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Civil War Book Review: Lee and His Generals: Essays in Honor of T. Harry Williams


Hewitt, Lawrence Lee (ed). Schott, Thomas E. (ed). Lee and His Generals: Essays in Honor of T. Harry Williams (The University of Tennessee Press, June 15, 2012). 368 pages, illustrations, maps, bibliography, endnotes by essay, index. ISBN: 978-1-57233-850-0 $45.95 (Hardcover).

Who was Robert E. Lee’s worst corps commander during the Civil War? How has Robert E. Lee’s reputation ebbed and flowed over the last 150 years? What were Lee’s corps commanders up to after the Civil War ended? This engaging new collection of essays in honor of legendary LSU professor and Beauregard biographer T. Harry Williams answers all of those questions and more. Lee and His Generals is a worthy companion to the “Confederate Generals of the Western Theater” series.

Because this book is a collection of essays, this book review is more of a summary with some comments thrown in and broken down essay by essay. The review part follows at the end. I tend to review essay books this way to give readers an idea of whether or not the collection will be of interest to them personally.

T. Harry Williams: Pragmatic Historian by Frank J. Wetta
Wetta writes the first of two Williams essays which bookend the studies on the performances of Lee and his subordinates. He relates the story of how Williams came to prominence, his interests, his book writing career, and his teaching at LSU. Williams is best known for his “Lincoln and…” series, his biography of Louisiana Governor Huey Long, which Wetta refers to as Williams’ magnum opus, and his biography of P. G. T. Beauregard, whose papers were housed at LSU.

The Generalship of Robert E. Lee by Charles P. Roland
Roland kicks off the part of the book focusing on the generals with a detailed look at Lee’s generalship. Roland skillfully defends Lee from some undeserved criticisms, and ultimately believes Lee’s reputation as a great general is fully justified. As a layman, I felt this essay was aimed more at Roland’s colleague’s than non-professionals and felt a little out of place in a book aimed at a larger audience. It was a bit of a tougher read than any other essay in this book. I want to stress that this does not mean I found the essay boring or not of value. It was definitely an interesting read, but I had to focus more to find that value.

A “Confusion of Tongues”: The Ebb and Flow of Robert E. Lee’s Reputation since 1964 by Brian Holden Reid
Brian Holden Reid takes a look at academic and layman praise and criticism of Lee since 1964. He leads off with a discussion of Lee’s reputation up to the 1960’s and covers Charles P. Roland’s defense of Lee against what he calls the Union school of thought on the war. Reid’s dismissal of Douglas Southall Freeman and Clifford Dowdey as Lost Cause sycophants is swift, but he does find value in some of their arguments. He moves on to the 1960s school of Lee critics, led by Thomas Connelly, and picks apart Connelly’s arguments forcefully. He makes the interesting observation that the Vietnam War’s worst casualty years, 1968-69, coincide with the proliferation of Lee criticisms. Popular sentiment during this time did not look kindly on many of Lee’s qualities as a general, including boldness and a willingness to put lives on the line for the possibility, not the guarantee, of victory. Connelly’s school produced critics, especially Albert Castel, and over time, Lee’s reputation began to revive in the 1980’s. Then Alan T. Nolan’s Lee Considered was published. Reid spends a good deal of time criticizing Nolan’s effort. Nolan’s book began to swing the pendulum in the other direction again, until we are left with a post-revision view of Lee as a great general who was not without real flaws.

Lee’s Most Maligned General: “Fighting Dick” Anderson by Lawrence Lee Hewitt
Hewitt was ready to write off Dick Anderson as the worst of Lee’s corps commanders prior to starting this essay. He methodically explores Anderson’s efforts through the war, pointing out where modern historians have faulted him or praised him, mostly the former. He also makes the very good point that Lee himself often singled Anderson out for praise during the war, and ends by covering his removal from command shortly before the surrender at Appomattox Court House. This essay was probably my favorite of the bunch, and caused me to look at Richard Anderson in a new light.

Jeb Stuart, R. E. Lee, and Confederate Defeat at Gettysburg by Joseph G. Dawson III
Dawson covers Stuart’s ride and the dire consequences for the Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg. Although he does assign Stuart some of the blame, Robert E. Lee comes in for some criticism as well.

P. G. T. Beauregard and the Petersburg Campaign by A. Wilson Greene
Petersburg expert Greene, who rumor has it is writing a multi-volume history of the Siege of Petersburg, here closely examines Beauregard’s messages to Lee from the crossing of the James to the end of the fighting at the Second Battle of Petersburg on June 18, 1864. His interpretation of one key aspect of Beauregard’s performance differs from the traditional view. This essay’s notes section proved to be a goldmine of sources for The Siege of Petersburg Online, my site dealing with all facets of the Petersburg Campaign. I had a eureka moment when I noticed a Beauregard Petersburg article had been published in one of Peter Cozzens’ two new volumes of the Battles and Leaders Series. Long story short, I purchased both books and found literally dozens of possible new sources for Petersburg information. I’ll be blogging on that experience sometime in the near future.

