‘LEE’S LIEUTENANTS’ (in 3 Volumes); by Douglas Southall Freeman; Charles Scribner’s Sons. (1942, 1970); SBN: 684-10175-0

Gods and Generals, Antietam Campaign, Leesburg, Virginia, September 5, 1862. Painting by Mort Kunstler 

The wheel of history is often turned as much by luck as it is by the conscious plans of men. This, at least, is the underlying thesis of Douglas Southall Freeman’s brilliant Civil War study of the commanders of the Army of Northern Virginia, ‘Lee’s Lieutenants’. If Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson had not been mortally wounded by his own pickets at the battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863, the dynamic and aggressive General Jackson, “Lee’s strong right arm” — and not the cautious Lt. General Richard Ewell — would have commanded the corps on the left wing of Lee’s army at Gettysburg on 1 July, 1863. And unlike Ewell, who broke off his attack in the afternoon just when the Union right was most in peril, Jackson would almost certainly have thrown his exhausted troops forward, with or without orders from his commanding general, to storm and capture Cemetery Hill on the first day of the battle. By such accidents, history is determined. The Confederate capture of Cemetery Hill on the first day would have broken the Union position and forced General Meade to abandon the field to Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia; there would not have been a second or a third day at Gettysburg, and the Civil War might well have followed a very different and possibly much more unfortunate course.

Lees Lieutenants Volume 1 (Vol 1. Repr ed) (1st of a 3 Vol Set)‘Lee’s Lieutenants’ is, first and foremost, a chronicle of the many campaigns of the premiere army of the South, the Army of Northern Virginia; it is, however, also a study of the gradual deterioration of that critically-important Confederate force, as the ongoing war gradually removed, through death or injury, the best of the army’s commanders: both the famous, and the relatively unknown. This is, by the way, a relatively common theme among previous generations of military historians; for example, Chandler’s masterpiece, ‘The Campaigns of Napoleon’, also catalogs the slow decline of the French army as one after another of Napoleon’s best commanders is cut down on the field of battle. In the eyes of a military scholar like Freeman, great generals matter, but equally important are the men who serve under them. In ‘Lee’s Lieutenants’, all of Lee’s most important subordinates are considered; senior officers like Jackson, Longstreet, Early, J. E. B. Stuart, Ewell, and John Bell Hood are each examined in their turn; but the performances of less famous leaders, such as Magruder, D. H. Hill, McLaws, Pendleton, Hampton, R. H. Anderson, and Rodes are also carefully and, I think, fairly evaluated by the author. Clearly, Freeman is a traditional, even old-fashioned type of historical scholar; thus, he does not examine past events or persons from a Materialist, Critical Theory, or Counterfactual historical perspective. This means, however, that it is unlikely that his view of the historian’s role would find unanimous or even wide-spread support among many of the current crop of academic historiographers. So be it. The facts speak for themselves: even after almost seventy years, Freeman’s work is still in print; and his patient and uniquely-detailed investigations into the biographies and events of America’s past remain as relevant as when his books were originally published.

General J.E.B. Stuart's Ride Around McClellan, painting by Mort Kunstler

Besides the quality of his scholarship, another reason that Freeman’s works have remained popular with serious students of history for so long is that he just writes very well. The author’s prose, although a little formal by today’s standards, is nonetheless graceful, compelling, and even elegant; moreover, it draws the reader’s eye effortlessly from page to page. This is probably a good thing, because although the author may be a careful scholar and a gifted wordsmith, he is not particularly stingy with his prose. ‘Lee’s Lieutenants’ requires three volumes and well over two thousand pages to bring its narrative to a satisfactory conclusion. As such, it is actually one of the author’s shorter works: ‘Washington’, Freeman’s biography of our first president, weighs in at seven volumes, and the author’s chronicle of the life of the South’s greatest general, ‘R. E. Lee’, is told in a mere four volumes.

Of course, Douglas Southall Freeman was a Virginian as well as an historian, and he labored during the first half of the Twentieth Century; thus, he wrote from a different perspective and, I suspect, for a different, more patient audience. Not surprisingly, his admiration for Lee, the man, is obvious; but Freeman is not a Confederate apologist: nowhere in any of the author's writings does he suggest that a Southern victory in the Civil War should have been preferred to that of the ultimate historical outcome. Thus, the author is sympathetic to the men he writes about, but not to the greater cause that they served. And understandably, Freeman's chronicle of the Army of Northern Virginia and its leaders is, given the author's interests and background, exhaustive in its breadth. Still, in the age of MTV and half-hour TV ‘Sit-com’ — were the author working now — I have a hard time believing that any present-day publishing house would have undertaken to print and market his long and meticulously researched works without a considerable amount of editing. And, in fact, Freeman’s wonderfully-detailed works are all now available in much shorter — at least, compared to the originals — abridged versions. For my own part, however, I have found it worthwhile to stick with the author’s original writings; although I confess that while I have reread ‘Lee’s Lieutenants’ several times, I have yet to take on the challenge posed by ‘Washington’.

As the preceding commentary should make amply clear, ‘Lee’s Lieutenants’ is not intended for the recreational reader, or even for those with only a casual interest in history. However, for those students of past events with a genuine curiosity about the American Civil War, in general, and about R. E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, in particular, I consider this book to be a Must Read. ‘Lee’s Lieutenants’ may be long, and the numerous and carefully documented annotations may be tiresome to some; but, in my opinion, it is nonetheless one of the truly great works on the subject of the War Between the States, and on both the powers and the limitations of command.

General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson on Little Sorrel, painting by Mort Kunstler

Finally, I feel obliged to conclude this review by at least noting my one criticism of this book. The only real shortcoming of ‘Lee’s Lieutenants’ is the disappointing and inexplicable paucity of useful, detailed cartography. This is not to say that Freeman’s work does not include maps of the movements of specific Confederate commanders (i.e., Stuart’s “ride around McClellan,” 12-15 June, 1862) or of the numerous engagements described in the text; only that the maps used, without exception, tend to be very simple line drawings and hence, surprisingly uninformative as to terrain and specific unit positions. More importantly, even the few diagrams provided by the author to illustrate the strategic movements of different elements of the Army of Northern Virginia are invariably too small, and of only limited utility because of their omission of important geographical detail. For my own part, I found it very helpful to follow the author’s chronicle of events with my copy of ‘The West Point Atlas of American Wars’ near at hand. I probably should add, however, that, as a nice off-set to the generally disappointing maps, each of the volumes of ‘Lee’s Lieutenants’ is prefaced with a collection of full-page, and often little-known photographs of the major characters featured in that particular volume’s narrative.

For anyone interested in the American Civil War, this is an incredibly useful resource.For that reason, and despite its cartographical shortcomings, I give ‘Lee’s Lieutenants’ my strongest possible recommendation; it is the definitive scholarly work on the campaigns of the Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee, and an absolutely essential reference on the War for Southern Independence for anyone, like me, whose avocation is the study of military affairs.


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