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Lee’s Army During the Overland Campaign: A Numerical Study

Alfred C. Young III, Louisiana State University Press,  2013, $39.95

The first four volumes of Battles and Leaders of the Civil War were usually among the first  books longtime students of the Civil War purchased. For me, the most disappointing aspect of those volumes was the treatment of the Army of Northern Virginia during the Overland Campaign. “Insufficient data,” as one editorial note conceded, precluded not only an accurate listing of troops and commanders but also the army’s strength. The editors wouldn’t even offer casualty guesstimates. More than a century passed before four more volumes, all written by Gordon C. Rhea, provided some meticulous answers to questions long thought unanswerable.

For scholars of the carnage between Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant in the spring of 1864, Lee’s Army During the Overland Campaign is comparable in significance to the Dead Sea Scrolls. But this manuscript required more than two decades of research before Alfred Young began its composition.

Young documents three fundamental facets of the campaign that vary with what has been believed. First, Lee had more troops at the outset. He then received more reinforcements. Finally, partly because of this increased number of combatants, Lee suffered more casualties. So many, in fact, that he actually lost a larger percentage of his army than Grant: 45 percent for Grant, possibly as much as 50 percent for Lee. Considering Lee lost nearly twice the percentage of casualties of his opponent during the Chancellorsville Campaign, Young’s finding is not a slam at Lee but merely a result more in line with the Civil War norm—when accurate numbers are used.

Despite its subtitle, most of the volume is text, not numerical tables or charts. Though this organization occasioned some repetition because of the similar experiences of multiple brigades, it allowed regiment-specific information. For example, the 2nd Virginia Infantry suffered the fewest casualties in the Stonewall Brigade on May 12, because it was farthest from the point where the Federals breached the fortifications.

For readers interested in the bigger picture, Young’s strength and casualty figures include individuals who volunteered to fight after some contemporaries and historians considered the Confederacy’s cause to be hopeless. Some of these previously uncounted soldiers never appeared on a muster roll, and most were either killed in battle or died from wounds or disease. Consequently, the percentage of white Southerners who served in the army was larger than heretofore believed, as were the number of fatalities. Few books published during the sesquicentennial will prove as valuable to Civil War scholars as this one. Alfred Young deserves our thanks.


Originally published in the November 2013 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.