A Glorious Army: Robert E. Lee’s Triumph, 1862-1863
Over the past 6 months I have toured some of the important Civil War battlefields from 1862-63.
Gaines Mill. Second Manassas. South Mountain. Antietam. Fredericksburg. Chancellorsville. Brandy Station. Gettysburg.
They were battles in which Confederate general Robert E. Lee and a host of Union generals squared off, with little immediate impact on a final resolution of the war but guaranteeing the Southern Confederacy a chance to live a little longer, and denying the North a chance to end the rebellion in the Eastern Theater once and for all. Tens of thousands of men died, territory changed hands, and by the summer of 1863, very little had been resolved in terms of a decisive victory on the scale of Waterloo that would wreck one army or the other.
Talented and prolific author Jeffry D. Wert argues in A Glorious Army: Robert E. Lee’s Triumph, 1862-1863, that Lee’s audacity and aggressiveness on the battlefield “fired southern ambition and emboldened Confederate soldiers everywhere.”
That same boldness led to a disaster at Gettysburg.
Confederate reenactors at the annual Whitehall Civil War Days in Whitehall Township, Pennsylvania, in 2010. This year’s event will be held on June 11-12.
Wert argues that events forced Lee’s hand – the South needed to gain recognition as a nation, or at least force the North to the negotiating table. Lee’s string of victories in 1862, notwithstanding the draw at Antietam, and early 1863 had so far failed to bring the US Congress and President Lincoln into peace talks. Supplies were running low; Virginia could not feed Lee’s army for another year in the field. Wert writes that Lee faced another dilemma by the spring of 1863 – “the diminishing number of quality officers impacted the army’s effectiveness.” He could not afford to continue the pattern of winning battles, but losing men that the North seemingly could replace at will.
it was time to invade the North, a decision that ultimately led to the Battle of Gettysburg.
“Most likely urgency factored into Lee’s thinking,” writes Wert, “but calculated boldness drew him northward.”
A Glorious Army: Robert E. Lee’s Triumph, 1862-1863 is an absorbing read, well flowing and full of nuggets of excellent prose and insight from the skilled hand of Jeff Wert. The narrative is fact-paced, yet offers a comprehensive overview of the command decisions faced by the South’s most visible general. Lee was repeatedly winning battles, but could sense the war slipping away as manpower and supplies dwindled. The stage was set for 1864 and a new kind of enemy opponent – a stubborn bulldog named U.S. Grant. Lee would be forced into a defensive war, one not to his taste, with the inevitable outcome of defeat unless the North could be forced to the negotiating table.
Grant was still in Lee’s future in the scope of Wert’s book, but the specter of Lincoln finally finding an aggressive and competent Union general was one of many factors that drove Lee so boldly through 1863. Faced with a seemingly endless array of less-than-stellar opponents, Lee won a string of victories but failed to demolish or destroy the Army of the Potomac’s fighting abilities.
And ultimately, Lee’s triumph in 1862 and 1863 was incomplete. Lacking Waterloo, the die was cast for the Pennsylvania Campaign.
Jeffry Wert’s new book is an excellent treatise that well deserves a space in your Civil War bookcase.
Here is the publisher’s sales blurb on the book.
In A GLORIOUS ARMY: ROBERT E. LEE’S TRIUMPH 1862-1863 (Simon & Schuster; April 5, 2011), acclaimed Civil War historian Jeffry D. Wert masterfully deconstructs thirteen months of unparalleled military triumph, examining every element of Lee’s success while simultaneously dissecting the innate organizational flaws and battlefield tendencies that virtually guaranteed eventual disaster. Laudatory without hero worship, critical without carping, Wert employs narrative history and analysis to reward readers with a completely objective account of not only what happened, but why.
Though Lee’s ultimate defeat was based in part of his own miscalculations, Wert concludes that “a singular fact stands foremost: Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia recast the war’s direction. By maneuver and daring, Lee led his army on what must be regarded as the Confederacy’s best route to a victory against formidable odds. No American army, against such odds…compiled such a record as that of the Army of Northern Virginia, and none altered the direction of a conflict more.”
Written with keen insight, A GLORIOUS ARMY stands as Jeffry D. Wert’s finest achievement in a writing career that was already among the most distinguished of all Civil War historians. Kirkus Reviews raves that A GLORIOUS ARMY is “an energetic, evenhanded assessment that gets at the heart of Lee’s genius and the heroic achievements of the army he so ably led.” History buffs and general readers alike will learn much here while also being entertained by a master storyteller at his best.
A Glorious Army: Robert E. Lee’s Triumph, 1862-1863
Jeffry D. Wert
Simon & Schuster, 2011
383 pages, annotated, indexed