I finished reading General Lee's Army: From Victory to Collapse, by Joseph Glatthaar, this past week and must say I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It's a different look at a well-known Civil War army; instead of solely focusing on the campaigns and battles, Glatthaar focuses on the men who served in the ranks. This is not to say that that the great campaigns were glossed over; Glatthaar adopted a chronological approach, taking us from First Manassas through Appomattox. But the book's greatest value is its examination of the soldiers who fought in the Army of Northern Virginia. Glatthaar's years painstakingly searching through census records and thousands of letters and diaries reveals a different--and far more accurate--depiction of the soldiers who served in Lee's army. In much popular thought, Lee's men assume somewhat mythical qualities, but, as Glatthaar clearly shows, Lee's men were, well, human. A good percentage of them were of solid, middle-class background, and a majority of them had a personal, vested interest in slavery. The old canard that because most of Lee's men were not themselves slaveowners so they were thus not fighting to preserve the institution of slavery does not hold any water, as Glatthaar demonstrates. Most soldiers who served in the Army of Northern Virginia were young, between 21 and 25 years of age, and most still resided with their parents or with other family members. Most were thus too young to be slaveowners in their own right. However, Glatthaar's examination of the census records shows that these men resided in slave-owning households. In addition, becoming a slaveowner was one the things to which most white Southern males aspired, so just because they did not own any slaves when they volunteered does not mean they were not fighting for the preservation of slavery. Glatthaar also shows that the Army of Northern Virginia suffered throughout the war from a lack of discipline, something that even Lee was unable to correct.
Through his research into the census records of the men who fought under Lee, Glatthaar has produced a social history of the Army of Northern Virginia that enables us to gain a much better understanding of who the Confederate soldier was, where they came from, and why they served. Attention is also paid to conflicts and struggles within the army's high command, and General Lee's problem in finding competent officers to head his brigades, divisions, and, throughout the final two years of the war, his corps.
Glatthaar presents a balanced view of the Army of Northern Virginia, writes in a clear, easy-to-understand fashion, and challenges us to take a new look at the soldiers and officers who served in one of the war's greatest armies. For these and other reasons, I recommend this book to anyone interested in American history in general, and in the Civil War in particular. It makes for a great addition to any library.