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.
Jackson applied his rule of strategy—“always mystify, mislead, and surprise the enemy”—to his own subordinates as well. Fearful of intelligence leaks, he never conferred with his division commanders nor divulged his plans to them. He merely ordered them to do what they considered impossible. Jackson consulted only with Robert E. Lee; together they devised plans to trap enemy forces in surprise attacks or raids in their rear that required Jackson’s troops to march twenty-five miles a day whether or not they had food to eat or shoes to wear. Jackson expected them to march and fight on sheer will power alone. “He classed all who were weak and weary, who fainted by the wayside, as men wanting in patriotism,” wrote one of his officers. “If a man’s face was as white as cotton and his pulse so low you could scarcely feel it, he looked upon him merely as an inefficient soldier and rode off impatiently.”1
Many of Jackson’s officers and men initially resented his iron discipline and believed him crazy. But when they perceived the results of his methods they began to take pride in their reputation as “Jackson’s foot cavalry.” Only once did Jackson’s vaunted willpower and mobility break down—in the Seven Days’ battles before Richmond between June 25 and July 1, 1862. Lee brought Jackson’s force secretly from the Shenandoah Valley to attack the right wing of McClellan’s army as part of Lee’s counteroffensive to relieve the threat to Richmond. The strategy worked, but no thanks to Jackson, who performed sluggishly and even fell asleep frequently during several days of fighting. Jackson and many of his men were suffering from stress fatigue brought on by seven weeks of constant marching and fighting. But Jackson soon revived to perform brilliantly in the campaigns that culminated in the battles of Second Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville—in each of which Jackson’s genius was a major factor in winning a spectacular victory or staving off a disastrous defeat.
The circumstances of his death were ironic but perhaps not surprising. After a rapid and stealthy flank march at Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863, Jackson’s corps crushed the right wing of the Army of the Potomac. Seeking to press forward with a night attack in the moonlight, Jackson rode ahead for a personal reconnaissance and was shot mistakenly by his own troops as he galloped back toward Confederate lines. He survived amputation of an arm, but pneumonia set in and he died a week later. The striking power of Lee’s army was never again the same.
Some historians come close to attributing the ultimate Confederate loss of the war to the loss of Jackson. They maintain that if Jackson had been in command of his corps the first day at Gettysburg, he would have followed up the initial successful attack by storming Cemetery Hill instead of holding back, as did his cautious successor Richard Ewell. Perhaps. But Richard McMurry perspicaciously warns us that in this instance as well as in the general matter of comparing the eastern and western Confederate armies, success or failure cannot be explained by factors indigenous to the South alone. The relative fighting qualities and leadership of enemy forces must be taken into account. The Army of the Potomac fought well at Gettysburg. And Union armies in the western theater proved to be more effective in the war’s earlier stages than the hard-luck Army of the Potomac.
This was true not because western Union soldiers were better fighters than easterners. Indeed, the Army of the Potomac fought more big battles and inflicted (as well as suffered) more casualities than all of the western armies combined. Rather, it was because of superior Union leadership in the western theater. All four of the Union’s best generals came out of the West: Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, Philip Sheridan, and George Thomas. Most of the Confederacy’s top generals served in Virginia. In effect, during the first three years of the war the Union’s first team of generals fought the Confederacy’s second team in the West, with the situation reversed in the East. Not until Grant and Sheridan came east in 1864 did the Army of the Potomac acquire the aggressive, determined leadership that finally carried it to victory.
The letters of George B. McClellan edited by Stephen W. Sears, who also published a superb biography of McClellan in 1988, offer the beginnings of an explanation of why the arrival of Grant and Sheridan made such a difference. McClellan created the Army of the Potomac and commanded it during the first sixteen months of its existence. An efficient organizer and drillmaster, McClellan molded this army into a disciplined fighting machine. Cautious, indecisive, and fearful of risk, however, he continually invented reasons why he could not commit this machine to full power. He stamped his personality on the officer corps, including those who succeeded him in command after Lincoln, disillusioned with McClellan’s inaction and defense-mindedness, sacked him in November 1862.
