General Lee's Army: From Victory to Collapse (review)
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General Lee's Army: From Victory to Collapse. Joseph T. Glatthaar. New York: Free Press, 2008. ISBN 978-1-4165-9697-4, 624 pp., paper, $18.95.

There has been surprisingly little research completed on the Army of Northern Virginia as an institution. Douglas Southall Freeman's famed, Lee's Lieutenants (3 volumes, 1942-44) was cast as "a study in command," not of the evolution of structures and formations, in which the men in the ranks had no voice. Joseph Glatthaar brings new perspectives to bear on this famous army, thanks to his diligent use of statistical information culled from service, census, and pension records, plus obituaries and family histories. These sources, the author writes, "enabled me to address some of the most important questions . . . about who these soldiers and families were and what their wartime experiences were like" (xiv). This book is neither top-down nor bottom-up; it is a blend of both, an explanation of "issues that influenced the motivations, attitudes, feelings, and conduct of officers and enlisted men throughout the course of the war" (xiv). An important dimension of Glatthaar's analysis is the reciprocal impact of the home front on the soldiers in Lee's army, and their effect on it. There can be no doubt that he succeeds triumphantly in fulfilling his aim. [End Page 283]

Some of Glatthaar's most illuminating analysis relates to the army's social connections and outlook. Glatthaar argues strenuously that the Army of Northern Virginia was certainly not an army of the poor. "It was," the author writes, "instead largely an army of property, primarily soldiers who either owned land or a business themselves or lived in a household where their family did" (28). Indeed almost 50 percent of 1861 volunteers lived with slaveholders. Ownership, in any case, was not the exclusive measure of commitment to the peculiar institution; numerous other links existed: land could be rented from slaveholders, crops could be sold to them, or farmers could work for or rent slaves from them. Consequently, the soldiers of this army, like their commander, Robert E. Lee, risked everything in choosing to fight for the slavery system, "family, property, slaves that had taken them and their ancestors lifetimes to accumulate"(28). As a key factor in Confederate combat motivation, slavery took its place among the five elements that underpinned the army's group cohesion, the others being patriotism, defense of family and home, manhood, and hatred of the enemy.

Lee's officers upheld the honor code, a sense of personal reputation, and attempted to follow its dictates on the battlefield, but they did not always succeed. Society could be very unforgiving if their lapses remained unconcealed. The war and its unpleasantness were held to be the "price of freedom," but in the eyes of Lee's men, Union soldiers had no comparable cause; they were mercenaries. Glatthaar discusses the extraordinary resilience of Lee's troops, but he is less kind when assessing their behavior off the battlefield. He probes behind self-glorifying Lost Cause stereotypes and emphasizes the soldiers' taste for plunder. They took from southern civilians what they wanted when they wanted it and did so even more frequently after April 1864. Indeed, some southern politicians feared that such lawlessness might infect civil society.

As for Lee himself, Glatthaar stresses his industry, commitment, and genuine rapport with his soldiers, but he believes that Lee was overburdened. Between December 1862 and February 1863, Lee's headquarters received 9,800 routine papers, mostly for Lee's personal attention. He directed the Fredericksburg campaign while attempting to keep abreast of this paper mountain. This is not a history of campaigns, but it does contain important insights that illuminate enduring controversies. Glatthaar sees Longstreet as a "tower of strength" at Gettysburg, not a general who is sullen and withdrawn (280). On the protracted war that some of Lee's critics, such as Alan Nolan, believed to be in the Confederacy's interests, Glatthaar offers interesting thoughts. He [End Page 284] stresses the exhaustion induced by trench warfare and the toll it took on the men, eroding their fighting edge. He also shows how depression followed...


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