Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Glorious Army

A Glorious Army: Robert E. Lee's Triumph 1862-1863
by Jeffry D. Wert

In A Glorious Army Wert traces Lee's command of the Army of Northern Virginia from the Seven Days through Gettysburg. The time when nearly everything went right (until it came crashing down at Gettysburg) for Lee. This is a good recap of the campaigns the army undertook with Lee during that time frame. Wert does a good job of providing details of battles (even down to the regimental level) without getting bogged down in them, and does it all in just under 300 pages of text.

What I especially liked is how Wert brought other historians in the mix. Of course any writer would use them in a book like this but Wert would offer their interpretations right in the text and not just through a footnote. For example he would say "Gary Gallagher said that ....." Sometimes Wert would then disagree or agree and sometimes he would just leave it out there as an example of an interpretation. Having read most of those books at one time or another it was very helpful to get this little reminder of what that author had said about something.

When I read Eastern Theater stuff I sometimes think in the back of my head, "well that's all very nice but the war was won in the West, so while Lee was having great success it doesn't really matter in the end." And while I do still feel that way Wert gave a very convincing argument that Lee's audacity and aggressiveness was the only way the Confederates could hope to win. And he did win a lot and suffered tremendous losses at the same time, but it was his only hope. One thing I am forced to agree with him on, and it happens to be the last line of the book, is "No American army, against such odds and in less than a year, compiled such a record as that of the Army of Northern Virginia, and none altered the direction of a conflict more." Wert is right on that, so maybe I should give the Eastern Theater a little more respect.

Wert makes a good point in the final summary chapter of reminding us that when Lee took over the army the total war effort for the Confederates looked very bleak. To that point the Confederacy had mostly been on the strategic defensive and was losing the war. Lee's aggressiveness changed the course of the war in the Eastern Theater, which prolonged the contest as a whole because of the political aspect of the war. Later many people, participants and historians alike, would say that Lee should have operated on the strategic defensive but there is reason to believe that his offensives is the reason the Confederacy was able to stay in the war that long.

I really enjoyed this book and it slightly changed my opinion of the value of the Eastern Theater. If you wanted a highly detailed account of regimental actions covering those 12 months this is not the book for you. Truthfully I'm not sure anyone has covered all of that in one volume, so the book you want has not yet been written. But Wert's book gives a good overview of that year and also gives enough tactical information for you to get a good grasp of how Lee's army fought. A fine addition to any Civil War library and especially for Eastern Theater students.

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