- General Lee's Army: From Victory to Collapse
Can it be that this is the first full-length study of arguably the most famous field army of the Civil War, the Army of Northern Virginia? Douglas Southall Freeman wrote a four-volume biography of its iconic commander, Robert E. Lee, and three more about Lee's generals; we have books about the Stonewall Brigade and every other component of the army, including dozens of regimental histories, a collective biography of every staff officer, and multiple volumes on Lee's artillery; and other authors from Bell Wiley to J. Tracy Power have written about the men in the ranks of Lee's army. Until now, however, no one has done for the Army of Northern Virginia what Bruce Catton did for the Army of the Potomac, Steven Woodworth for the Union Army of the Tennessee, Thomas Connelly for the Confederate Army of Tennessee, or Larry Daniel for the Army of the Cumberland; even Don Carlos Buell's short-lived Army of the Ohio has its own institutional history. In a historiographical field as crowded as that of the Civil War, General Lee's Army would be a remarkable achievement just for filling such an astonishing gap.
The first hint that the book has much more to offer than just filling a gap is suggested by its subtitle. One can imagine the author's agent, giddy with the prospect of a new Civil War book that has Lee in the title, furrowing a brow at the word "collapse." "Joe, how about 'From Victory to Glorious Defeat' or 'From Victory to Inevitable Conquest by Numberless Hordes of Yankee Hirelings'?" is how the next phone call might have gone. "'Collapse' almost implies that the army had flaws and eventually fell apart." At the risk of losing a few sales to Lost Cause loyalists unwilling to accept that Lee's army was less than flawless, that is precisely [End Page 108] what Glatthaar argues: that the Army of Northern Virginia was the Confederacy's most successful institution and its best hope for victory, but that many of the characteristics of southern culture it embodied, particularly the ideals of manhood in the nineteenth-century South, simultaneously empowered and undermined the army, and ultimately led to its collapse.
Independence, for example, was both an inspirational political goal and a highly valued personal attribute for Lee's officers and men, but it conflicted with discipline, a fundamental attribute of any successful military organization. Officers prided themselves on their honor and bravery, but regarded the drudgery of staff work as beneath them, with the result that their men needlessly went hungry and shoeless. The rank and file fought heroically on the battlefield, but felt entitled afterward to loot enemy bodies, steal from civilians, or desert the army altogether. Everyone in the army was willing to fight, but no one wanted to do the manual labor necessary to keep the institution functioning. By 1864, the hard lessons of combat had taught the men that building breastworks and digging trenches was preferable to getting shot, but they still resisted other forms of military labor and regimentation. Glatthaar details Lee's repeated efforts to impose discipline on his troops, "but Southern culture brought with it a baggage that Lee never seemed to combat effectively" (466).
To support his arguments, Glatthaar follows academic convention in relying almost exclusively on primary sources, such as letters, diaries, official reports, and other documents written by those who were there. He goes the field one better in limiting himself to contemporary evidence and refusing to use the memoirs of participants, except in rare cases, on the grounds that "postwar memoirs usually reflected more about the times in which their authors had written them than the war itself" (xiv). Having researched the subject for most of his professional lifetime, Glatthaar is able to draw on an extraordinary array of material, including manuscripts from nearly fifty archives and hundreds of published sources. In some chapters, he deploys this evidence in the fashion typical of...