Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Book Review: General Lee's Army: From Victory to Collapse

Joseph T. Glatthaar
copyright 2008
Free Press

As I finally get the chance to do another book review, I have the pleasure to review this work by Joseph T. Glatthaar, noted author of Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers, of which I have heard many good things and which is sitting on my bookshelf currently.

In General Lee's Army, Glattharr undertook a major project that even one reviewer who did not share my enthusiasm of this book aptly described as "ambitious."

"Ambitious" is certainly an appropriate word for this book, which basically serves as a biography of the Army of Northern Virginia. This most famous of Confederate field forces began its life under the leadership of Joseph Johnston, but came of age and earned its name, reputation and fame under Robert E. Lee. This book describes the "hows and whys" of the army's development, and, especially, covers the "whos" that served as this army's proud fighters.

One thing that stands out as being different from other books was Glatthaar's detailed demographic study of the army. He delivers this information mostly in the opening chapters, but as the book moves forward to the war's later years, he adds more information about troops who had signed up or been drafted into the army after the initial patriotic rush of 1861.

I personally liked how he did this and thought this information - about the age, marital and family status, occupation and economic status of the soldiers - was something new that I had not read much of before and enjoyable. He shows that Lee's army came from a variety of social positions and the comments (common about the Civil War, North and South) about this being a "rich man's war, but poor man 's fight" proved to be untrue when  the demographics of this army were examined.

He does place a large emphasis on the role of slavery in the coming of the war, and many of his discussions of the soldiers' economic statuses rely on slave ownership or their relationships with slave owners  (such as their families, neighbors or the employers of soldiers' families) . Also, throughout the book, as he starts to introduce another soldier whose story or writings add to this book,  he usually includes their relationship to slavery in his description of them. For anyone who wishes to downplay the role of slavery, this book may prove to be more difficult to read or to appreciate.

The book's flow impressed me and added to my enjoyment of this work. It includes chapters about the demographic information the author found, mixed with chapters about various battles or military situations, as well as other chapters about aspects of the lives of the army and its soldiers, such as why men joined, discipline in the army (or lack thereof), religion, problems with leadership among Lee's officers, supply issues, and more.The military information is presented in chronological order and the author adds in the other information between them throughout the book. I can understand that some people may find this confusing, especially since some of the non-military chapters did include information from before the previously discussed battle, but this arrangement did not bother me.

I also liked the writing style and found it to be very enjoyable and easy to read. That certainly is something that helps form my opinion of books and it did add a positive feeling to this one.

Here is a link to a more critical review of this book by James W. Durney, a prolific book reviewer on Amazon.com and the popular blog TOCWOC, one of the first blogs I found when I discovered the Civil War blogosphere last year. I do think his comments are worth consideration, and his analysis on some of the military conclusions drawn by Glatthaar is certainly more in-depth than any I can produce, but sometimes a different perspective can be interesting to read.

One point I did find interesting throughout the book, was his perspectives of "groups" among the army. Most students who have studied the Civil War have heard that "peer pressure" was a major influence in convincing young men to join Civil War armies and then to conduct themselves well once in battle, but Glaathaar points out how the soldiers developed smaller groups of comrades - often just their messmates or perhaps a family member or two - to which they became especially closely attached. He managed to show the downside of such attachments - the feelings of loneliness or being lost that a soldier could experience when the rest of his close group of friends had  been killed, captured or wounded. (See pages 315-316 for his description of Private William A. Burke's experiences in this area.)  That was a perspective I  had never considered before reading this book and is something I will try to keep in mind during future readings. It may be the main new point of view I take from this work.

General Lee's Army is 470 pages long, so it's not a quick, easy read - at least not to me - but is an enjoyable look at what became the Army of Northern Virginia, the men who made up this army and who they were, why they joined and fought, and why many of them eventually deserted. I do recommend this book and think it is worth having on any Civil War bookshelf.

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