Posted: July 29, 2003
iven its central place in American history, it should come as no surprise that more books have been written on the Civil War than on any other aspect of the nation's life. By one estimate, a complete Civil War bibliography would contain some 70,000 titles. And yet the books keep coming.
Given the vast number of books written about the Civil War, one might wonder what remains to be said. But in fact the quality of Civil War publications keeps improving. One reason for this is that historians are freeing themselves from the shackles of the "Lost Cause" school of historiography, which until recently shaped the way Americans interpreted the war.
Almost from the moment the conflict ended, the Lost Cause school towered like a colossus over Civil War history writing. Former Confederate General Jubal Early, among others, was instrumental in shaping Northern as well as Southern perceptions of the war. The works of Douglas Southall Freeman, the Virginian biographer of Robert E. Lee, represent the epitome of the Lost Cause interpretation, but even writers like Bruce Catton, who viewed the war primarily from a Northern perspective, accepted many of the Lost Cause assumptions.
There are two parts to this interpretation. The first is political, insisting that the cause of the war was not slavery but the oppressive power of the central government, which longed to tyrannize over the Southern states. The South desired merely to exercise its constitutional right to secede, but was thwarted by a power-hungry Lincoln. The second part is military: the noblest soldier of the war was Robert E. Lee. For three years, he and his army proved the backbone of the Confederate cause, fighting in Virginia, the most important theater of the war. But though his adversaries were far less skillful, they were able to bring to bear superior resources, ultimately overwhelming the Confederacy.
The first part of the Lost Cause argument is demonstrably false. Slavery was both the immediate and the deep cause of the war. There was no "constitutional right" to dissolve the Union. Southerners could have invoked the natural right of revolution, but didn't because of the subversive implications for a slave-holding society. But there is some truth to the second part. The South did fight at a material disadvantage, and in Lenin's words, "quantity has a quality all its own." Robert E. Lee was a remarkably skillful soldier who overcame immense odds on battlefield after battlefield.
Yet, an increasing number of historians have come to reject the Lost Cause argument that Virginia was the decisive theater of the war. The key to Union victory, they hold, was the West. Here Union armies used the Tennessee River as the main line of operations, penetrating deep into the Confederate heartland early in the war. By the end of 1862, they controlled all of the Mississippi River except the stretch between Vicksburg and Port Hudson. This fell in the summer of 1863. Union armies in the West then penetrated the Appalachian barrier at Chattanooga, opening the way to Atlanta, the fall of which ultimately doomed the Confederacy. They inflicted defeat after defeat on the main Confederate army in the West, the Army of Tennessee (not to be confused with the Union Army of the Tennessee), and captured vast tracts of territory that were essential to the Confederacy's survival.
Recent Civil War titles tend to fall into two categories: micro-histories on the one hand, and revisionist works on the other. James McPherson, the highly respected Civil War historian, describes the first category as "writing more and more about less and less." But in his excellent Gettysburg, Noah Andre Trudeau defends the importance of the first category for Civil War historiography. By breaking down an event "into every conceivable subtopic, from the experiences of individual regiments, soldiers, or combat arms, to medical and civilian histories, to second-by-second accounts of individual days (or even portions of individual days)" historians are able to achieve "a powerful refinement" of their view of the war. "Many cherished tales [have been] found to be fables, while other, long-overlooked acts of heroism [have been] revealed." Such studies have caused historians to reexamine the assumptions of the Lost Cause school.
The same is true of the second category. It's always difficult to attempt to revise long-held "truths," but it's absolutely necessary. Take the conventional wisdom concerning the generalship of Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. The former has been portrayed as surpassing all others in the conflict not only in soldierly virtue but also in magnanimity and humanity. He has been described as the perfect soldier—a Christian, a gentleman, a peerless commander who led his renowned Army of Northern Virginia to a spectacular series of victories against overwhelming odds. The latter has been described as a "butcher," a leader lacking in strategic sense who achieved victory only by bludgeoning his opponent into submission by means of superior resources.
Lee's reputation has come under attack lately. Some historians, most notably Thomas Connelly and Alan Nolan (although both reflect a view advanced by the British military writer J.F.C. Fuller in the 1930s) contend that Lee hurt the Southern cause because of a single-minded offensive orientation that led to casualties the Confederacy could not afford.
According to his detractors, Lee had no grand strategy, and for parochial reasons focused narrowly on defending his home state of Virginia. In his search for a Napoleonic battle of annihilation, he paid too high a cost in casualties. Lee's predilection for the offensive not only hastened the South's defeat but was a major cause of it. In Connelly's words, the Confederacy would "have fared better had it not possessed" a leader as aggressive as Robert E. Lee. Some of these historians have gone so far as to argue that Lee's reputation as a gifted soldier was "manufactured history," a postwar invention by such writers as Jubal Early, who distorted the record by vastly inflating Lee's abilities and wartime stature. Gary Gallagher and others have persuasively refuted Connelly's and Nolan's claims and defended Lee's performance, but such attacks on Lee were unthinkable in the heyday of the Lost Cause.
