A Little Civil War Reading

By Nancy Zens, History

Retreat from GettysburgIn thirty years of reading about the Civil War, Kent Masterson Brown’s  Retreat from Gettysburg: Lee, Logistics, and the Pennsylvania Campaign (Chapel Hill, 2005) is the best book that I have encountered .  This  publication brings together all of the best scholarship from the past together with vigorous research in primary materials, archives, and careful assessment of terrain to create an image of the problems, chaos, and disorganization of a Civil War army engaged in battlefield conditions.  Beginning with a quick description of the three day clash at Gettysburg, the book follows Lee’s Army of Virginia as it disengages from deadly contact with the Union Army, attempting to move CSA wounded USA prisoners, captured supplies, vast wagon trains, and the surviving Confederate troops along numerous parallel northern roads.  The reality of 19th century travel on roads away from Gettysburg meant traffic jams that stagger the imagination.  For this one engagement, even leaving behind 4,500 Confederate dead and 6,700 Confederate wounded, there was fifty-seven miles of wagon and ambulance trains, tens of thousands of livestock, and 51.000 Confederate troops that Lee needed to return to Virginia.  So often Civil War books cover battles and pay little attention to questions about how men and equipment moved from one place to another.  Rather than the boring list of details with little action that such an approach to the war raises up in your imagination, think of a book that answers numerous questions that you haven’t even thought to ask before and that weaves the stories of fighters, wounded, civilians, pursuit, ambition, greed, fear, accidents, and odd coincidence together. 

Each of the routes leading out of Pennsylvania, back through Maryland by the shortest possible route to finally get back to the safety of Virginia presented difficulties that were compounded by rain, the  break downs of wagons, quickly deteriorating road conditions, exhausted animals pulling too much weight with too little food and water, uncooperative local citizens, pursuing thieves and looters, occasional attacks by pursuing union cavalry, and the mistakes that arose from exhaustion, night travel, little food or water, and competing commanders all seeking to get their own troops back to Virginia in the best possible shape.  Have you ever wondered about the Civil War wounded and how they got from the direct line of fire to those front line field hospitals that emerged a short distance from the most intense fighting, or whether the field hospitals further back (yet still within earshot of the fighting) were any better at easing the suffering of the wounded, or what it meant to be left behind and dependent on the enemy for medical care, or how the traveling wounded endured the long hours riding in crowded jolting wagons down rutted roads, or what it might mean to heavily wounded men traveling without the benefit of pain relievers and suffering from hunger and thirst to be roughly relieved of anything that could protect your own soldiers in coming battles leaving one helpless to fend off those from either side willing to loot the wounded to build their own nest egg?  How many of those who began that long painful journey back home even made it to a reasonably well run hospital?  If you are already deciding that these issues are the last thing you want to know about, many more areas are covered.

Has it ever struck you as odd that books about the war so often describe Lee’s army as “disappearing” from in front of Union positions?  How that could possibly happen when there would be such a clear trail to follow?  How would you hide the movement of (# troops) down roads or across fields or over river crossings in the days of dirt roads, single lane wood bridges, terrain that changed every few miles, through fairly level farmland and towns?   Where his army moved through woods or across mountains you might initially think it would be easy to “hide”, but if the woods are dense or there is only one road, how “secret” can the travel really be and how easy for an opposing force to halt the movement with a skillful ambush? Have you ever wondered if southern officers were gentlemen in the field, or always obeyed orders without questions, or if officers like Lee or Longstreet or Stuart ever made mistakes or found they were unable to motivate fellow officers to do their duty or to accept changes in orders that did not make sense to them.   Did vain, foolish, incompetent officers have any impact on southern troops that fought under Lee’s overall direction?  Did all southern officers unselfishly look after the comfort of their troops or were they more worried about their own comfort, their own reputation, their own postwar position, promoting their own clique of friends into better positions, or economically profiting from the war?  And what about the attitude of the general fighting men, thrown together from different locations, so often fighting far from home, facing scarcity in weapons, food, clothing, shelter?

 In that rush to put distance between Lee’s Army and Union forces did anyone except the hungry troops think to stop and distribute food supplies or set up kitchens?  When troops are so exhausted they fall asleep on their feet, how do you get them moving again?  How do you prevent rumors of the pursuing enemy from spooking the troops resulting in spontaneous entrenching or scattering for better fighting positions or even worse, causing a full scale rout?

This is not a quick little read from a northern viewpoint like Robert K. Sneden’s  Eye of the Storm: A Civil War Odyssey of Robert K. Sneden that provides a survivor’s eye view of several of the war’s battlefields, comments on officers, or story of surviving that infamous prison Andersonville.  It is not a fairly comfortable move into battle through the eyes of Michael Shaara in the best Civil War novel to date Killer Angels. Instead this is a complex, well developed, satisfying exploration of the realities faced by officers, soldiers, and civilians during the most divisive, lethal war the United States has been involved in.


One Response to A Little Civil War Reading

  1. Tom Barry says:

    Thanks for the book referral. For me, oftentimes it is knowing what to, and not to read, that is most influential.

    Is this approach to writing about the Civil War relatively new? If so, how do you account for the change in narrative?


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