Saturday, April 20, 2013

Just Finished Reading - General Lee's Army

Yet another book that had remained too long on my shelf is General Lee's Army: From Victory to Collapse, by Joseph T. Glatthaar. Had I realized that this work was not your ordinary study of the Army of Northern Virginia, I would have gotten to it much sooner.

From the first page, one finds that General Lee's Army is a mix of social and military history. Glatthaar makes a point to spend much of the book informing the reader what life was like for the men that made up the Army of Northern Virginia (ANV), rather than providing a detailed examination of strategy and battle tactics. And, considering that the book covers 472 pages of text, the number of primary source accounts he provides to tell their story is nothing short of impressive (the footnotes and bibliography covers over 100 pages). As the book's dust jacket explains: "General Lee's Army penetrates headquarters tents and winter shanties, eliciting the officers' plans, wishes, and prayers; it portrays a world of life, death, healing, and hardship; it investigates the South's commitment to the war and its gradual erosion; and it depicts and analyzes Lee's men in triumph and defeat." That is, in effect, a real good summary of the book.

The most fascinating aspect of the book rests with the statistical analysis on the socioeconomic background of the soldiers that made up the ANV. A sample of 600 ANVsoldiers was taken for this study. 300 of which were infantry, 150 cavalry, and 150 artillery. Then, taking information from these soldiers' service records, census records, state pension files, and other sources, and covering all the Confederate states, Glatthaar gives us a portrait of the men in the ranks and files. By completing this statistical survey Glatthaar found that the ANV was made up of soldiers of all classes of society. And, their attachment to the institution of slavery was significant.

For too long I have heard what I believe to be a fallacious argument, i.e. that Confederate soldiers were not fighting for slavery, because only a minority owned slaves. I believe this particular argument is faulty because most of the soldiers that made up the Confederate armies were young men just getting their start in life and thus owned little property at all, let alone expensive slaves. However, if one takes into consideration the slaveowning families that the soldiers came from, the number of men with ties to slavery increases dramatically. A modern comparison would be teenagers or college-aged young people owning cars. Many young people do not own their own vehicle, rather their parents provide for their means of transportation by letting their son or daughter use a vehicle that the adult, in fact, owns.

Similarly, the marginal percentage of slaveowners in the South is due to taking into account women and children, individuals that would only on rare occasions actually own slaves. A far better determining figure is slaveholding families. Glatthaar found that "volunteers in 1861 were 42 percent more likely to own slaves themselves or to live with family members who owned slaves than the general population." But that's not all. The study also "indicated that almost one of every two 1861 recruits lived with slaveholders." The association is even greater when one considers the "Untold numbers of enlistees that rented land from, sold crops to, or worked for slaveholders." Slavery was fully ingrained in the South's culture, economy, society, and politics, and thus naturally an important part of the main army of the Confederacy.

The chapter names show that General Lee's Army covers a number of topics: "Becoming Soldiers," "A Failure of Discipline," "Supplying the Army," "Camp and Recreation," "Religion and Morality," "Home Front," and one that was especially intriguing to me, "Blacks and the Army," which discusses the role of slaves in providing labor services to the ANV. Enslaved African Americans served the army as body servants, cooks, washers, teamsters, and in a host of other duties.

The thing that really stood out to me - and something I already knew, but Glatthaar certainly reinforced - was the fact that the men that made up the ANV were fully committed to their cause, and once Lee was placed in command, committed to their commander. These men marched through, fought through, ate, slept in and literally breathed a hellish existence, and yet, the great majority slugged on to the bitter end. Thus, it is not so surprising that, due to their extreme sacrifices, they and their children and grandchildren would develop the Lost Cause myths that have existed and persisted since Lee surrendered to Grant in Wilmer McLean's parlor at Appomattox.

I really enjoyed reading General Lee's Army: From Victory to Collapse. The detailed aspects of soldier life and the statistical analysis were highlights for me. On a scale of one to five, I give it a 5. Well done.  

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