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How the North Nearly Lost

Two Great Rebel Armies: An Essay in Confederate Military History

by Richard M. McMurry
University of North Carolina Press, 204 pp., $19.95

Stonewall Jackson: Portrait of a Soldier

by John Bowers
Morrow, 367 pp., $19.95

The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan: Selected Correspondence, 1860–1865

edited by Stephen W. Sears
Ticknor & Fields, 651 pp., $35.00

Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander

edited by Gary W. Gallagher
University of North Carolina Press, 664 pp., $34.95

The American Civil War has evoked more historical writing than any other event in our past. That is scarcely surprising, for nearly as many American soldiers died in the Civil War as in all the other wars this country has fought put together. More than twice as many soldiers were killed in one day, at the battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, than fell in combat in the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Spanish-American War combined. Southern defeat in the Civil War uprooted and transformed the social basis of half the country. Northern victory preserved the United States from dismemberment and, by destroying slavery, gave the nation its “new birth of freedom” called forth by Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg. The war shaped America’s future in numerous and profound ways; if the conflict had not occurred, or had not turned out as it did, the United States and perhaps the world would be today a radically different place.

The scars left by the war are deepest in the South, where most of the fighting, destruction, and social transformation took place. No southerner can escape the legacy of the Civil War; few have escaped its fascination. “Like more than one present-day Southerner,” writes the Tennessee-born novelist and literary historian John Bowers in the preface to his biography of Stonewall Jackson, “I fought knowing more about the Civil War than I needed to know. It was too much around me…. It was a dark abyss you might fall into and never be heard from again.” But the struggle against temptation was a losing battle. Bowers read classic narratives of the Civil War by Margaret Leach, Bruce Catton, and Shelby Foote: “I myself started to slide into that deep hole of obsession from which few Civil War buffs return…. I was lost.”

Fundamental questions about the war continue to provoke debate and reinterpretation: What caused the war? What were its consequences? Why did the South lose? This last question has been the center of considerable scholarship in recent years. It is an implicit question underlying the books reviewed here, particularly Richard McMurry’s cogent, concise Two Great Rebel Armies. McMurry starts from a basic fact: Confederate arms nearly won the war by victories in the eastern theater (defined mainly as Virginia) but ultimately lost it by defeats in the western theater (defined as the vast region southwest of Virginia). The Confederacy’s two principal armies were Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of Tennessee, which had six different commanders during its unhappy career. For nearly four years the Army of Northern Virginia (and its predecessor) held off invading Union forces, achieving a strategic stalemate in Virginia while winning several spectacular tactical victories that undermined northern morale and more than once came close to causing the North to give up trying to conquer the South. But at the same time, Union arms in the West drove the Army of Tennessee (and its predecessor) from Kentucky into and through Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, finally forcing the surrender of the remnants of this army in North Carolina. During four years the Army of Tennessee won only one unequivocal tactical victory (Chickamauga) while yielding hundreds of thousands of square miles of territory to the invaders, whose morale and resources were augmented by each victory in a process that led eventually to northern triumph in the war.

What explains this contrast in the fortunes of the two main Confederate armies? Many things, according to McMurry. The first was a political decision: to locate the Confederate capital in Richmond. This meant that the hundred-mile belt of Virginia between Washington and Richmond would become the main field of military operations. Preoccupied with the defense of their capital, Confederate strategists concentrated on it their efforts and resources to the neglect of the West. McMurry claims that Union leaders, by contrast, recognized early that the war could be won in the West and therefore adopted “a strategy that involved acceptance of a stalemate in Virginia and a concentration of effort and resources in the West.” This is dubious. Abraham Lincoln was at least as concerned with the defense of Washington as Jefferson Davis was with the defense of Richmond. Northern manpower and supplies flowed disproportionately to the eastern theater, causing complaints of shortages and neglect in the West. To cite one fact not mentioned by McMurry: when Ulysses S. Grant captured the Mississippi town of Vicksburg and its 30,000 defenders in July 1863, he also acquired 60,000 Confederate rifles, mostly Enfields imported through the blockade, that were superior to the weapons carried by many of Grant’s infantrymen—and to those carried by some units in the Army of Northern Virginia.

McMurry is on firmer ground when he points to geography and terrain as factors favoring the Army of Northern Virginia. Western Confederate armies had to defend several hundred thousand square miles, while Robert E. Lee was charged mainly with defense of a narrow front in northern and eastern Virginia. In the West the principal navigable rivers—the Mississippi, Tennessee, and Cumberland—pointed southward into the Confederacy’s heartland, giving the Union’s superior river navy a line for operations in support of invasions. Most Virginia rivers flowed from west to east athwart the line of Union overland offensives, giving Confederate forces good lines of defense behind a half-dozen rivers between Washington and Richmond. But when Union forces changed their base for an offensive from Hampton Roads on the Chesapeake Bay westward up the Virginia Peninsula between the York and James rivers, as George B. McClellan did in 1862 and Grant did partially in 1864, the Confederacy’s river asset became something of a liability in Virginia.

