Steven Peterson's Reviews > Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander

Fighting for the Confederacy by Edward Porter Alexander
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Sep 21, 09

Read in November, 2007

This is a wonderfully engaging memoir, written by E. Porter Alexander, engineer, staff officer, and, as most recall him, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia's First Corps artillery guru. What sets this book apart is its honest, candid view of events from Alexander's perspective. Not the usual glorification of the cause and its leaders as with many other actors from the Civil War. This book stayed hidden from sight for many years after it was completed; it is a blessing to those who study the Civil War that it came to see the light of day with publication. The Introduction concludes by stating that (page xxiii): "'Fighting for the Confederacy' is a book to be savored, one of those wonderful volumes that is both instructive and pleasurable to read."

One line that exemplifies this, focusing on Lieutenant General Leonidas Pope, a corps commander in the Western Theater's Army of Tennessee, is enchanting. Polk was a bishop in his church and, for some unfathomable reason, had the confidence of President Jefferson Davis and General Braxton Bragg. When Alexander and the troops of General James Longstreet's First Corps joined Bragg's army at Chickamauga, he observed that (page 289): "So all our pious people with one consent & with secret conviction that the Lord would surely favor a bishop turned in & made him a lieut. Gen., which the Lord had not." A sly way of saying that Polk was a disaster as a general (and, indeed, Alexander was accurate in his assessment).

A couple passages that make this volume--and Alexander's method--so refreshing. At the close of his discussion of the battle of Chancellorsville, Alexander notes that Union Commanding General Joseph Hooker lost his courage and will--as did his top commanders. Alexander observes that the Union Army was intact, outnumbered the Confederate force and could have won the battle with better leadership. Then, in a passage extraordinary for a Confederate officer, he says (page 217) "Had it been Grant in command, he would not have dreamed of giving up the fight." This suggests a perspective on the war that many partisans--whether Union or Confederate--never had. Indeed, had the Union Army listened to Generals Meade and Reynolds who were arguing strenuously to counterattack the Confederate forces, the end result might have been a significant Union victory. We'll never know, of course, but Alexander does suggest an alternative history.

Then, Gettysburg. . . . Here is the poignant scene, told from Alexander's perspective, where Longstreet must order Pickett's forces (and others) to advance. But Longstreet fears a disaster, and obviously is in a state of inner turmoil (see pages 254 and following). At one point, it is almost as if he were giving Alexander the task of deciding whether or not the charge takes place. At a later time, Longstreet expresses openly his fear (page 261): "I don't want to make this attack--I believe it will fail--I do not see how it can succeed--I would not make it even now, but that Gen. Lee has ordered & expects it."

So, in the end, this is a wonderful first person description of the war, one of the finest of Civil War memoirs.
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