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Jeffry Wert ranks among the most highly regarded historians of the Civil War practicing today. Even the beginning student of the conflict is quick to recognize his name, for through his many works Wert has established a reputation as an eminent scholar of the war. He has also demonstrated his mastery of the English language and skill with the pen, so to speak. Not only is he a fine historian, but he is also a superb writer. His main purview is the war in the East, with some of his past titles including, Major General Jeb Stuart: Cavalryman of the Last Cause, General James Longstreet: The Confederacy's Most Controversial Soldier, The Sword of Lincoln: The Army of the Potomac, and Gettysburg: Day Three, all excellent works.
Wert's latest title may go down as one of his finest works yet. A Glorious Army: Robert E. Lee's Triumph, 1862-1863, is a fast-paced narrative history of what is perhaps the Civil War's most famous army, under its most famous commander, during its most successful year. Wert examines thirteen months of the four-year conflict, from Lee's assumption of army command from the wounded Joseph Johnston on June 1, 1862, to the army's retreat following its mass bloodletting at Gettysburg in mid-July 1863. Along the way, Wert analyzes Lee's strategic and tactical thinking, arguing that Lee was motivated by an aggressiveness and a willingness to assume the offensive in order to destroy or crush the Union forces, continuing to wear down the North's willingness to fight. For good or ill, argues Wert, this strategy was the right one for the always outnumbered army commander to pursue. Going hand-in-hand with this, however, was the heavy toll paid by the army. During those thirteen months, says Wert, Lee's army suffered more than 90,000 casualties, and lost a disproportionate number of field and general officers, including, of course, Jackson, whose loss, says Wert, was "irreplaceable." A reader will not find in this work detailed, tactical analyses of each of the major battles that occurred during this time; instead, what we find is an overview of Lee's best year in army command, with the focus on the "big picture," but with ample discussion of the conflict as seen through the eyes of the soldiers in the ranks. The book is also laden with fine biographical portraits of Lee's lieutenants.
A Glorious Army is a synthesized history, incorporating the best of the recent scholarship on Lee and his army by such notables as Joseph Harsh, Robert Krick, and Joseph Glatthaar. Most refreshing is that this is not a work of blind hero-worshipping, which so often obscures our view of Lee, his subordinates, and his soldiers. Yes, they made mistakes; they committed errors; and they did suffer from defeats, in-fighting, and a certain degree of disfunction in the ranks. Wert discusses these, such as the persistent discipline problems and the ever-present desertions. He also does a fine job in presenting all sides to a particular controversy and in analyzing other historians' points-of-view.
There are some things with which I would disagree with Mr. Wert. For one, I do not consider Antietam a tactical draw. It was a Union victory. The fact that Lee simply held his ground the following day does not, in my estimation, equate to a military draw; he did, after all, hold the ground at Gettysburg on July 4, 1863. Lee did manage to get across the Potomac after each battle, and the war did continue after both fights. That McClellan did not pursue and deliver a crushing blow is not sufficient grounds either to declare Antietam a draw. We would never consider Chancellorsville a draw simply because Lee did not pursue Hooker across the Rapidan and deliver the final blow.
Still, A Glorious Army is a first-rate study by one of today's first-rate historians of the Civil War. I have no doubts that this book is already on the "must read" lists of almost every student of the conflict. It is a fine work, masterfully written. We would expect no less from Mr. Wert.
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