On the other hand, Grant's reputation has been enhanced. Historians have come to recognize the importance of the West in achieving Union victory, and it was Grant's leadership in the West that wrested the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers from the Confederacy and opened the Appalachian corridor to Atlanta. Grant's Vicksburg campaign now is seen by many as a masterpiece of operational art, surpassing even the 1862 Shenandoah Valley Campaign of "Stonewall" Jackson.
David Eicher's The Longest Night and Noah Andre Trudeau's Gettysburg are both beneficiaries of these recent historiographical trends. Using the findings of recent micro-histories, both books provide fresh and compelling accounts of battles and campaigns. Freed from the strictures of the Lost Cause school, they offer new assessments of strategic, operational, and tactical decisions.
Neither author is an academic historian. Eicher is an astronomer and Trudeau is an executive producer at National Public Radio. As such, they write in the tradition of Freeman, Shelby Foote, and Bruce Catton, talented amateur historians who make the Civil War accessible to the interested and educated layman.
Both books fill important niches. Eicher's The Longest Night is a comprehensive single-volume military history of the war. And while there have been many micro-histories of the campaign and battle in recent years, Trudeau's Gettysburg is the first overall treatment of this watershed event since Edwin B. Coddington's The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command appeared in 1968.
The Longest Night naturally will be compared to such other one-volume treatments of the war as Russell Weigley's A Great Civil War (Indiana University Press, 2000) and James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom (Oxford, 1988). For my money, the latter is still the best single book on the Civil War era, but it is not strictly a military history. McPherson devotes a substantial section of his book to the antebellum period, and his narrative of the war weaves together artfully the political, social, economic, and strategic strands of the conflict. But anyone desiring more than an outline of the military campaigns will have to look elsewhere.
A Great Civil War by Weigley, dean of American military historians, deserves a closer comparison to The Longest Night. A major strength of the former is Weigley's familiarity with military theory, both past and present. As he points out, planning and execution on both sides were hampered by conceptual deficiencies in the era's military theory. For instance, today, military art is usually divided into tactics, the employment of forces to win battles; the operational level of war, the use of campaigns, often involving several autonomous, independently maneuvering formations, to achieve strategic objectives within a theater of war; and strategy, the application of resources, including military force, to achieve the objects of the war as a whole.
Weigley contends that although some Civil War generals, especially Grant and Sherman had a nascent vision of operational art and strategy, the generals on both sides were, for the most part, unable to look beyond the next battle. (I disagree. Both Grant and Lee demonstrated a grasp of campaigning.) The prevailing idea of strategy in the 1860s, says Weigley, blurred the line between strategy and the operational level of war and, by focusing too narrowly on one theater at a time, prevented the systematic examination of how to apportion resources most effectively to win the whole war.
At the operational level of war, theater commanders rarely employed the coordinated maneuver of independent formations in order to fix the enemy in place and envelop and destroy him, as Napoleon had destroyed the Austrian army at Ulm in 1805. Although William Tecumseh Sherman commanded a group of three armies during the Atlanta campaign, for example, he employed this force only in a unitary manner, never exploiting its potential for independent maneuver.
A related strength of A Great Civil War is Weigley's ability to examine parts of the war in light of the whole. For instance, he showed that before General Henry Halleck could dispatch Grant up the Tennessee River in order to dislocate the Confederate defensive line in the West, it was necessary to remove the Confederate threat to the Trans-Mississippi areas of Missouri and northern Arkansas. Thus the little-known campaign that resulted in the battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas, was a strategically necessary prelude to the Union campaigns up the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, which wrested Kentucky and ultimately western and central Tennessee from the Confederates, flanking their defenses on the Mississippi.
Although Eicher's grasp of military theory is not quite as sure as Weigley's, he nonetheless provides a comprehensive, indeed encyclopedic, narrative of the war. He covers every aspect of it, from combat to medicine to military prisons, and every campaign, major or minor. Indeed, if one wants a quick update on a particular campaign or battle, one can turn to this volume.
Eicher makes a mistake at the outset by referring favorably to Michael Bellesiles's disgraced book, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture (Knopf, 2000). But he makes two much more profound errors in my judgment by arguing first, that the Confederacy could never have won the war; and second, that the strategy of the Confederacy was strictly defensive. The outcome of the war was not foreordained, as Eicher believes. Certainly the odds were stacked against the Confederacy, but until the fall of Atlanta and Lincoln's reelection in 1864, the South had a fighting chance to gain its independence. Those chances were probably best in the fall of 1862 and still good in the summer of 1863.
Nor was Confederate strategy defensive, despite the post-war claims of key Confederate leaders such as Jefferson Davis. During the war, both Davis and Lee recognized that as long as the North remained determined to subdue the South, the Confederacy could not win its independence. The Northern population had to be demoralized in order to force the Union to abandon the war.
