Book Review: LEE’S MISERABLES (J. Tracy Power) : AH

8/11/2001 • American History Reviews

LEE’S MISERABLES, by J. Tracy Power, University of North Carolina Press, 463 pages, $34.95.

With grim humor they called themselves “Lee’s Miserables,” adopting their name from a mispronunciation of Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables, which was published in the Confederacy in 1863. They were the survivors of hard campaigns, bitter losses, and extraordinary victories against incredible odds. Yet, for all the studies of the Southern soldier and Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, until now there has been no social history devoted solely to the day-to-day experiences and hardships endured by the South’s most famous military force.

J. Tracy Power’s study of the army’s last campaigns is thus a landmark book. For this chronological examination of the army’s final year, Power relied primarily on the testimony of the participants–“still the best authorities on the war they fought.” He examined thousands of officers’ and enlisted men’s diaries, letters, and other materials, covering nearly every artillery battalion and cavalry and infantry brigade in the army.

By 1864, the men of the Army of Northern Virginia had seen “so much of Blood and death” that they could “hardly be said to act & feel like Men.” Nevertheless, the army kept a close grip on its remarkable confidence; an artillery captain, for example, remarked that “most armies would have been whipped” by then, “but the Army of N. Va. is of extraordinary quality, tho’ we say it ourselves.” But, as desertions climbed, food and ammunition disappeared, and the enemy seemed to be everywhere, even stalwarts of four years’ campaigning had to admit that, as one sergeant remarked, “I cannot for my life see how we can hold out with them much Longer.”

When the end came, the men of the Army of Northern Virginia passed into legend. Power’s important study brings a large measure of reality back to their story.

Edward D.C. Campbell, Jr. writes about Southern history.