The contradictory army of General Lee
A force full of fight yet ill-suited to war.
The men of the Confederate States of America had liberty on their minds when they enlisted in the struggle to preserve slavery. “Better to die freemen than live [as] slaves,” declared a Texan soldier. Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, put it this way: “Will you be slaves or will you be independent?”
Today, the notion of freedom lovers fighting for slavery is bizarre. But steeped as they were in the glories of both the South and the United States, the troops of Dixie had no problem uniting their faith in democracy with an unquestioned commitment to keeping blacks in bondage.
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In the minds of the soldiers, “just as Revolutionary War veterans had fought to secure liberty for their descendents, so must they preserve it for future generations,” writes Joseph Glatthaar in his perceptive and fascinating history General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse.
In other words, they were fighting for their great-great grandchildren – the white ones – who live today.
As for the Union troops, the cocky soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia figured they had no “legitimate cause” and no motivation to fight. They fully expected to easily vanquish the North’s superior numbers and resources. And as Mr. Glatthaar shows, they nearly did.
The strength of “General Lee’s Army” lies in Glatthaar’s exploration of the personal experiences of individual soldiers. Armed with excerpts from dozens of letters to family members, he carefully tracks the soldiers’ transformation from greenhorns to suffering masses, all under the command of a patrician tactician.
Many of the army’s most severe challenges had nothing to do with the Union army. Countless soldiers were so dependent on women and slaves back home that they couldn’t cook a potato, light a fire, or operate a gun. Discipline was a problem that Glatthaar blames on a “spirit of profligacy and self-
indulgence” in the prewar South.
As Glatthaar’s analysis reveals, the Southern troops were deeply invested in slavery and the leisure that it brought. Four out of every 9 soldiers came from slaveholding households, although only
1 in 4 Southern homes had slaves.
In wartime, discipline required officers to order others around, and “such dominance of the individual smacked of slavery” to many who weren’t accustomed to hard work in the first place.
The failure to follow orders hurt Lee’s army. Many soldiers plundered farms on Southern soil, stealing from the very civilians whose support they needed to win. Some of the top officers, meanwhile, couldn’t be bothered with the nitty-gritty details of administration, no minor matter for an army forced to travel up and down the Eastern seaboard and cope with filth, hunger, and disease.
But the “Rebels” had advantages, too. It was their society under threat, a fact that boosted their morale. And they had the masterful General Lee.
Glatthaar portrays Lee as a man almost at war with himself, charming and playful but also hot-tempered, cold, and “almost unbearably irritable.” Lee was “renowned as a cautious man,” Glatthaar writes, “yet he ordered some of the boldest maneuvers in American military history.”
Glatthaar could have devoted more space to contrasting the experiences of Lee’s army with that of the Union army or with the rest of the Confederate forces. It’s sometimes hard to tell whether the experiences of the Southern soldiers were truly unique.
On the whole, though, “General Lee’s Army” is a fine blend of scholarly research and you-are-there history. Glatthaar brings new life to the drive of the Dixie soldiers, while never neglecting their bonds to the sins of the South.
Ultimately, the end came in 1865, but not before Lee’s army turned to an unexpected source of manpower – slaves. Few of them fought, unlike in the Union army, and they made no difference in the grand scheme of things. Still, some Southerners welcomed their help. “I would make them my equals rather than submit,” said one.
He was among the first – and definitely not the last – to find a way to separate the South from slavery.
Randy Dotinga is a freelance writer in San Diego.