Why did McClellan fail? He seemed to have everything going for him. Born into a well-to-do Philadelphia family, he was educated at the best private schools, entered West Point by special permission at the age of fifteen, graduated second in his class in time to fight in the Mexican War where he won two brevets for distinguished service, and emerged as one of the brightest young officers in the peacetime army of the 1850s. After a brief civilian career in which he became a railroad president at the age of thirty-two, McClellan returned to the army when the Civil War broke out. Winning praise as commander of Union forces that gained control of western Virginia and laid the groundwork for the new state of West Virginia, McClellan received a summons to Washington in July 1861 to take command of the dispirited remnants of the Union army routed at Bull Run in the war’s first major battle. Three months later he also became general in chief of the entire United States Army, at the age of thirty-four. Newspapers hailed him as the “Young Napoleon” who would promptly win the war and save the Union.
But with the fine army he created McClellan never seized the initiative, never took the war to the enemy except at Antietam, where his timidity threw away the best opportunity before Appomattox to ruin the Army of Northern Virginia. The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan provides clues to the mystery of McClellan’s peculiar case of “the slows,” as Lincoln called it. More than half of the 811 documents in this volume are published here for the first time. The most important are McClellan’s extraordinarily frank and revealing letters to his wife and to his political confidant Samuel L.M. Barlow, a prominent New York Democrat. They contain details of McClellan’s political ambitions, which led him to run for president against Lincoln in 1864, and of his conservatism that caused him to oppose the abolition of slavery as a northern war policy. But the letters are most valuable as a revelation of McClellan’s personality, which lay at the root of his military failure. They make clear that his initial success and fame went to his head. “I receive letter after letter—have conversation after conversation calling on me to save the nation,” McClellan wrote to his wife soon after he arrived in Washington. In Congress and at the White House,
[I] was quite overwhelmed by the congratulations I received & the respect with which I was treated…. They gave me my full way in everything…. By some strange operation of magic I seem to have become the power of the land…. God has placed a great work in my hands…. I was called to it, my previous life seems to have been unwittingly directed to this great end.2
From the euphoria of this messiah complex there was nowhere to go but down. As the months went by and the press began to criticize McClellan for doing nothing with his army except to hold grand reviews, his private letters became filled with self-pity and peevish complaints about lack of support from the administration. He described Lincoln as a “gorilla,” the Cabinet as “geese,” Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton as a “depraved hypocrite and villain,” and General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, who retired on November 1, 1861, to make way for McClellan, as “a perfect imbecile…. The people call upon me to save the country—I must save it and cannot respect anything that is in the way.”3
Worst of all, McClellan began inflating his intelligence estimates of the number of enemy troops facing him by a factor of two or three. “I am here in a terrible place,” he wrote to his wife on one occasion. “The enemy have from 3 to 4 times my force—the Presdt. is an idiot, the old General in his dotage—they cannot or will not see the true state of affairs.”4 In actual fact, McClellan at that time had twice the enemy’s numbers. His repeated distortions of Confederate strength provided McClellan with a pretext for inaction and an excuse for failure when Robert E. Lee drove him away from Richmond in the Seven Days battles. After those battles Secretary of War Stanton denied McClellan’s claim that he was outnumbered. McClellan commented: “Stanton’s statement that I outnumbered the rebels is simply false—they had more than two to one against me.” 5 Stanton, of course, was right. At Antietam McClellan outnumbered Lee by two to one, but professed to believe that Lee outnumbered him and therefore kept 20,000 men out of the battle as a reserve against those phantom Confederate legions whom he expected to counterattack.
What accounts for this pathology of McClellan’s? Some historians have blamed Secret Service Chief Allan Pinkerton for the inflated estimates of enemy numbers. But it seems clear that McClellan believed what he wanted to believe. The truth is that, having experienced nothing but success in his career to 1861, McClellan was afraid to risk failure. He lacked the mental and moral courage to act; he did not have the quality possessed by Lee and Grant and Jackson of willingness to risk defeat as the only way to gain victory. To cover his fears, McClellan shifted the blame to others—to Lincoln and Stanton for not sending him reinforcements, to Republicans in general for politically motivated efforts to undermine him.
