Walk into the Library of Congress in Washington, with its mammoth collection of more than 34 million items, and you’re sure to be astonished at the great variety of books. In terms of American history, however, the Civil War holds a special place. More than 70,000 Civil War titles have been published since the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter. That’s an average of more than one volume per day ever since the war began. With such an onslaught of activity, of new and old works appearing on battles, biographies, unit histories and general works of all kinds, how to make sense of it all?
Look at just one perennial favorite: memoirs and letters written by general officers. Here we get close to the men who led the armies, who made momentous decisions that led sometimes to triumph and other times to disaster. By “listening in” to what they were thinking, we can get a complete picture of what commanders were thinking when actions unfolded. But today we can also comprehend the whole story—which they couldn’t as it unfolded in the thick of the war.
Yet as Civil War enthusiasts we need to be extremely careful how we interpret participants’ words. Then as now, reports written during a war are often skewed to apply spin. Anyone who carefully reads after-action reports from the Official Records can see many instances of commanders covering their tracks by making excuses for what occurred during combat. Moreover, in many narratives or letters written after the war, plenty of spin was applied, so warriors could assure they would stand taller in historic perspective.
Nowhere is truth and fancy blended in a more entertaining way than in the top 10 memoirs and letters written by Con federate generals, or in one case by a widow. Each of these classic works from Rebel commanders is a giant in the field of Civil War history, an ab solute must-read for everyone interested in the war. However, you shouldn’t read any of these, whether they are wartime letters or postwar revisionism, without a critical eye for what they actually represent.
The following is a reader’s guide to the 10 most influential works by former Confederate generals.
Fighting for the Confederacy by Edward Porter Alexander
This significant memoir remained unpublished for 80 years before the manuscript was discovered, assembled and edited. A revealing and sometimes dramatic “private” version of his reminiscences, it stands as a valuable companion to Alexander’s earlier Military Memoirs of a Confederate: A Critical Narrative. The two complement each other very well, in fact. Military Memoirs is a superb history of Robert E. Lee’s army, with accounts of some of Alexander’s actions mixed in. Fighting for the Confederacy, which was intended only for family and close friends, is a superb personal narrative with good analysis of some of Lee’s operations thrown in. It is an important resource on Alexander, his fellow officers and the vaunted Army of Northern Virginia itself.
Alexander relates encounters with many Confederate officers he knew and leaves the reader with a clear idea of what many critical points in the conflict were like. This volume spans the entire war, including intriguing reminiscences of Manassas, the Seven Days, Second Manassas, Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Knoxville, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Drewry’s Bluff, Cold Harbor, Petersburg and Appomattox. Among Alexander’s eyewitness accounts are the artillery barrage that preceded Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg; the time his horse was hit by a shell fragment as he reeled in the saddle at the Wilderness; and Lee’s insistence on surrendering at Appomattox to avoid a guerrilla struggle, telling Alexander, “we must consider only the effect which our action will have upon the country at large.”
Autobiographical Sketch and Narrative of the War Between the States by Jubal A. Early
This useful memoir was penned by one of Lee’s most successful but controversial field commanders. Although most of it reads like a stiff official report, it does offer a good firsthand look at the inner workings of the eccentric, outspoken general known as “Old Jube,” and stands as a respectable resource on Early’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864.
Filled with hatred for all things Northern, the narrative offers a catalog of insights into the commander who constructed much of the Lee mythology after the war and died one of the last outspoken unreconstructed Rebels. Although it is on the whole unimaginatively written, the text nevertheless delivers an important factual chronology of Early’s activities in virtually all the major engagements of the Army of Northern Virginia from the army’s inception to Cold Harbor, where the newly minted lieutenant general took command of Richard Ewell’s corps.
The book’s strongest section treats the 1864 Valley Campaign, in which Early defeated David Hunter, broke through the Federal position at Monocacy Creek and approached the city of Washington before being driven back. Here the author appears at his zenith, terrorizing the Yankees and commanding his own semiautonomous force before his defeat at the hands of Phil Sheridan at Cedar Creek. The final sections attempt to rationalize Early’s defeat through the numerical inferiority approach. Although little in this book touches on the experiences of common soldiers and much of it interprets Early’s activities through a thick lens of bias, it remains fittingly important as a window to the commander himself. In 1867 Early published the second edition of an inferior work, A Memoir of the Last Year of the War for Independence, in the Confederate States of America, Containing an Account of the Operations of His Commands in the Years 1864 and 1865.
Reminiscences of the Civil War by John B. Gordon
This is a vividly written though extremely exaggerated record of the great commander’s Civil War service. Spanning the period when Gordon raised troops in Alabama to his celebrated participation in the surrender ceremonies at Appomattox, the memoir lays down a heroic story of an officer who played an influential role in many of the Army of Northern Virginia’s key actions. Along the way Gordon interjects many lively anecdotes, from observations on families divided by the war to comments on many Confederate officers to gripping battle accounts. This last category includes the famous passages describing Gordon’s hours at the Sunken Road at Sharpsburg, where he was hit five times and nearly drowned in his own blood. Often, however, these anecdotes are the product of the general’s fertile imagination.
