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General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse

by Joseph T. Glatthaar, Free Press.

The Army of Northern Virginia has been the subject of countless books since the end of the Civil War, but finally an author has come forth with a comprehensive study that does more than simply relate the exploits of this most-storied of Southern institutions—a work that ambitiously seeks to understand the army’s very essence. In General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse, Joseph Glatthaar seamlessly alternates between campaign narrative and social anthropology.

To the chorus of revisionist voices that in recent years have sought to challenge the primacy afforded to Robert E. Lee and his army, Glatthaar makes it plain that such attention is not the result of postwar romanticism or the legacy of the Virginia-dominated “Lost Cause” cabal. “General Lee’s army,” he writes, “came far closer to winning the war than any other Confederate field command. Among soldiers and civilians, it became the embodiment of the Rebel cause.” No other Confederate institution, he argues, was as successful.

By the last, desperate months of the war, Lee’s army was, in effect, the Confederacy. As long as it survived, writes Glaathar, “the Confederate States of America lived. When the Union crushed the Army of Northern Virginia, the rebellion was over.”But it was an army that died hard. More than one of every three Union combat deaths was inflicted by Lee’s army, as were more than half of all Yankee wounds.

General Lee’s Army, however, is not an uncritical paean to its subject. Although the pressures brought to bear by Federal superiority in men and resources eventually brought about the collapse of all segments of Confederate military and civilian life, Southern defeat was not foreordained. Whereas ultimate Union success required the invasion and subjugation of an entire nation, all that was necessary to achieve Confederate independence was to convince the North to cease that effort. The Army of Northern Virginia came close to breaking the Union will to victory but in the end failed to do so; the reason, Glatthaar insists, lay with defects in the army’s own organizational culture.

Lack of discipline, profligate waste, resistance to manual labor, inattention to administrative detail, belief in inherent Southern superiority—these and other critical lapses were hallmarks of the army by the time Lee arrived in June 1862. Although these corrosive tendencies had been allowed to flourish during the era of his predecessors, they had their roots in Southern society itself. Lee was never able to change the already-entrenched mentality of the command he inherited.

The author’s findings also challenge a near-axiomatic belief about the men who donned the butternut and gray. Far from the war’s being a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight,” his analysis reveals that it was the skilled middle class that bore the lightest proportional share of the military burden, while “the rich and poor tended to be overrepresented.” Indeed, soldiers who came from slaveholding families made up a higher percentage of Lee’s army than did slaveholding families within the total Southern population.

In support of his contentions, Glatthaar assembles a staggering array  of contemporary sources, including the records of some 4,000 soldiers. He which the men served. Even if all his calculations are correct, the lack of also uses the quantitative methods of the sociologist. But with the tools of the social scientist also come its shortcomings. The Army was composed, in the course of its existence, of nearly 200,000 individuals, but the nuances and variations that inevitably exist in any complex social system are occasionally effaced by Glatthaar,.

Further, the bulk of the statistical data provided in the book comes from a sampling of only 600 soldiers— three-tenths of one percent of the total. Even if one accepts the validity of a sample of this size, Glatthaar’s analysis is somewhat opaque. An appendix informs the reader of the types of sources used in its construction but provides no itemized accounting of the particulars—or even the names of the soldiers used for the sample. Aside from a single table regarding wealth, no abstracts (let alone complete data sets) are made available. The distribution of artillerymen, cavalrymen and infantrymen in the sample is completely divorced from their genuine ratios in the army. It is unclear how—if at all— the sample accounts for the period in transparency in his process forces readers to accept many of them on faith.

Nevertheless, Glatthaar clearly demonstrates that much of the endless historiographic sniping between traditional “military” historians and those who classify themselves under the “social history” banner is based on a false dichotomy. In democracies, military organizations are products of their society; attempts by scholars to isolate the two components into discrete entities bear little connection to reality. Glatthaar reminds us of a truism: “What occurred in the army influenced lives on the home front, and what took place on the home front affected soldiers in the field.” He is not the first historian to make that point, of course, but few have ever demonstrated the validity of that proposition more successfully.


Originally published in the August 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.