The three most important parts of a book are: a well constructed plot, compelling characters, and a satisfying conclusion.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A GLORIOUS ARMY: Robert E Lee's Triumph, 1862-1863 by Jeffrey D Wert (Reviewed by WC)

Publisher:  Simon & Schuster
Release Date:  April 5, 2011
Pages:  400

A Glorious Army by Jeffry D. Wert
Book Description:  From the time Robert E. Lee took command of the Army of Northern Virginia on June 1, 1862, until the Battle of Gettysburg thirteen months later, the Confederate army compiled a record of military achievement almost unparalleled in our nation’s history. How it happened—the relative contributions of Lee, his top command, opposing Union generals, and of course the rebel army itself—is the subject of Civil War historian Jeffry D. Wert’s fascinating new history.

Wert shows how the audacity and aggression that fueled Lee’s victories ultimately proved disastrous at Gettysburg. But, as Wert explains, Lee had little choice: outnumbered by an opponent with superior resources, he had to take the fight to the enemy in order to win. When an equally combative Union general—Ulysses S. Grant—took command of northern forces in 1864, Lee was defeated.
A Glorious Army draws on the latest scholarship to provide fresh assessments of Lee; his top commanders Longstreet, Jackson, and Stuart; and a shrewd battle strategy that still offers lessons to military commanders today.

WC's Review:  The Confederate victories in the Eastern, or Virginian theatre of the American civil war during Lee's initial two years as commander, were an eerie combination of the general's lack of battlefield coordination and the Union's tentative mismanagement. Every major battle of historical Southern significance during the Peninsular Campaign between the York and James River in Virginia, followed by the Fredericksburg fiasco on the Rappahannock in late December 1862 under General Burnside, rebuffed the Union thrust toward the capital of Richmond but were nevertheless considered victories for the forces of Union General George McClelland. Mechanicsville and Gaines's Mills, Malvern Hill, Glendale, and Cedar Mountain are not battle locales that come readily to mind in discussions of major encounters in 1862, but were massive slaughter pens when it came to tallying both Southern and Northern casualties totaling 55,000. Only the Battle of Antietam in Maryland, still called the single bloodiest day of the conflict, is rightly heralded as stifling the Rebel efforts for final victory. 

Significantly, the stalemate at Sharpsburg as the South called Antietam Creek, negated any Confederate acclaim gained at the Second Battle of Bull Run at Manassas Junction nearly a month earlier.

Six months after the shooting gallery humiliation on Mayre's Heights at Fredericksburg, Lee's forces gained a stunning victory a few miles west on the Rappahannock at a one-tavern town called Chancellorsville where Lee and Stonewall Jackson turned the greatest flanking movement in military history while outnumbered easily by 62,000 troops. Lee gambled and won, lost Jackson to friendly fire, and began to think of his veterans as invincible, truly a glorious army.
Gettysburg, of course, changed all that. With victory in hand on the first evening of Wednesday, June 1, Lee did not follow through with orders to General Richard Ewell, who had just arrived from Harrisburg, to take Cemetery Hill, and later, nearby Culp's Hill. Mistake. On the second day, while Ewell and subordinate commanders Early and Johnson pondered and pried Culp's Hill, Lee's "Old War Horse", James Longstreet, failed until late afternoon to initiate the battle plan to wrap up the Union forces on Little Round Top and got involved in bloody miasmas at the Wheatfield, Peach Orchard, and Devil's Den, thanks also in large part to the foolhardy gain-for-glory efforts of Union General Dan Sickles. Another mistake, or mistakes. Surely, Lee still believed, his glorious army would prevail tomorrow.

And, of course, tomorrow came, and if Lee's persistence against the advice of Longstreet had not prevailed, we history buffs and school children would never have heard of George Pickett, whose valiant effort in no-man's land between Seminary and Cemetery ridges on Friday the 3rd, the third day at Gettysburg, were doomed to inglorious failure from the get-go.

We also may never have heard of another Confederate pretty boy in James Ewell Brown Stuart, JEB Stuart, widely regarded as the best cavalry leader ever to ride a horse but who got lost in his mission to guard the right flank of Lee's glorious Army of Northern Virginia in its purpose to end the war this horrible war in Pennsylvania.

This book is truly a glorious read.

About the Author:  Jeffrey D. Wert is the author of eight previous books on Civil War topics, most recently Cavalryman of the Lost Cause and The Sword of Lincoln. His articles and essays on the Civil War have appeared in many publications, including Civil War Times IllustratedAmerican History Illustrated, and Blue and Gray. A former history teacher at Penns Valley High School, he lives in Centre Hall, Pennsylvania, slightly more than one hour from the battlefield at Gettysburg.