Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Glorious Army by Jeffry D. Wert

After studying the Civil War for nearly thirty years of my life I have read more books than I wish to count which focus on the Army of Northern Virginia and its operations under the watchful eye of General Robert E. Lee. I have read microcosm histories, biographies, autobiographies, single campaign focused books and again just about everything that you can think of. Moreover, the historiography on Lee’s campaigns is so vast (books are still being published) that one wonders if anyone can come up with anything unique even though the author might revisit grounds so over frequently visited.
When I heard that historian/author Jeffry D. Wert was coming out with a book on Lee’s 1862-1863 campaigns I was mildly shocked. Wert had done an excellent job in the past with his biographies of Lee’s cavalry chief JEB Stuart, Lee’s chief officer James Longstreet and George A. Custer. Furthermore, his books entitled From Winchester to Cedar Creek: The Shenandoah Campaign of 1864, A Brotherhood Of Valor: The Common Soldiers of The Stonewall Brigade CSA and The Iron Brigade USA and his excellent study of the Army of the Potomac entitled The Sword of Lincoln: The Army of the Potomac were not only great reads but well researched studies which must find a place on any Civil War buffs bookshelf. As mentioned before Wert tended to look at things that hadn’t been overdone so again when I noticed that he was coming out with a book on this subject I didn’t really think that as good as a writer as he is that even he could do anything new. After some reflection I remembered reading Wert’s microcosm study on the third day at Gettysburg (another topic so overdone it sometimes seems tedious) and I remembered how good that book was. Wert took an old topic and reinvented it for his readers, making it easy to understand and like his other books his study was so good that it is being used by countless historians in their research and for their bibliographies. This coupled with his other successes I knew that Wert was an excellent writer and he would come through in his new book. After purchasing it and reading it I am happy to say that I was right.
Jeffry D. Wert’s new book officially entitled A Glorious Army: Robert E. Lee's Triumph, 1862–1863 is excellent. Wert’s research and thesis took him in a direction to support the idea that Robert E. Lee’s aggressive offensive tactics of 1862-1863 saved the Confederacy and put both Lee and his army on a pedestal that was respected by foreign observers, loved by the Confederate people and feared by anyone wearing the blue uniform of the Union. Wert asserts that “Lee’s audacity and adoption of the strategic offensive formed the core of the army’s operations…He based the strategy on a reasoned assessment of how the Confederacy could achieve victory over a numerically superior opponent with nearly unlimited resources. Lee knew that if the Confederacy rested idly by the North would slowly conquer, subjugate and destroy the Confederacy. To win Lee had to be aggressive and the Army of Northern Virginia and its officers became the blunt object that Lee hoped would defeat the North before its “industrial and human might overwhelmed” the entire “Southern populace”.
Never one to fall into “Lost Cause” canons Wert stays on track throughout the book which is divided into ten chapters with each devoted to introduction, to each campaign and the final chapter reviews Wert’s thesis and the final years of the war which ended with the Confederacy losing. Covered in the book are the following campaigns which made Lee’s army one of the greatest to ever take the field; The Seven Days, Second Manassas, Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. In each case Wert doesn’t overwhelm his readers with the overuse of facts but rather blends both primary and secondary sources in a overview of each battle which provides the reader with an excellent review of each campaign. To me a great Civil War author has the ability to take the reader into each battle without overdoing the tactical stuff. Wert makes you feel like you are in Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg or defending Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg as the relentless Union army attacked again and again.
Wert shows that after barely one year in command Robert E. Lee won four major battles and fight the Union army to a draw at Antietam despite overwhelming odds. Both Lincoln and Washington D.C. were threatened, foreign powers began to think that the Confederacy had a chance, and the Southern people believe that with Lee in command his army could win them their independence. Until the horrendous defeat at Gettysburg Lee’s army looked like it would force the North to negotiate for peace. This is an excellent study and a must read for all those who may be interested.
As a final note Jeffry Wert has provided a balanced study of Lee and the officers involved. I really enjoyed his analysis of the loss of General Thomas J. Jackson and its impact on Lee’s high command. Also, his analysis of Lee’s emphasis on his colonels and generals to lead from the front which led to so many victories also deprived the Confederate high command of its best officers as many of them were shot down and lost forever.
The book is excellent for both average laymen and those that know so much about these battles that it is always good to review and have an excellently written book for one to use. Amazingly Wert is able to do this in just 294 pages which is testament to his ability as a writer. The book also provides several easy to read maps and photos of the primary participants in Lee’s army. The book is entitled A Glorious Army but in reality Mr. Wert has provided readers with a glorious book.