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Here is where you can stay most up-to-date with the publication of Charles Knight's Valley Thunder: The Battle of New Market, including the latest info on its release, up-coming appearances by the author, latest reviews, more in-depth looks at various aspects of the battle and anything else that comes to mind.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Review: Wert, A Glorious Army

Been neglecting the old blog lately...time to catch up on some book reviews.

Jeffry Wert always has ben one of my favorite Civil War historians. Being in my "formative years" when Civil War Journal had a prime-time spot on the History Channel, the first historians I could put a face with the name were Wert, Jack Davis, Brian Pohanka, Gary Gallagher, James Robertson and Robert Krick. In fact, Wert's Winchester to Cedar Creek was one of the first CW books I ever read. Thus it was a real treat to meet Jeff in person a couple years ago at a conference at Liberty University.

Wert's latest book, A Glorious Army: Robert E. Lee's Triumph, 1862-1863 (Simon & Schuster), examines the Army of Northern Virginia during its "glory days" - the first year under Lee's command. During this time period, "the Confederate commander and his army crafted a record of achievement unmatched by any army in the annals of American military history" (xi). The author's stated "intent is not to offer detailed tactical studies of each battle...but to offer a narrative and analysis of the fighting, with a focus on leadership and on the experience of men on the firing lines" (xi). Having already tackled biographies of two of the army's three top lieutenants during this time (James Longstreet and JEB Stuart), Wert is well-prepared to address top leadership levels. But the author goes deeper, down to brigade level.

Lee's appointment to command after the wounding of Joe Johnston radically altered the course of the war in Virginia. Whereas the passive Johnston wanted his enemy to come to him and awaited a perfect opportunity to strike - which never seemed to materialize in his mind - Lee recognized that that strategy could never work. "Lee's audacity and adoption of the strategic offensive formed the core of the army's operations. From his initial days in command he commited the army to aggressive and daring movements...His aggressiveness fulfilled the expectations of Jefferson Davis' administration and the Southern populace" (290).

And although some have criticized Lee for bleeding the ANV beyond the point of offensive effectiveness, Wert points out that from June 1862 to July 1863 Confederate casualties were 7,000 fewer than Federal losses during the same period (90,000 v 97,000), but of course percentage-wise this was a far greater loss for Lee than for his opponents (292). Yet continuing as Johnston and others in the West had done would be disastrous. "The Confederate government witnessed the consequences of a passive defensive strateg during the fall of 1861 and the winter of 1862, when Union armies scored victories and penetrated into Southern territory" (293).

The best chance for victory, not just in Virginia but overall, lay with Lee's strategy. His "decision to give battle at Sharpsburg...embodied, perhaps more than atany other time and place, the combativeness of the man and the audacity of the general" (128).

And Lee knew how to handle President Davis. Whereas Davis wanted a hands-on role with military operations and had been quite involved, or at least attempted such, during Johnston's tenure (and initially tried to continue this with Lee), the President found Lee much more communicative than Johnston and a much better working relationship between Commander in Chief and army commander was the result. From the beginning of his command tenure, Lee made "early and continuous efforts to keep the President apprised of his thinking and of army matters. Unlike Johnston, Lee advised and sought he counsel of the acutely sensitive chief executive...He was frank and respectful with Davis, a manner the President appreciated" (23).

Wert's newest volume is a welcome addition to the literature on the Army of Northern Virginia, written such that a new-comer can follow all the while still providing material for scholars to chew on. An excellent book.