McClellan also suffered from what might be described as the Manassas Syndrome—a belief in Confederate martial superiority stemming from the rout of Union forces in the war’s first big battle. Though McClellan had not fought there, he arrived in Washington a few days later to find, as he later wrote, “no army to command, [but] a mere collection of regiments cowering on the banks of the Potomac, some perfectly raw, others dispirited by their recent defeat.”6 McClellan could never rid his mind of this image, which each subsequent Confederate victory in Virginia reinforced.
This insight is one of the most important contained in the engaging memoirs of Edward Porter Alexander, chief of artillery in James Longstreet’s corps and the best artillerist in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Alexander wrote with equal skill; his Fighting for the Confederacy offers one of the best accounts of that army by a participant in all of its battles. It is actually the second book of Alexander’s memoirs to be published; the first, Military Memoirs of a Confederate, came out in 1907 during Alexander’s life-time. It won critical acclaim for its rigorous analysis and exact narrative, but it also evoked expressions of regret that Alexander had put so little of himself into the story.
The fact is that he had done just that in an earlier draft completed in 1899, which the historian Gary Gallagher has rescued from Alexander’s papers and edited with a skilled hand. Fighting for the Confederacy, published now for the first time, is more personal and less restrained than Military Memoirs in its frank judgment of men and measures. It also contains valuable subjective as well as critical insights on the point in question here: the success of the Army of Northern Virginia. Evaluating the Confederate victory at First Manassas, Alexander wrote that “if we got no other very material spoils from the fight we at least brought off a great morale, one to which we afterward added in almost every fight.” By Second Manassas a year later Lee’s army “had acquired that magnificent morale which made them equal to twice their numbers”—especially in McClellan’s eyes. At Antietam McClellan “threw away a chance which no other Federal commander ever had” perhaps, as Alexander says of another occasion, because of “the moral oppression of knowing who were his antagonists, & feeling himself outclassed” by Lee and Jackson. “Had it been Grant in command he would not have dreamed of giving up the fight,” observed Alexander. “But Grant had been built up by successes in the West, & the Army of the Potomac had never had the luck necessary to properly educate a general.”
So Grant had to educate the Army of the Potomac out of its McClellan legacy. In his first battle after coming east as general in chief and strategic commander of the Army of the Potomac, Grant began the educating process. On the second day of the battle of the Wilderness, Lee attacked both flanks of the Union forces with some success. A distraught brigadier rode up to Grant and cried out: “This is a crisis…. I know Lee’s methods well by past experience; he will throw his whole army between us and the Rapidan, and cut us off completely from our communications.” Grant slowly took his cigar from his mouth and fixed the man with a stare: “I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do. Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.”7
Here was the formula for success that explained the contrast between the western and eastern Union and Confederate armies. For the first time the North’s first team of commanders faced the Confederacy’s first team. And one of the Confederacy’s best players—Jackson—was no longer on the team, while the defeatist Union coach—McClellan—had been retired. The four books under review, each representing a genre of Civil War literature—monograph, biography, collected letters, and memoirs—help us to understand how the Union finally won the Civil War after the Confederacy had come close to winning it in the eastern theater.
October 12, 1989
Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (Random House, 1958), p. 426. ↩
George B. McClellan to Mary Ellen McClellan, July 27, July 30, August 9, and October 30, 1861. ↩
McClellan to Mary Ellen McClellan, August 8, August 9, October 10, and November 17, 1861, July 22, 1862. ↩
McClellan to Mary Ellen McClellan, August 16, 1861. ↩
McClellan to Samuel L.M. Barlow, July 23, 1862. ↩
McClellan to Edwin W. Stanton, February 3, 1862. ↩
Horace Porter, Campaigning With Grant (1897; reprinted in paperback by Da Capo, 1986), pp. 69–70. ↩