Friday, November 30, 2007

Book Review #6 Lee and His General in War and Memory

When you go to a local bookstore or library you are overwhelmed by the number of Civil War books. With so many books it is impossible to read them all. If you have a deeply rooted interest in the Civil War it is likely that you have read the basics. You know the facts and the basic plotline of the war and you can go deeper into the things that interest you. Is it Lincoln? Is it Lee or Grant? Is it the common solider? A specific campaign or battle? Is it…..well you get the idea. I cannot even calculate the number of Civil War books that I’ve read. It numbers in the thousands. But what are the best books that I’ve ever read? This new series will discuss and review these.
Lee and His Generals in War and Memory by Gary W. Gallagher is one of the best books that I’ve ever read. I am a bit biased because I enjoy Gallaghers writing and I have profound interest in the Lost Cause. This collection of twelve essays, Gallagher examines Robert E. Lee, his principal subordinates, the treatment they have received in Confederate military history and the continuing influence of the Lost Cause on Civil War literature. The historical image of Lee and his generals were shaped by a large degree by the writings of ex-Confederates. These reminiscences were utilized by Civil War historians of later generations and are still used to interpret the conflict. Lost Cause leaders portrayed Lee as a perfect Christian warrior and Thomas J. Jackson as his peerless lieutenant. Their failings were the result of incompetent performances by other generals. Sound familiar? It should because Lost Cause mythology is taught in our schools and you probably have read books by Bruce Catton and Douglas Freeman who are just two people who have perpuated the myths.
The book is divided into four parts and I will briefly discuss them here. Part I offers four essays of Lee and they explore is decisions during Sharpsburg, Gettysburg and the Overland Campaigns. Another essay discusses Lee’s generalship in light of Thomas Connolly and Alan T. Nolans “anti-Lee” books. Gallagher attests that Lee’s generalship was suited for the Confederate people and even though it was bloody it extended the life of the Confederacy beyond the realm of possibility. “More than once he brought them to the verge of independence, in the process creating a record of military accomplishment amid difficult circumstances.” Part II has five essays the scrutinize several of Lee’s subordinates. Included amongst these essays are James Longstreet, Richard Ewell, A.P. Hill, Jubal Early, Stonewall Jackson and John Magruder. Margruder is one of the best because it explores the career of the virtually unknown generals whose exploits go unnoticed by the casual Civil War buff. The Jackson article is equally interesting because it seeks to answer if Jackson’s reputation as a general is justified by his performance. All five of these pieces not only consider how Lost Cause literature built up or destroyed reputations but also illuminate the ways that post-Civil War authors have written of these men.
Part III is wonderful because it takes Lost Cause authorship a step further. Rather than devote essays entirely to the impact of the Lost Cause on post-Civil War authors like Douglas Freeman, Gallagher take it in a different direction. He exposes the writings of Jubal Early and LeSale Corbell Pickett and how they influenced the Lost Cause myth. The Early article explores his undying love for the Southern cause and how he extolled that on Lee and Jackson. The Ms. Pickett article exposes her as a person who succeeded in making her husband the perfect Lost Cause warrior and overstated his role in the conflict. This work was actually counterproductive because historians are still struggling to understand Pickett as a man and as a general. This confusion is due to Ms. Pickett’s writings and possible forgeries of her husbands letters.
The final section contains two essays devoted to Civil War media and how it is influenced by the Lost Cause. The best article of the two would be of interest to those who have sat through Ken Burns 1990 Civil War documentary. Few realize that it too was heavily influenced by the Lost Cause and Gallagher alludes to the fact that this influence may have been motivated by the entertainment aspect rather than the historical record. Burns sought to entertain his viewers rather than provide an good record of the war. Virtually unexplored are the roles played by citizens, blacks, slaves and women. Burns devotes some time to these subjects and instead focuses on the Virginia theater. The other article deals with battlefield preservation and how neo-Confederates seek out battlefields in order to pay homage to Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. How should Americans view the war? These are interesting questions and I think anybody would enjoy these two articles because they make you think about your own viewpoint of the war.
Some reviews might say that these articles are “above” the casual Civil War leader but I don’t believe that is true. The average layman and the Civil War buff will thoroughly enjoy these essays and on your next trip to the library or bookstore you have to get a copy. It will attract anybody interested in General Lee, the Army of Northern Virginia and the establishment of popular images of the Confederate military. With the thousands of Civil War texts on hand this one will undoubtedly make you a better historian.

Gallagher, Gary W. Lee and His Generals in War and Memory. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998.

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