Still, there is valuable material here. Gordon comments on the performance of fellow field commanders and soldiers at First Manassas, the Peninsula, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, the Wilderness, the Valley Campaign of 1864, Petersburg and Appomattox. Gordon’s luck and personality frequently landed him in crucial parts of battles, and his sterling record of promotion attests to his competence. The author’s outstanding career, keen military insight and enjoyable writing style make this a highly important work.
Advance and Retreat by John Bell Hood
As is the case with some memoirs, Hood’s objective here was to embellish his own credentials and knock down anyone who opposed him. His primary target in this instance was Joseph E. Johnston. Unfortunately, the careless and untruthful way in which Hood set about this shameless goal accomplished little. It did help provide care for his 11 orphaned children following his death from yellow fever in 1879, at the age of 48. But in the eyes of historians, Hood’s memoir only makes him come across as foolish.
Early in the war John Bell Hood behaved competently. His fall from grace resulted from disabling wounds and from being placed in situations requiring more than his ability. He repeatedly ducked responsibility while actions were unfolding, and occasionally placed others in command during times of risk.
At times, Hood may even have intentionally neglected his duties to make his superior, Johnston, look bad, such as at the Battle of Cassville. When Hood took command of the Army of Tennessee, he did nothing except ultimately ruin it by folly in the Tennessee Campaign of 1864. The net result was a career that faltered and the destruction of one of the South’s great armies. Hood’s memoir is riddled with rationalizations and misinterpretations. It is worthwhile reading only to shed light on the confused mind of its author. To add insult to injury, the book’s maps are badly flawed.
Life and Letters of General Thomas J. Jackson (Stonewall Jackson) by Mary Anna Jackson
While also providing a glimpse at “Stonewall” Jackson the man, this book contains a surprising amount of valuable material relating to his career in the field. Compiled by Jackson’s widow, the lengthy tome consists of a chronological narrative of the general’s life that delivers useful information on his antebellum experiences.
The widow’s reminiscences, interwoven throughout the chronology, sometimes add insight but occasionally burden the work with sentimentality. Some value lies in the details of Jackson’s home life, his professorial duties and his relationships with servants. But the overriding value of the work lies in the letters written by Jackson from the battlefield and published here for the first (and in many cases only) time. In addition, 17 essays by Confederate soldiers who served with Jackson supply enjoyable reading.
The work’s high points include discussions of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862; the Battles of Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville; and the sad tale of Jackson’s final days at the Chandler Plantation in Guinea Station, Va.
Narrative of Military Operations by Joseph E. Johnston
This is one of the early classic narratives by a senior commanding general of the Confederate armies. Bitterly partisan and constructed to attack the credibility of charges brought against him, Johnston’s narrative contains little that illuminates the military aspects of the battles he commanded. His passion is directed most intensely at Jefferson Davis and is a window to the tension that existed between the two practically from the first day of the war, when Johnston felt he had not been tabbed as the Confederacy’s highest-ranking general.
Uninventive, legalistic and bitter, the work is a great disappointment. It does manage to illuminate some aspects of Johnston’s personality and unwittingly comments with great alacrity on a number of actions, but it achieves little compared with what it might have done.
Miscommunication and distrust characterized the developing relationship between Johnston and Davis in the spring of 1862. Much of this memoir rationalizes Johnston’s actions and attacks those of the Confederate president. Johnston’s poor performance and lack of coordination during the Vicksburg Campaign of 1863 further alienated him from Davis, and the failure to protect Atlanta in 1864 was the last straw. Johnston claims to have planned on protecting Atlanta “forever,” a remark made with appropriate hindsight.
The estimates of troops involved in various battles are way off, typically underestimating the Confederate numbers and overestimating those of the Union. A lengthy appendix provides official documents relating to Johnston’s various commands and his relationship with Davis.
A few errors appear. Johnston calls Turner Ashby a brigadier general and misspells the names of Abraham Buford, James H. Wilson and the Yalobusha River. Events are sometimes confused, too, such as several incidents during the Vicksburg Campaign.
The Wartime Papers of R.E. Lee by Robert E. Lee.
A project of the Virginia Civil War Centennial Commission, this volume containing 1,006 of the renowned general’s wartime papers deserves high praise. Altogether, about one-sixth of Lee’s letters and battlefield reports are included, most of them providing a great deal of useful military material.
