Joseph T. Glatthaar is the Stephenson Distinguished Professor of History and chair of the Curriculum in Peace, War and Defense at the University of North Carolina. He recently authored the acclaimed book General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse (Free Press), which he discusses here.
Who made the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee or its soldiers?
Both of them made the army, both the soldiers and Lee. Lee provided leadership and talent as a combat commander and an effective administrative structure, and the soldiers, of course, provided the combat prowess and motivation and, I think, the general fighting spirit.
How do you tell the story of both in this book?
I wanted to do a history of the army. Douglas Southall Freeman, of course, had already written Lee’s Lieutenants, which deals with the high command, but I thought we really needed to integrate the experiences of the high command with those of the soldiers, because I thought that was the critical dynamic to understanding Lee’s army.
So structuring the book was complicated because I needed a chronological flow, since things change over time, but there were also important topical chapters that had to be covered, and no one had really dealt with some of these subjects in-depth. It was a difficult process of working my way through those things, and I just did the best I could under the circumstances.
What topics regarding the army are overlooked?
I wanted to deal with issues on soldiers’ backgrounds and culture, but I also wanted to deal with issues like logistics, which plays a huge part in the experience of the Army of Northern Virginia.
I wanted to deal with ordnance and the inter – action between the home front and the soldiers. So I concentrated on letters, as well as other experiences that soldiers’ families endured while the soldier was in the army. I thought that was really important. We have lots of people who try to link it to the home front, largely drawing on diaries. But here I’ve got a direct connection between the soldiers and their own families. And then I also wanted to deal with issues such as blacks, desertion, medical care and religion.
What are some of your most surprising findings about Lee’s army?
I would say among the big surprises was, first, the high commitment or high turnout of soldiers from wealthy families and from slaveholding households— that four of every nine soldiers is from a slaveholding household, whereas one of every four Southern households had slaves.
Another huge element that emerged from the study of the book is just how much these soldiers endured in the late stages of the war, that is the last six or eight months. Most of the soldiers lived on 900 to 1,200 calories a day; that’s a slow starvation rate. Their vitamin intake and mineral intake was so unsatisfactory that they weren’t even able to digest the protein in their diet effectively. During the Appomattox Campaign, soldiers struggled to keep up, but were physically unable to do so.
Tell us a little about your research process.
The project began in 1989, and I got one of those Mellon Fellowships at the Virginia Historical Society, so I started reading and researching back then. I did a few other projects in between, but I just worked pretty diligently and systematically, trying to see as many different collections of soldiers’ letters and materials as I possibly could.
I also compiled a huge database, which took a tremendous length of time. It took me months just to accumulate the names of soldiers, and then I had to look them up in census records, see all their military service records—it takes a long time to look at 600 military service records. And of course most of the census records weren’t online when I started this, so I had to go to libraries and look them up on microfilm.
And then I had to look at county histories, regimental histories, newspapers, obituaries, all sorts of pension files, if they had them; all these sources went into the database, so it was a very complicated research process, and very, very lengthy.
What were the most important documents you found?
As far as things I discovered that were incredible, that really stunned me, there are a few. One is when I found records of the Confederacy testing ammunition about a week after the Battle of Gettysburg, and the fuses that were manufactured in Charleston burned slower than the fuses manufactured in Richmond.
And so at Gettysburg, the artillerists—who were experts by this point in the war and knew what they were doing—cut the fuses properly, but they just assumed that the fuses would burn the same as the ones manufactured in Richmond. But in fact the shells passed over the Union position and blew up in the rear.
Another great one was when I found that large numbers of Confederate soldiers were using .54- caliber ammunition for their .57- or .58-caliber weapons because that enabled them to clean their weapon less frequently during battle.
The quality of the manufacturing of ammunition was a big problem in the Confederacy, and that surprised me. For example, the Confederacy issued gauges that ordnance workers would pass each musket ball through before they wrapped it into a new cartridge. Well, the gauges that they issued were too large, so in the field many of the soldiers found the bullets were too large for their muskets. That’s pretty surprising.
Who do you think were some of the most astute observers of Lee’s army?
I think I looked at 4,000 different soldiers’ letters. I always find the collections of staff officers most interesting, because the staff officers lived and died by the generals, and as a result they were intrigued by gossip and they collected news and information and passed it on, so it’s always kind of fun to get their insights.
For example, I came across some great information about “Stonewall” Jackson and how he made reference to General Richard Ewell complaining to him that hogs were eating dead soldiers. Jackson said that he thought the hogs had better sense than that, or better taste than that. Another staff officer revealed that Lee got only two hours of sleep at night in May 1864. That type of information is phenomenal and really gives you great insight into the generals.
Who do you see as Lee’s least skilled officer?
In the Seven Days’ Campaign, of course, he stuck with some guys who just weren’t qualified for division command. I wouldn’t want Theophilus Holmes or Benjamin Huger. John Bankhead Magruder had some problems too. William Whiting was not much of a leader—he picked fights all the time. D.H. Hill also picked fights, but he was competent.
Who impressed you in Lee’s subordinate command?
Robert Rodes was probably the most impressive division commander. When you look through his order books and you look through subordinates’ comments about Rodes, he comes off as likable, firm— he’s really into drilling. He puts enormous pressure on officers to train their men properly. He did some ingenious things. For example, he assigned one company per regiment to duty training to fire fieldpieces in case something happened and the Confederacy needed to have some infantrymen fire artillery.
Why did Lee’s army ultimately capitulate?
The bottom line is that the Union Army had overwhelming manpower and materiel, and it had the good leadership and the morale to sustain the war until it ground the Confederacy down.
The Confederacy had inferior materiel, manpower and had a more limited margin for error. As the war went on, that margin for error diminished until it began cutting into the bone and sinew of the Confederacy.
Originally published in the February 2009 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.