The Shenandoah Valley west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, however, remained a Confederate asset throughout the war. Running from southwest to northeast, the valley offered an avenue for Confederate invasions and raids that pointed toward important northern cities, including Washington. In the other direction it pointed away from Richmond and the Virginia heartland. Confederates used the valley for three important offensives that took them to or across the Potomac River—Stonewall Jackson’s attacks in 1862, Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania in 1863, and Jubal Early’s raid to the very outskirts of Washington in July 1864. A Union army under Philip Sheridan finally cleaned Confederate forces out of the valley in the fall and winter of 1864–1865, but Sheridan then had to transfer his men by a roundabout route to the Richmond–Petersburg front instead of continuing his invasion from the valley.

The main reason for Confederate success in the East and failure in the West was the contrast in military leadership. On this question McMurry offers persuasive arguments and convincing evidence. Virginia had the strongest military tradition and best militia organization of any southern state. Virginia Military Institute and The Citadel (in Charleston, South Carolina) were the best military schools in the South—indeed, next to West Point, in the entire country. Nearly all of the VMI alumni and most of those from The Citadel served in the Army of Northern Virginia. They provided a class of officers unmatched in any other army, Confederate or Union. The raw material to make fighting men was no better in the Army of Northern Virginia than in the Army of Tennessee, but their leadership was far better. “The chief factor in explaining the different fates of the two major Confederate armies,” writes McMurry, “was to be found in the personality, character, intelligence, dedication, and, above all, in the integrity and moral courage of their commanding generals.” This was true most of all of Robert E. Lee, who in McMurry’s judgment as in that of most historians, stands tall above all other southern generals. “The explanation for most of the eastern army’s success is to be found in Lee himself.”

Lee had an uncanny ability to discern his adversary’s weakness and a bold willingness to take risks with his smaller army to exploit it. Lee’s right-hand man in these enterprises during the year of his greatest victories (from the spring of 1862 to the spring of 1863) was Stonewall Jackson. Curiously, McMurry has little to say about Jackson. But John Bowers’s biography of this dour Presbyterian and daring soldier more than compensates for the deficiency. His is not a typical scholarly biography. It does not rest on any new sources or new research. As a novelist, Bowers felt free to put dialogue and thoughts into the mouths and minds of his protagonists that, while plausible, are not literally documented. So long as the reader remains aware of this, it is a legitimate way of getting at a deeper “truth” than the literal documented truth, which is in any case only a partial and often a distorted truth. Bowers’s dialogue occasionally seems a bit gratuitous—particularly the profanity of Jackson’s quartermaster, John Harmon, who was, admittedly, notorious for his colorful language. Bowers also has a tendency to repeat anecdotes of dubious authenticity, and his grasp of the details of military operations is sometimes shaky.

Nevertheless, he offers a superb portrait of Jackson’s character and of the qualities of his leadership. An indifferent teacher at VMI for a decade before the war, Jackson was called (behind his back) “Old Tom Fool” by the cadets. He was noted for his eccentricities. Jackson suffered from numerous maladies, some of them imaginary, and tried various quack cures, some of them of his own devising. He sucked constantly on lemons (no one knew where he got them) to help his delicate digestion. He sat and stood rigidly erect in order, he said, “not to bend his digestive organs.” He refused to season his food with pepper because it made his left leg ache. He frequently held his right arm in the air—to enable the blood to drain back into his body, he said, and ease the pain.

Jackson was a devout Christian almost to the point of fanaticism. An orthodox predestinarian Calvinist, he attributed his Civil War victories to the Lord. He spent as much time as possible attending church, but regularly fell asleep during the sermon. Even after he became famous during the war, Jackson wore a threadbare tunic left over from the Mexican War and a battered cadet forage cap pulled down over his eyes. When his corps captured Harpers Ferry and its 12,000 defenders in September 1862, “a Northern newspaperman,” writes Bowers, reported that “Jackson wore a hat that looked so disreputable that a Northern beggar would refuse to wear it. Actually it was Jackson’s new hat. He had retired the old kepi three days before.” Curious Union soldiers crowded around to see the famous Stonewall Jackson on this occasion. “Boys, he’s not much for looks,” said one, “but if we had him we wouldn’t have been caught in this trap.”

That was true enough. Jackson had won his nickname “Stonewall” at the first battle of Manassas on July 21, 1861, when he held his brigade like a stone wall against the apparently victorious Yankees, helping to turn the battle in the southern favor. But his military trademark became speed and offensive striking force. In his Shenandoah Valley campaign of 1862, Jackson marched his army of 17,000 men in zig-zag fashion 350 miles in one month, fought and won four battles against three separate Union armies whose combined numbers were twice their own, used mobility and secrecy to achieve numerical superiority at the point of contact each time, and tied up 60,000 enemy troops for more than a month to prevent them from reinforcing McClellan’s army besieging Richmond.

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