Sunday, May 19, 2019

Just Finished Reading - General Lee's Immortals

Published brigade studies have appeared since the end of the Civil War, and they have remained fairly popular forms of understanding the conflict ever since. Early works such as J. F. J Caldwell's History of a Brigade of South Carolinians chronicled the Gregg/McGowan Brigade, and Ed Porter Thompson's History of the Orphan Brigade set a rather high standard for such unit studies. In more modern times, James I. Robertson's The Stonewall Brigade; Alan T. Nolan's The Iron Brigade: A Military History; Jeffrey Wert's A Brotherhood of Valor, a comparative study of the Stonewall and Iron Brigades; Earl J. Hess's Lee's Tar Heels: The Pettigrew-Kirkland-MacRae Brigade; and Susannah Ural's Hood's Texas Brigade: The Soldiers and Families of the Confederacy's Most Celebrated Unit have all added significantly to our understanding of these units.

Joining the recent brigade studies front is Michael C. Hardy's General Lee's Immortals: The Battles and Campaigns of the Branch-Lane Brigade in the Army of Northern Virginia, 1861-1865. Having an ancestor who fought in the 37th North Carolina, and working at the historic site where Lane's Brigade defended the Petersburg line the last week of the campaign, I was excited to see this book published last year. I was also happy to have Mr. Hardy comes to the Park to speak about the book during out 2018 Breakthrough Anniversary weekend. I purchased a copy of the book at that time, and a couple of weeks ago finally took it off my "to be read shelf." I should have done so much sooner.

This often overlooked Army of Northern Virginia brigade (7th, 18th, 28th, 33rd, and 37th North Carolina Infantry regiments) was a premier fighting force for Lee. They proved themselves over and over in some of the ANV's hardest contests. Among earlier contests they battled at Cedar Mountain, Second Manassas, lost their brigadier, Lawrence Branch at Sharpsburg, experienced hard times at Fredericksburg, had the misfortune of shooting Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville, participated in the third day charge at Gettysburg, fought desperately to stave Union attacks at Spotsylvania, and defended Petersburg until their lines were shattered early on the morning of April 2, 1865. The military history contained in General Lee's Immortals is a solid and balanced treatment in relation to the tactical successes and failures of the brigade. Nice maps by Hal Jesperson, along with period photographs of many of the individuals described in the text, and having footnotes on the actual pages of the citations were all nice inclusions, too.

However, what I personally enjoyed most about General Lee's Immortals were those chapters that often came between the chapters on battles and campaigns. Chapters on "Brigade Medical Care," "Daily Camp Life," "The Plight of the Prisoner," and "Crime and Punishment," all get to the heart of what the men of the Branch-Lane Brigade experienced in the environments and situations where they spent the majority of their time while in the army. Hardy's deep research is present in these chapters.

One aspect that I wished would have received more coverage was a deeper look into the socioeconomic status of the men that comprised the Branch-Lane Brigade. They came from diverse geographical communities of the Old North State, from the western mountains to the northern border region to the southeast coast, and places in between. It would be fascinating to see how their class status and association of slaveholding family ties potentially influenced their enlistments and sustained commitment to the cause of secession.

Regardless, General Lee's Immortals fills a void in the history of the Army of Northern Virginia studies in particular and Civil War history at large that had existed for too long. It is well done and I recommend it.

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