged but pressing on. Was there a newborn paleness on that ridge?

Horse hooves clobbered the earth, telling men of the nearness of a road. Yankee prisoners cried, "Don't shoot! Don't shoot me, Johnny!" as they clumsied past, headed rearward into their turn at captivity.

The last sons of Erin and Louisiana exchanged volleys with an enemy who could only be glimpsed by muzzle flash. They'd gotten themselves down another slope. Or perhaps the same one a second time. The earth was dry here, though. Riordan wondered whether a single officer had one sound idea where in the world they were, for he had none himself.

To the left — the north? — artillery grew busy, boding ill.

Their officers stopped the Louisianans, confused and waiting for orders.

Four forty-five a.m. Union lines

Brigadier General of United States Volunteers Napoleon Bonaparte McLaughlen approached Fort Stedman on horseback, wishing for daylight so he could get things settled. Of course, the Johnnies would probably withdraw long before that, unwilling to be caught in the open on one of their picket raids.

As an enlisted man in the 2nd Dragoons before the war, McLaughlen had learned when to trust a horse. He was glad of that knowledge now, since he couldn't see one damned thing beyond an occasional rifle flash. The dark was so thick you could bite it. The horse knew the roadway well, though, and kept to it even when spurred.

Horse stink, man stink.


Excerpted from "Judgment at Appomattox"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Ralph Peters.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Part I: The Breakthrough,
Part II: The Pursuit,
Author's Note,
Also by Ralph Peters,
About the Author,

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