Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Glatthaar Too Good to be Ignored

Now, I'm a dedicated Western Theater man. That is, my Civil War research interests lie west of the Appalachians and I mainly focus myself there. I know that many on this side of the Ridge tend to ignore Virginia as strategically indecisive at best and little more than romantic Lost Cause memory in the making at worst. All of this is to say, that I rarely read titles on the war in the East. A recent Kevin Levin post, here, at Civil War Memory, however, made me want to correct that oversight. Kevin posted some excerpts from Joseph Glatthaar's new book, General Lee's Army: From Victory to Collapse; excerpts that were good enough to make this new book an instant Amazon purchase for me. Even though I am just past the Seven Days right now (about p. 150 of 480 pp. of narrative, and a total of 600 with notes!), I'd just like to add my voice to the chorus of praise for this book. There's too much to cover everything, but there are two themes I'm especially pleased with so far.

To put it simply, Glatthaar wins in my book because he almost constantly keeps the war contextualized. He has finally brought statistical analysis to bear on the rank and file soldier. True, the Confederate soldier was many things, but he was most commonly the unmarried son of a solidly middle-class family.
Among the enlistees in 1861, slightly more than one in ten owned slaves personally....Yet more than one in every four volunteers that first year lived with their parents who were slaveholders. Combining those soldiers who owned slaves with those soldiers who lived with slaveowning family members, the proportion rose to 36 percent....Thus, volunteers in 1861 were 42 percent more likely to own slaves themselves or to live with family members who owned slaves than the general population. (p. 20)
Glatthaar took a random sample of men from various units in the ANV, and compiled a detailed picture using data from the census. Age, occupation, real and personal wealth, and slaveowning all come into the picture. What's more, this demographic sketch does not appear briefly and fade away, lost in the narrative. Nearly every diary entry or letter excerpt (and believe me, there is no shortage of them) is bracketed by information about its author. For example, "Twenty-six year-old bachelor James A. Maddox echoed Hileman's frustration. A prewar overseer on his father's huge farm in western Georgia, Maddox let his impatience get the best of him. 'We did not come here to lie in camps and do nothing...' (p. 78)" The reader is constantly, yet subtly, reminded that the economic and social standing of these soldiers and their families is reflected in their opinions, decisions, and fighting performance. (Long a favorite refrain of the Chickamauga interp staff, I assure you)

The contextualization of the ANV goes beyond the soldiers' prewar lives. It extends to the war's broader causes as well. In nearly every section of the book so far, slavery has been a constant and undeniable theme. It sets the tone for the entire story. Glatthaar takes care to demonstrate that the desires to protect family, home, and country - the issues most commonly harped upon by neo-Confederate groups who wish to deny slavery's centrality - were all inseperably linked to preserving the institution or fearing its demise. On combat motivation in mid-62 (and, incidentally, the passage that made me put the book down and type up this post),
The slow breakdown of their coveted institution aroused Southerners' greatest fear: a loss of control that could lead to servile insurrection.... Before the Seven Days' Battle, Longstreet sought to inspire his men for combat through the use of racial fear.... "Already has the hatred of one of their great leaders [Fremont] attempted to make the negro your equal by declaring his freedom," Longstreet pronounced. "They care not for the blood of babes nor carnage of innocent women which servile insurrection thus stirred up may bring upon their heads." (pp. 152-3)
Glatthaar successfully interweaves slavery, racial fear, insecure white masculinity, and other motivating factors into his narrative of the life and battles of the ANV. Finally, we are able to see these same themes that scholarship proves were present in every facet of antebellum Southern life and thought, the same themes which have been desperately missing from Civil War military history, the same themes that too often have gone unnoticed and forgotten by the popular Civil War community.

This is an exciting, landmark study. No, it is not AoT, but Glatthaar proves that the literature which has provided us with such a rich (and admittedly complex) picture of the antebellum South can be brought to the battlefield. I'm excited for the next 300 pages, and I'm even more excited for where this just pushed Civil War military history.


DonH said...

Hello AoT

Just found the blog and looking forward to it. I'm a book collector of Civil War material for over 25 years. My collection has a southern leaning, but always looking for good material. Have heard good things about Glatthaar's new book and I'm looking forward to it.

Are any of you aware of any upcomig books on the campaigns of, biographies of soldiers associate with or general studies of the AoT?

Our roundtable out here in Denver is having a sympossium in a little over 2 weeks and the theme is the Western Theater. Speakers will include Tim Smith, James McDonough, Kenneth Noe and Sam Elliott. Looking forward to hearing them speak about their books and other subjects.

Don H.

Lee White said...

Hello Don, and thank you. A few books that I am aware of are in the pipeline, the University is going to be starting a series of biographical essay books on the Confederate Western Theatre commanders, and Steve Woodworth is also starting a Western Campaigns Essay series, the first Volumne will be on Shiloh, and followed by Shiloh. Also, I have edited a set of letters from a officer associated with the 10th SC, one of the few SC regiments to serve in the AoT, hopefully it will be out in late summer. Once again thank you for the kind words.