General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse
by Joseph T. Glatthaar, Free Press, 2008, $30
Joseph T. Glatthaar’s highly anticipated new book General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse explains how the Army of Northern Virginia almost won the Civil War for the Confederacy, as well as why it ultimately lost.
The book uses top-down analysis to examine the army’s command structure and General Robert E. Lee himself, but it also employs bottom-up analysis of the common soldiers’ experience. Glatthaar mostly concentrates on the troops’ viewpoint, incorporating excerpts from letters and accounts that build a vivid picture of life in the Confederate army.
Glatthaar relied on a carefully chosen representative sample of 600 soldiers, including 150 cavalrymen, 150 artillerymen and 300 foot soldiers. His wide-ranging sample allows for a legitimate statistical analysis while also permitting the reader to follow individual soldiers as their stories develop.
The book’s primary theme is perseverance. In the course of explaining Lee’s deficits of men and materiel, Glatthaar highlights how most of his soldiers somehow managed to continue fighting de – spite their increasing tribulations.
Glatthaar’s depiction of army life is far from glorious. Having thousands of people live, camp and march together for months on end created a variety of nearly insuperable problems. Disease and malnutrition, for example, were constant weakening scourges of the Army of Northern Virginia.
Supply problems also resulted in innumerable difficulties for Lee’s men. One of the book’s predominant themes is that the Army of Northern Virginia’s soldiers managed to win battles using inferior equipment, especially weapons. Unreliable Southern railroads and muddy, poorly maintained roads, Glatthaar notes, added great strain to Confederate supply lines. Later in the war, when Union Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan were wreaking havoc throughout the South, Confederates had to survive despite even greater privations. Glatthaar ably depicts the horrors and frustrations of trench warfare, where Rebel soldiers could not even resort to fleecing the bodies of Union corpses for supplies because the Southerners were stuck in their defenses, hungry, bored and under constant enemy fire.
Glatthaar also embroiders on the theme of Southern exceptionalism. He believes that Confederate successes came largely out of the Rebels’ élan, and he also points out that the soldiers in Lee’s army thought they were better warriors than the Union invaders. The soldiers fought for Southern honor, believing their cause was right and that God was on their side. Some men in gray also claimed they fought for liberty, just as the Patriots of 1776 had done. In fact, Glatthaar’s chapter on the soldiers’ motivations is one of the strongest in the book, displaying a nuanced understanding of their belief system.
The author also argues that the home front and the army were “reflexive.” In his chapter on the home front, Glatthaar accurately notes the influence that the two had on one another. This was an army of volunteer soldiers, whose men had willingly chosen to leave behind their wives, children, mothers and fathers at home. Their letters to and from home showed reciprocal worry between the soldiers and their families. While their families had sometimes persuaded soldiers to go and fight in the first place, they also had a significant influence on some soldiers who chose to desert.
It seems as though the Battle of Seven Pines would have served as a better starting point for Glatthaar’s study rather than the Battle of First Manassas, where the army was still under command of General P.G.T. Beauregard. Although the background information Glaathaar provides here is helpful, it was at Seven Pines that Confederate President Jef ferson Davis placed General Robert E. Lee in command—that’s the true beginning of the near-mythical story of the Army of Northern Virginia.
Nonetheless, Glatthaar’s contribution to Civil War historiography is significant. Not only does he help historians better understand the Army of Northern Virginia, but he does it in a comprehensive format that is conducive to understanding the entire war as well. General Lee’s Army is essential to understanding those persevering Confederates who proudly served in the Army of Northern Virginia.
Originally published in the July 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.