Review: Lee’s Lieutenants (One Volume Abridgement)

Lee's Lieutenants

Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command (One Volume abridgement), Douglas Southall Freeman, abridged by Stephen W. Sears. New York: Scribner, 1998.

Summary: Stephen Sears abridged version of Douglas Southall Freeman’s three volume study of the military leadership of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee.

Most of the reading I’ve done of Civil War history has either focused on the ups and downs of the Union’s military leadership, or covered different battles looking at what both sides are doing. The unique thing Douglas Southall Freeman did in this landmark work was study in detail the military leadership of the generals who served under Robert E. Lee, battle by battle throughout the Civil War.  Stephen W. Sears, noted Civil War historian abridged this work to one volume, deleting the fourteen appendices Freeman included and condensing the battle accounts, often detailed in other histories. What remains is a focused study of Confederate military history.

We see the rise of Lee, with the patchy, uneven performance of Beauregard, and the conflicts between Joe Johnston and Jefferson Davis. We see the efforts of Lee to weld the leadership of Jackson, Longstreet, Ewell, and cavalryman Jeb Stuart into the powerful fighting force that moved from uncoordinated performances on the Peninsula to a brief shining moment of indisputable glory at Chancellorsville, with Jackson’s brilliantly executed flank attack on the Union right.

That brings us to the sad tale that runs through this book, of tragic losses of irreplaceable commanders, foremost of whom was Stonewall Jackson. The army at Chancellorsville was just not the same a few months later at Gettysburg. The butcher’s bill continued, with the loss of great commanders like Dorsey Pender, Dodson Ramseur, Jeb Stuart, down to Powell Hill in the final defense of Petersburg. Much of the narrative describes Lee’s efforts to cobble together the needed leadership from those who rose within the ranks as shining examples of leadership through the fighting.

We see the rise of leaders like John B. Gordon, William Mahone, Wade Hampton, Robert Rodes and others. Some like Gordon and Mahone made it to the end while others like Rodes met their death on the battlefield. We see the decline of others like Richard Ewell, who after an amputation never was the same. And we have accounts of the “unlucky” commanders, often through no fault of their own, who ended up in the middle of losing actions. Probably the steadiest of all was Henry Heth. The most notable of all was George Pickett whose troops were decimated at Gettysburg through no fault of his own and at Five Corners at the very end of the war, while he was enjoying a shad bake.

The other category of commanders were those who were neither brilliant nor bad but consistently did their duty and led their men. Dick Anderson, Jubal Early, Powell Hill (when he wasn’t ill), and most of all, Longstreet, were in this category. All but Hill survived the war.

The other thing this study of war brought out was the tension between strategy and “the fog of war” when commanders have to make decisions on incomplete information. Ewell’s hesitation of pressing the attack on Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg on Day One of the fighting was the classic example. Stuart’s calvary hadn’t returned from its raid and Ewell, not knowing what he was facing allowed the Union to establish its foothold. Others, like Jackson made key decisions to reinforce troops at places like Antietam that made the difference between victory and defeat.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Lee was his ability to weld these different personalities together and, for a season, to overcome the disadvantages facing the Confederacy while maintaining the support of Jefferson Davis, a difficult president at best under whom to serve.

I suspect there are more recent studies that have refined this work. But for its scope, this continues to be a magnificent work, served well by this abridgement by Sears. A must read for any Civil War buff!



One thought on “Review: Lee’s Lieutenants (One Volume Abridgement)

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: March 2016 | Bob on Books

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