Thursday, April 23, 2020

Just Finished Reading - Lee's Body Guards

One of the oldest formats for Civil War histories are individual unit studies. Often authored by its soldier members, the first unit histories—those covering battalions, regiments, and brigades—surfaced in the immediate post-war years. Many of these early works delivered a celebratory narrative of the unit, remembering the good while too often ignoring the difficult and forgetting the bad. With few exceptions, this model for unit studies set a standard that continued on through the end of the nineteenth century and far into the twentieth.

However, over the last three decades or so historians have been exploring Civil War units with a more critical eye. By digging deeper with their primary source research, focusing on more than just a unit’s battlefield and camp experiences, and even choosing to examine some distinctive units, historians, now more often than not, provide readers with a much truer picture of Civil War units. Books like Susannah J. Ural’s Hood’s Texas Brigade: The Soldiers and Families of the Confederacy’s Most Celebrated Unit; Lesley J. Gordon’s A Broken Regiment: The 16th Connecticut’s Civil War; and Earl J. Hess’ Lee’s Tar Heels: The Pettigrew-Kirkland-McRae Brigade, among a number of others, offer excellent examples of alternatives to the conventional unit history. With Lee’s Body Guards: The 39th Battalion Virginia Cavalry, historian Michael C. Hardy adds to this growing list by shedding light on a significant yet overlooked and previously underexamined aspect of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Created and recruited largely out of the necessity for increased efficiency, the 39th Battalion Virginia Cavalry filled an important role at a time when the Army of Northern Virginia (ANV) was quickly becoming the Confederacy’s premier command under Gen. Robert E. Lee’s leadership. Before the formation of the 39th, various cavalrymen in regular regiments received assignments to ANV headquarters. These men served in a number of different roles. However, being on detached detail, of course, reduced the number of men available to cavalry units and thus limited their effectiveness as one of the three operating branches of service. The four (possibly five) companies of the 39th took over many of the duties formerly assigned to detached regular cavalry. Their responsibilities included copying and delivering orders, carrying headquarters telegraphic correspondence to and from stations, escorting prisoners, wrangling stragglers, and scouting enemy positions.

Using an array of primary sources including letters, official records, and newspapers, Hardy chronicles the exploits of the 39th throughout the various campaigns of the ANV. In chapters designated for each year from 1862 through 1865, readers get a good look at the diverse, yet important, work completed by the 39th. And although they became known as “Lee’s Body Guards,” and often identified themselves as such, the 39th served other officers in the ANV, too. At times they worked with other corps and divisional commanders like James Longstreet, Richard S. Ewell, Thomas Jonathan Jackson, Jubal Early, George E. Pickett, and A.P. Hill, among others. In completing their duties, men of the 39th witnessed some of the ANV’s most famous victories, delivering timely orders that helped achieve the successes that buoyed the infant Confederacy. They also were on hand for some of the army’s most tragic episodes like A.P. Hill’s death, the evacuation of Petersburg and Richmond, and surrender at Appomattox.  

In addition to the book’s four chapters, and an “In Retrospect” epilogue, the book contains an alphabetical roster of the 39th, which gives company designations, brief service information, and, when known, the birth and death dates and burial place for its men.

Lee’s Body Guards makes a fine contribution to the evolving body of Civil War unit histories. Its primary strength rests in helping inform us students and enthusiasts about the significant role that men assigned to headquarters roles such as couriers, scouts, and guides played within the army structure, and thus gives us a greater appreciation of their duties.   


  1. This book looks interesting. I'm always looking for new books regarding the history of the ANV. I just recently watched a webcast of Susannah Ural discussing her book and I have put that on my "must read" list. I always appreciate your book reviews.

  2. Hi Paul! It's a fast read. Ural's book is top-notch.