Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Among the Best of 2008: General Lee's Army From Victory To Collapse

Joseph T. Glatthaar. General Lee's Army: From Victory to Collapse, New York Free Press, 41 illustrations, 19 maps, notes, bibliography,index, 600 pp., 2008, $35.00.

Like his March to the Sea and Beyond: Sherman's Troops on the Savannah and
Carolinas Campaigns
and Partners in Command: Relationships between Civil War Leaders Glatthaar in General Lee's Army extensively relies on the voice of the soldiers found in primary documents and the quantitative research that is sometimes more hidden within the primary sources. The world of individuals, the world of ideas and the world of quartermasters are brought together in a way that is reminiscent of Bell I. Wiley who relied on the primary source but did not rely on the numbers like Glatthar.

He repudiates Lost Cause historiography that preaches that neither Lee nor his army had faults. Loyalty and courage, desertion and cowardice have a place in the narrative. Glathaar created a database of 600 soldiers and tested it for the number of killed, wounded, and lost to disease; at the end of the war only 25% of the soldiers were untouched. Their median age was 24 in 1861 and they in a slightly higher portion from the well-to-do. In the course of the war, 14% of the Army of Northern Virginia deserted at one time or another. Glatthaar work shows that it was not necessarily a rich man's war and a poor man's fight.

CWL notes that Glatthaar has come to understand that every social class supported slavery as the cornerstone of the Confederacy. Close to 50% of the 1861 Rebel army lived in households that used slaves. Like McPherson, Glatthaar sees the community, the government, the hearth, manhood, and hatred of the enemy as motives for joining the military. Glatthaar offers an evenhanded discussion of desertion. The book is driven by chronology but Glatthaar is a subtle writer and themes of are woven throughout. Food, arms, post-traumatic stress, the lack of health care and substantive nutrition.

Glatthaar's quantitative research is an important element in the narrative but it never becomes tedious. It is not hard to imagine that General Lee's Army has set a new standard for writing Civil War armies' history. Readable, enjoyable, bring new insights to the story, General Lee's Army is not a battle history but a social history of men who passed through the experience of being a Civil War soldier.