Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Glorious Army: Robert E. Lee's Triumph 1862-1863 by Jeffry D. Wert

By Jeffry D. Wert

The Confederate defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg has often been referred to as the turning point of the American Civil War.  Since Robert E. Lee assumed the command, the Army of Northern Virginia won a string of battle victories: the Seven Days, Second Manassas, Antietam (not a victory, but a tactical draw), Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.  Up until its defeat at Gettysburg the Army of Northern Virginia seemed nearly invincible.

So how is it that in mid July 1863, Robert E. Lee’s army should find itself defeated and retreating from Pennsylvania back to Virginia?  Jeffry D. Wert attempts to answer that question.  His book, “A Glorious Army: Robert E. Lee's Triumph, 1862-1863” begins with Robert E. Lee’s assumption of the command of the Army of Northern Virginia in June of 1862 and traces through its defeat at Gettysburg.  This is not a blow by blow account of each of the battles, but rather it is an amalgamation of scholarly interpretations by noted historians of Lee’s generalship, his tactics and his strategy.

Wert distills the insights, opinions and historical interpretations of such noted historians as Gabor Borritt, Peter Carmichael, Thomas Connelly, Gary Gallagher, Joseph Glatthaar, Joseph Harsh, Robert K. Krick, Donald Pfanz, George Rable, Ethan Rafuse, and Steven Woodworth into a single tome.  Wert ably demonstrates that Lee’s aggressive and daring tactics and his bold strategy, the offensive defense, cost the Army of Virginia its life blood.  With each succeeding battle the army’s officer corps, as well as its rank and file, was being decimated.

“A Glorious Army” is well researched and Mr. Wert’s narrative is easily read.  However, its one drawback is his constant references to other historians: “Robert K. Krick has argued . . .” “Undoubtedly, as Harsh maintained . . .” “The historian Douglas Southall Freeman concluded . . .”  These references not only stop his narrative dead in its tracks, but I believe serve only as a thinly veiled attempt to avoid charges of plagiarism that have so often been launched towards noted historians in the last decade or so.  Wert’s narrative would have been better served by making these citations in his end notes instead of inserting them into body of his text.

There is no new material in Wert’s book.  It is not a book for well read students of the war, nor do I believe it is intended to be.  “A Glorious Army” is rather a book for those who may be new to the study of the war, and with the sesquicentennial anniversary of the war and its events, there are sure to be many people who would find the book useful in their understanding of the Confederate viewpoint of the war’s Eastern Theater.

ISBN 978-1416593348, Simon & Schuster, © 2011, Hardcover, 400 pages, Maps, Photographs, End Notes, Bibliography & Index. $30.00

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