'Fresh Perspective on Lee's Virtues' A Glorious Army: Robert E. Lee's Triumph, 1862-1863. Jeffry D. Wert. Simon & Schuster. 400 pages; black-and-zuhite photographs; maps; index; $30.
Few generals in American history have crafted a record of achievement to match that of Confederate GEN Robert E. Lee during his first 13 months in command. During that span, he won four major battles outright against superior forces and held the bloody ground at Antietam, Md., against an opponent who more than doubled the number of soldiers in Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. At the conclusion of those 13 months, Lee positioned his forces in southern Pennsylvania and was on the eve of the greatest battle of his career. How Lee succeeded and how he developed a brilliant cadre of lieutenants are the focus of Jeffry D. Wert's A Glorious Army.
Wert remains one of the more prolific authors on the Civil War. His eight previous books on the conflict include campaign, regimental and army histories, as well as biographies of Generals James Longstreet, George Armstrong Custer and J.E.B. Qeb) Stuart. His purpose in reexamining Lee's generalship on the sesquicentennial of the conflict is to offer a fresh "narrative and analysis of the fighting, with a focus on leadership and on the experiences of men on the firing lines." Wert succeeds admirably in his quest to provide a fresh perspective on Lee's virtues as the commander of the South's most prominent army. Wert's interpretation will certainly invite conflicting opinions from a number of prominent historians who have dominated the debate concerning Lee's generalship over the course of the last three decades.
At the time of his appointment to command what became the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee was 55 years old. He was the son of a Revolutionary War hero and an 1829 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. During the Mexican War, Lee performed so well that General-in-Chief Winfield Scott "regarded his fellow Virginian as the finest officer in the Regular Army." Offered command of the U.S. Army being raised to suppress the rebellion in 1861, Lee resigned his commission and offered his services to his native state. His record in the Civil War prior to advancement to army command was as undistinguished as his Mexican War record had been distinguished.
After careful study of letters, diaries and memoirs of the army's veterans and of the recent scholarship of fellow historians, Wert emerges as an unabashed Lee apologist. Wert's Lee assumes command of an army ill-prepared for immediate action on June 1, 1862. Above all, Lee recognized that time was the silent enemy of the Confederacy. Without foreign intervention, a protracted war most certainly would have resulted in defeat for the South. Lee rejected the passive defense strategy advocated in Richmond and embarked upon an aggressive, high-risk strategy that produced a series of tactical victories that countered the numerous Confederate defeats in the Mississippi River valley.
Over the course of the next 13 months, Lee raised the siege of Richmond, crushed BG John Pope at Second Manassas, fought MG George McClellan to a standstill at Sharpsburg, defeated MG Ambrose Burnside at Fredericksburg and outmaneuvered MG Joseph Hooker at Chancellorsville. By any measure of success, Lee's achievements during his first year in command were unsurpassed by any army in American history.
Why, then, did Lee suffer such a catastrophic defeat at Gettysburg? …