Stonewall Jackson: The Christian Soldier in Life, Death, and Defeat by George C. Rable
Rable covers Jackson’s life through the obvious prism of religion, the most important aspect of life to Stonewall. He explores how Southerners sought to explain Jackson’s victories, and more importantly, how someone as pious as Jackson could be taken from them at the height of his success by God.

“The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions”: James Longstreet in War and Peace by William E. Richter
James Longstreet’s solid military performance in the Civil War was overshadowed by his bungling forays into politics and public opinion in the postbellum years. His actions so angered Jubal Early and other members of the growing Lost Cause school of thought that they lied outright to make Longstreet the scapegoat at Gettysburg. Longstreet was often his own worst enemy, writes Richter, because he lashed out early and often at his critics. He even drove Lee’s staff officers into Early’s waiting hands by publishing items somewhat critical of Lee.

Jubal Early: Confederate in the Attic by Thomas E. Schott
Schott covers Jubal Early’s postwar career as the driving force behind the Lost Cause, from his first claims of overwhelming disparity in numbers immediately following the war (for his own 1864 Valley Campaign against Sheridan, he was absolutely correct), to his determination to eliminate slavery as a possible cause of the war, to his efforts to set up the Southern Historical Society, to his lifelong attacks on ex-Confederates who had done the unimaginable and collaborated with the Yankees in postwar life. James Longstreet was his number one target. Early, true to his personality, remained bitter and angry the rest of his life, an unreconstructed Rebel to the last. Schott pulls no punches in this critical look at Early’s postbellum activities.

John B. Gordon and the “Gospel of Reconciliation” by Ralph L. Eckert
Eckert’s take on Gordon mostly covers his life after the Civil War, looking into Gordon’s lifelong mission of talking about the war as one in which both causes fought nobly and for what they believed was right. Gordon toured the country giving presentations at speaking engagements, always tweaking but never significantly altering his message of reconciliation between whites North and South. Eckert covers Gordon’s view of slavery as a cause of the war, and his standard Lost Cause response that slavery was one of many items which caused the war. Gordon’s Reminiscences of the Civil War was his lifetime of reconciliation finally captured on paper, and he died not long after finishing the book.

Williams among the Rebels: Southern Generalship in the Civil War by Roger Spiller
Roger Spiller explores how Williams, a Midwesterner by birth and values, lived in Louisiana for most of his professional teaching career. Williams did not delve into the relative merits and faults of Southern generals nearly as much as he did their Northern counterparts, but Spiller recounts the few times he did do so. Spiller also explores Williams’ reluctance to serve in the military during World War II and his seeming non-interest in picking the brains of his colleagues who had served in the military to help shape his own views.

As can be expected when a disparate group of historians is brought together in an essay collection, there is something of interest here for almost anyone interested in the Civil War. You have traditional military looks at generalship, the historiography of Lee’s reputation, the ways in which several of Lee’s generals shaped popular opinion in the postwar decades, a mini-biography of Jackson through the prism of religion, and more. Some essays focus on one battle, while others span entire careers. Some are postwar heavy or postwar specific. Others are more concerned with the war years. Some lead to favorable reappraisals, while others offer up new interpretations. Famous battle like Gettysburg make an appearance, but more obscure contests such as the Second Battle of Petersburg are also represented. Many know of Early’s postwar career as the leader of the Lost Cause school of thought, but can you tell me about John Gordon’s much more conciliatory version of the Lost Cause?

Despite these differences, the essays are alike in some ways as well. Obviously, as the sub-title implies, one purpose of this book is to honor and remember the great Civil War historian T. Harry Williams. The other main focus which ties these efforts together is their focus on Robert E. Lee and his corps commanders through the war. Only A. P. Hill and Dick Ewell did not find a place in this volume. The title Lee and His Generals is an obvious nod to Williams’ book Lincoln and His Generals. For the most part, these essays are written in such a way as to be accessible to a popular audience. The two bookend essays on Williams’ life tie everything together nicely and bring the reader back to where he or she began.

Lee and His Generals: Essays in Honor of T. Harry Williams is an excellent collection of essays on the major Southern commanders under Lee in the east, and is in many ways a companion volume to the “Confederate Generals in the Western Theater” series, also published by the University of Tennessee Press. Hewitt and Schott are to be commended for bringing together such an outstanding collection of experts in piecing together this book. The variety of topics chosen ensures this volume has something in it for everyone. This collection is not a mere rehashing of traditional views. Reappraisals as well as confirmations of earlier trains of thought against new found criticism abound. Finally, the book provides a fitting tribute to T. Harry Williams with several essays on the great historian’s life and legacy. Readers interested in the Army of Northern Virginia, postwar efforts to reshape the way American thought about the war, and any one or more of the men mentioned here will want to own this book. This collection hits a home run worthy of T. Harry Williams himself.

Note: This book has been provided gratis for the purposes of this review.



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