How did an army that was always poorly equipped and understrength enjoy the success it did and for the length of time it did?
Historical studies on the Army of Northern Virginia have gone through a number of different points of view. At first the leading historians of the army were its veterans, starting with President Jefferson Davis, Vice-President Alexander H. Stevens, and generals James Longstreet, Jubal Early, John Bell Hood, E. Porter Alexander, and Maxey Sorrel. Their accounts all varied in quality. They all had individual arguments to prove. Alexander, whose work seems to be the most honest, still had harsh words about his superior, artillery chief William Pendleton. Primarily these generals felt that they had to show why, despite such hard fighting and great victories, their side lost.
One of Lee's staff officers, Walter H. Taylor, produced studies from morning reports that showed how very small the army was at every battle compared to its opponents, finishing with proof, according to him, that the army was simply worn down and overwhelmed. However, a Union veteran and amateur historian, Thomas L. Livermore, disagreed with Taylor's raw data, instead relying on a variety of different sources to come up with notably larger overall figures, which he published in 1900.
In much the same, dismissing charges that the Union army simply wore out the Army of Northern Virginia in a war of attrition, Steven Newton in his Lost for the Cause, the Confederate Army in 1864 (2000), showed that, despite heavy fighting with accompanying losses and the much-claimed desertion rates, Lee's army stayed relatively stable in terms of numbers. Wherever numbers appear in this book they are taken from the latest best estimates, and generally rounded off since obviously exact numbers are rare.
The next generation of Army of Northern Virginia historians were often drawn from the sons and grandsons of veterans, led by Richmond newspaperman Douglas Southall Freeman, whose three-volume Lee's Lieutenants became the standard history of the army. Jennings C. Wise, grandson of a Confederate general and Virginia Military Institute graduate, published his account of the Army of Northern Virginia's artillery, The Long Arm of Lee, in 1915. While these accounts were a bit more even handed, they still somewhat overly lauded the army and its overall leadership, especially Lee's own leadership.
In recent years historians have tended to focus more on the man in the ranks, resulting in a number of collections of letters home, memoirs, and diaries appearing in print. These volumes have helped produce a more rounded appreciation of the quality of the army. In recent years, too, many scholars have begun to question all aspects of Lee and his army. In 1977 Thomas Connelly, for example, produced his The Marble Man, Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society. More recently Professor Gary Gallagher, in his Lee & His Army in Confederate History (2001), brought the pendulum back towards the center. This volume attempts to show both the weaknesses and strengths that existed in one of America's most famous military formations, the Army of Northern Virginia.