Only by recognizing the Confederacy's need to take the offensive can one make sense of Lee's two forays across the Potomac. In both cases, Lee, with Davis's blessings, aimed to change the war's character by employing strategic turning movements and open-field maneuvering by infantry and cavalry, to neutralize the Union's advantage in engineering, artillery, and gunboats. For Lee, maneuver was not an end in itself but only a means to attack the enemy and inflict heavy losses. In this manner alone, Lee believed, could the South persuade the North's population that a costly and interminable struggle lay ahead if the Confederacy were not granted its independence. This perspective explains what appear otherwise to be the ill-conceived offensives into Maryland in September 1862 and into Pennsylvania in June and July 1863.
Like Eicher, Trudeau synthesizes the findings of the recent micro-histories and new interpretations of the war in order to produce a coherent treatment of his subject, the Gettysburg campaign (which marks its 140th anniversary this July). This campaign, a microcosm of the war on many levels, has been studied to death. It has been a battleground for Lost Cause writers.
Gettysburg was the single largest engagement on North American soil. Over a three day period, two armies totaling some 140,000 men clashed in desperate combat. Each side suffered nearly 23,000 casualties, including 6,000 Confederate and 5,000 Union soldiers killed or mortally wounded.
The obstacles facing the historian who wishes to examine Gettysburg are reflected in an apocryphal story about a meeting of the Southern Historical Society after the Civil War. The topic at hand concerned the mistakes the Confederates had made. The debate was heated and furious. Finally, one of the participants noticed that George Pickett was in attendance. "George," he said, "you were there. Why did we lose the battle?" Pickett replied, "You know, I always thought the Yankees had something to do with it."
So did Lee lose the battle or did the Union Commander, George Meade, win it? If the Confederates lost it, was it Lee's fault; or the fault of his corps commanders, James Longstreet, James Ewell, and A.P. Hill; or of his cavalry commander, "Jeb" Stuart, who was off on a raid instead of providing Lee with the intelligence he needed? Could Meade have destroyed Lee's Army of Northern Virginia had he pursued Lee more doggedly after the battle?
It is unlikely that the many controversies spawned by this campaign will ever be resolved, but Trudeau does an excellent job of sorting out the actions of the players and evaluating their performances during the campaign and the battle. As I read him, he seems to suggest that Lee fought the best battle he could under the circumstances, but that he was a victim of what Carl von Clausewitz called "friction" and the "fog of uncertainty" in war.
Trudeau provides this assessment of Lee's generalship on the battle's third day—his decision to launch "Pickett's Charge" (this name is another example of the power of the Lost Cause school. The fact is that fewer than half of the soldiers who attacked Cemetery Ridge on July 3 were from Pickett's all-Virginia division. The rest were mostly North Carolinians from two divisions of A.P. Hill's corps, commanded by J.J. Pettigrew and Isaac Trimble). "It says much about Lee's depth as a military commander that the plans for the assault were as thorough as they were," writes Trudeau, "especially considering the circumstances under which they were cobbled together. If all the parts had worked as they were designed to do, the grand attack might very well have succeeded."
Trudeau absolves Meade of the charge that he did not pursue Lee with sufficient vigor after the battle. The fact is, the Army of the Potomac was in no condition to pursue, having been handled very roughly during the three-day battle. As the Duke of Wellington once remarked, "the only thing worse than a battle won is a battle lost."
Lee's critics claim that his penchant for the offensive contributed to the defeat of the Confederacy because of the casualties incurred, pointing to Gettysburg as a prime example. But the idea that the Confederacy could have defeated the Union by adopting the strategic defensive is nonsense. For one thing, the Confederacy lacked the necessary strategic depth to employ a Fabian strategy of retreat (even if the Southern population would have stood for it). For another, when the Confederates did pursue the defensive, the end result was usually a siege—not a good idea, given Union strengths in artillery, engineering, and naval power. For instance, Confederate General Joseph Johnston, praised for his ability to fight on the defensive, almost lost Richmond in the spring of 1862 and did lose Atlanta in 1864.
My own judgment is that while the key to victory for the Union lay in the West, the Confederacy's best chance for success lay in Virginia, where the Confederacy had its best general and its best army. Given the disabilities under which the South labored, there is little the Confederacy could have done differently; no alternative strategy would have led to a better outcome. The ultimate failure of the Confederacy can be attributed to its inability to translate tactical success into strategic victory. While strategy trumps operations and tactics in determining the outcome of a war (the Germans were masters of operational art but were done in by strategic incompetence in two world wars), a successful strategy still requires the right tactical instrument. As good as Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia were, they were never sufficiently better than the Army of the Potomac to constitute that instrument.
The Longest Night and Gettysburg are excellent examples of Civil War history. We should be grateful for them and for their authors. In the age of so-called social history, those who can write military and political history in a clear, narrative style are treasures indeed.