A Trip Through the Carnage
Two new books offer something more on the war that haunts America.
10:00 AM, Apr 30, 2011 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
Civil War Road Trip
The sesquicentennial of the Civil War is now upon us, although no anniversary observance is necessary to keep the presses rolling. Interest in American wars may come and go--the imminent disappearance of the "greatest generation" has lately swollen the World War II bookshelf--but the War Between the States seems increasingly to fascinate in proportion to our distance, in time, from the fighting.
A case in point are these two volumes: a clear-eyed view of Robert E. Lee's generalship by a veteran historian of the conflict, and a comprehensive tour guide to the remnants of fighting in the bloody precincts in and around Washington and the Confederate capital (Richmond). There is no end to visitors' guides to Civil War sites, but Civil War Road Trip has the virtue of up-to-the-minute information about how to get everywhere you need to go, what to see and look for, and accompanying text and maps that put each North-South encounter in proper perspective. The fact that so much, of so much importance, occurred in this concentrated region of the Middle Atlantic gives Civil War Road Trip real interest and convenience. Michael Weeks does not just furnish locations and addresses but describes in helpful detail ("Turn right at Bloody Lane and drive 0.1 miles, then turn right on Richardson Avenue to reach the parking area") what the conscientious student must do to appreciate the carnage of Antietam, the confusion of Gettysburg, and the extent to which this hallowed ground has been preserved as it was on the days of battle.
Meanwhile, with admirable skill and flair, Jeffrey D. Wert addresses the historic standing of General Lee. After the Confederate commander-in-chief's apotheosis in the decades after the war, it was inevitable that revisionists would pull him down a peg or two, which they have done, and that the cause he defended would stain his reputation in the post-civil rights era. But just as there are no final judgments on historical meaning, there is no absolute consensus on Lee, and Wert makes the case that Lee was both better, and in some ways worse, than the received wisdom about him.
That Lee was a great and humane gentleman seems not in doubt; and that he was a daring and resourceful strategist is equally incontrovertible. But just as Lee's unconventional military genius saved the Confederacy from early destruction, and won a series of dramatic and decisive victories against formidable odds, it may also be argued that, in the long run, he was a victim of success. Recognizing that the Confederacy's only realistic prospects lay in forcing the Union to settle for terms, he gambled that taking the conflict across the Potomac into Maryland and Pennsylvania would force President Lincoln to adjust to reality. And persuaded, as he was, that the South had better soldiers and officers, he was just bold enough to march his army deep into Union territory and grasp at victory. But overconfidence and bad luck, combined with unexpected resistance, prevented success at Gettysburg, and Lee had no choice but to withdraw to Virginia, where he faced the one soldier who was his equal as a general: Ulysses S. Grant.
Robert E. Lee is well served by Jeffrey Wert's eloquent and judicious study, and the student of the Civil War, and American history, would be well advised to add this volume to the groaning bookshelf.