Separated by chronology and illustrated with pertinent maps, the papers cover a wide range of important subjects and campaigns. The Robert E. Lee of legend emerges from this work, supporting credence in the Confederate commander’s superhuman quantities of understanding, caution, forgiveness and fatherly doting. However, the “other” Lee, the general who was known to occasionally issue vague orders and sometimes withheld supplies and manpower for his own army at the expense of others, also makes an appearance.
In short, the papers allow readers to discover the real Lee unclouded by the embellishment of admiring biographers and presented clearly for anyone interested in independently interpreting his actions and recorded thoughts. It is unfortunate that this work is poorly annotated, which to a degree limits its usefulness as a significant research device. Despite that, all students of the war should relish this invaluable companion.
From Manassas to Appomattox by James Longstreet
Although one of the most important Confederate reminiscences, Longstreet’s memoirs are often defensive in tone and are written in the uninventive, dry style characteristic of a 19th-century soldier. His explanation of Gettysburg includes charges made by various officers and refutations of those charges, countercharges by other generals and refutations of the countercharges. This bickering rolls on for more than 40 pages and often presents a too-angry and relatively ineffective defense of Longstreet’s actions, particularly relating to the second day at Gettysburg.
Despite this, Longstreet’s tome is an important milestone in Confederate literature. It tells the story of the war in first person from one of the great generals of American history, allows him to make his case and at least on some accounts quiets the armchair strategists who over the years have faulted Long street too severely.
In the main, Longstreet is correct with most of his assertions, and the well-documented inflation of the Lee side of the Gettysburg controversy can be traced through the pages of the Southern Historical Society Papers and elsewhere. Longstreet here provides ample documentation of his close relationship with Lee, although his language is sometimes blunt and egotistical. Some readers may find the references to the Official Records as the “rebellion record” confusing.
The General to His Lady by William Dorsey Pender
Moderately successful in his West Point Class of 1854, the North Carolinian was commissioned colonel of the 3rd North Carolina at the outbreak of war and rose to major general before his death. Fearless and outstanding at Seven Pines, Cedar Mountain, Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, Pender was struck by a shell fragment on the second day at Gettysburg. He ignored his leg wound long enough for infection to set in, and he did not survive the subsequent amputation.
Pender’s letters offer a close view into the mind of the young major general. They contain gossip and musings but also much of military interest. His observations of Lee, Jackson, A.P. Hill and D.H. Hill are valuable and add significantly to the body of work on the Army of Northern Virginia. Indeed, Douglas Southall Freeman quoted from the letters liberally in Lee’s Lieutenants. The editor of this volume might have annotated the letters in a significant and helpful way; that notwithstanding, it is still an excellent book.
Destruction and Reconstruction by Richard Taylor
The son of Zachary Taylor, brother-in-law of Jefferson Davis and a lieutenant general in the Confederate Army, Taylor was in a unique position from which to observe events both military and political during the war. His memoir will not disappoint readers in the least, for it provides a superb analysis of numerous commanders, politicians and engagements, and surprisingly is composed in an exceptional writing style lacking in most old soldiers’ reminiscences.
Taylor’s story follows his career in the East at First Manassas and during the Peninsula Campaign, then switches theaters to the West to describe the war in Louisiana, the defense of the Vicksburg approaches and the Red River Campaign in Texas. Along the way Taylor interjects valuable commentary on various military operations and how they unfolded.
Despite his connections with Davis, Taylor delivers an objective treatment of many individuals who were not so well connected, including Joseph E. Johnston. Devoted to Lee, Taylor nevertheless criticizes some of the great general’s strategies.
In a reflective chapter following a description of surrender, Taylor subtly blames Longstreet for the loss at Gettysburg, laments over the lost opportunity of Shiloh and writes that if any single individual could have saved the cause of the South, it was the commander killed at that battle: General Albert Sidney Johnston.
So there you have it. The greatest memoirs and letters by Confederate generals offer a mixture of mostly outstanding material but also much rationalization and spreading of blame. We have the intensely interesting, behind-the-scenes looks at other officers by Porter Alexander. Early offers great anti-Yankee fanaticism blended with his recollections of the war. Gordon gives us a fascinating view of several important battles and an exaggerated account of his own story. From Hood we get attacks on others, along with an attempt to substantially boost his shattered reputation.
Stonewall Jackson’s widow left readers with a superb, rare look into his battlefield letters and intimate moments. From Lee we get critically important correspondence from the field that forms a central core of knowledge about the Army of Northern Virginia.
Longstreet leaves readers with an assault on his critics that washes over numerous pages. From Pender we get enthralling observations of his superiors that make for outstanding reading. Taylor, finally, provides excellent analysis, with a particular focus on the Western theater.
These books are all good. But to enjoy and understand them, you need to know the angles the authors were playing. Read on—with a careful, skeptical eye.
David J. Eicher is the author of eight books on the Civil War, including Dixie Betrayed, The Longest Night, Civil War High Commands and The Civil War in Books.