Steven Peterson's Reviews > General Lee's Army: From Victory to Collapse

General Lee's Army by Joseph T. Glatthaar
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Jul 09, 09

Read in August, 2008

This is a fascinating book. On the one hand, its depiction of the Army of Northern Virginia (ANV) is well known. On the other, it goes into considerable detail on the everyday lives of Lee's (and, earlier, Johnston's and Beauregard's) army. As such, it does add considerably to our grasp of what the ANV went through. The focus? In the author's own words (Page xv): ". . .scholars and enthusiasts have written thousands of books on various aspects of Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, but no one has embarked upon a major investigation of the army throughout the entire war." Joseph Glatthaar also develops a statistical data base (See Appendix I for more details) to provide greater information about the ANV. He worked with political scientist Kent Tedin to get a representative sample of soldiers from the army, 600 in all. For each, the author searched records to get personal information, unit information, and so on. Included as well are graphic comments from letters and other documentation. It makes for a fascinating look at Lee's army.

All in all, almost 200,000 troops, in all, fought in the ANV. A horrifying number were killed or wounded. The army bled a great deal during the Civil War.

This book covers a huge territory: Why the troops joined the army and fought (slavery, by the way, appears to have been one major motivator), the early battle experience and how poorly prepared soldiers were for the conflict, the early history of the army (under Johnston and Beauregard, before the latter was transferred west and the former injured at Seven Pines), Lee's accession to command, the Seven Days' Campaign (where Union General George McClellan, in essence, caved in), the second battle at Bull Run (or Manassas), and so on.

Some of the high points. . . The ups and downs of soldiers' morale. Religious revivals sometimes surged through the troops, as one way of helping deal with the horrors of the conflict. The book addresses the odd juxtaposition of independent, individualistic southern troops with the need for discipline among them. There is nice discussion of the uneven quality of commanders and Lee's predilection of moving his (perceived) less competent high officers to other commands (e.g., transferring Magruder from the ANV to Texas).

If you wish a great amount of detail on actual battles, from First Bull Run through the retreat to Appomattox Court House, this book will not satisfy. But that is not its focus. If you want a sense of the day-to-day lives of soldiers, the challenges in managing an army, Lee's key role in keeping citizens and soldiers motivated to continue, the decline in morale among citizens and soldiers as Sherman's advance after Atlanta continued, and so on, then this book will be of interest.

Anyhow, this strikes me as an important volume, giving readers a detailed perspective on the Army of Northern Virginia.
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