Wednesday, July 06, 2011

New and Noteworthy: Lee's Glorious Army and The Price It Paid

A Glorious Army: Robert E. Lee's Triumph, 1862-1863, Jeffry D. Wert, Simon and Schuster Inc., 384 pp., 29 b/w photographs, 9 maps, notes, bibliography, index, $30.00.

Advancing his work on the Stonewall Brigade, J.E.B. Stuart, James Longstreet, July 3 at Gettysburg, and the Army of the Potomac, Jeffry Wert sets forth a well paced and balanced story of a year in the life of the Army of Northern Virginia. Covering the familiar ground of June 1 1862 to July 31 1863 in the eastern theatre, Wert provides his own perspective on Lee's and his army's virtues along with those of other historians. One of the strenghts of this work is Wert recognition and reliance on others' interpretations. Throughout the book Wert presents and discusses the insights of Gabor Borritt, Peter Carmichael, Thomas Connelly, Gary Gallagher, Joseph Glatthaar, Joseph Harsh, Robert K. Krick, Donald Pfanz, George Rable, Ethan Rafuse, Steven Woodworth and several others.

From June 1862 when Robert E. Lee assumed command and through the near diaster in Pennsylvania, the Army of Northern Virginia's officer corps became severely depleted. After each campaign, Wert dwells upon the specifics of dead and wounded regimental, brigade, division commanders. Not only were the ranks of the enlisted men suffering but the commissioned officers were being lost. Lee nearly constantly struggled to locate the talent and put it in the best situation.

A Glorious Army is not a review of the campaigns and battles. Wert sets forth an analysis of theatre strategy, army leadership and how the rank and file coped with the demands of the campaigns. Lee's reorganization of the army in June 1862 was not satisfactory; an army of divisions was difficult to coordinate. The emergence of Longstreet and Jackson as wing commanders in the Second Manassas and Maryland campaigns came as a necessity and not necessarily from the mind of Lee.

As the talent rose to the occasion, wing and later corps staff officers were organized. Lee, Longstreet and Jackson found talent to make their commands efficient. The Maryland Campaign of 1862 reveals their struggles. The lost copy of Order 191 was a duplicate sent to D. H. Hill from Jackson. Hill did not miss it because he had received a copy of Order 191 from Longstreet.

With clear and concise prose Wert makes is accessible the conflicts in the command structure and the exasperation of Lee, Longstreet and Jackson who continually lose their best division and brigade commanders to the battlefield. Wert does not neglect the enlisted men in the least bit. At times the commanders gave marching orders that drop soldiers out of the ranks. Indeed, the army lost crucial percentages of soldiers to the miles of Virginia's roads. Second Manassas, South Mountain, Antietam, and Gettysburg saw a great deal of physical exhaustion among the enlisted before and after the battles.

Wert shows that Lee's audacity and aggression brought victories, high casualties and a near disaster at Gettysburg. But, as Wert reviews Lee's options and evaluates his choices. How brilliant were the victories? How mediocre was the generalship of the Army of the Potomac? Wert sets the parameters but does not force his conclusions on the reader. A few events are unaddressed in A Glorious Army. Gettysburg is cut short on July 3. There is no mention of the Pennsylvania Reserves assault on Houck's Ridge and the Wheatfield after the Pickett/Pettigrew/Trimble Charge. Neither is Farnesworth's charge mentioned. The retreat from Gettysburg is covered on one page. Wert does dwell on the drastic loss of division and brigade commanders and hints at these loses may be irreplaceable. A study of the fall 1863 Mine Run campaign is not offered. CWL would not be surprised if in late 2012, Wert offers a study of the Army of Northern Virginia from 1863-1865. If so, CWL welcome Wert's study of the final year of Lee and his glorious army. Though, CWL would also welcome a biography of George Gordon Meade from Jeff Wert.


Jim Miller said...

Thanks for the review. I am nearly finished reading the book myself, but I do disagree with you on one point: I find the constant references to historians to be distraction, and merely an attempt at avoiding the plagiarism charges that have been leveled at so many historians in the last fifteen years or so.

I do appreciate the use of other historians' interpretations, but I think they could have been handled better with a liberal use of end notes, so as not to disturb the flow of the narrative.

Tim Kent said...

I agree with Jim. Nothing against Jeff Wert, but I've never enjoyed his writing style. He seems to have a way of distracting a reader with the flow of his story. He knows his history, but just doesn't have that catchy writing style. Thanks for the review.

Rea Andrew Redd said...

I can see your point that it may be a distraction. As for my self who enjoys reading 'the history of history' it was nice for Wert to tip his kepi to the other leading writers in the field. Especially to Joe Harsh who works are very important but are not a general audience books.