Book Review: Lee's Miserables: Life in the Army of Northern Virginia from the Wilderness to Appomattox


by J. Tracey Power

Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1998. 463 pp. illus., maps, index. $34.95. ISBN:0-8078-2392-9

Much has been made of the “new military history” that has become somewhat popular in the past few years. Unlike many other works of the “new military history" which have been found somewhat wanting, Lee’s Miserables certainly shows the promise in this approach. Power's work is really a social history of the Army of Northern Virginia during the last year of the Civil War. Starting in the spring of 1864, Power looks at the Army of Northern Virginia through the eyes of the men in the lower ranks as they passed through the ordeals of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania, the retreat over the North and South Anna Rivers, the debilitating siege operations around Petersburg, Jubal Early's abortive Shenandoah Valley campaign, and the army's final defeat and surrender at Appomattox.

Power's portrait of the army as it confidently awaited the spring campaign of 1864 certainly casts doubt on the notion that at the time Gettysburg was looked upon as some sort of turning point. For the men of the Army of Northern Virginia, the turning points in the war came much later. Certainly one of the most important was Early's failed Shenandoah Valley campaign in the summer and fall of 1864. Far from reversing the fortunes of the war, the Valley Campaign resulted in the near disintegration of the Second Corps (“Stonewall” Jackson's old command), especially after the defeats at Fisher's Hill and Cedar Creek, which many Confederates considered embarrassing at best and utterly disgraceful at worst. Another critical turning point was the infamous “New Year's Dinner" of January 1865. Put back from Christmas to New Year's Day, the dinner – an idea first proposed as a gift to the Army by the Richmond government – turned out to be more of a convincing demonstration that the Confederacy could barely feed itself, let alone its soldiers. When the dinner fizzled, especially after much promising hype by the Richmond newspapers, morale sank to a near nadir.

The book also once again demonstrates the amazing amount of influence Robert E. Lee exercised over his soldiers. Nowhere was this more true than in the potentially explosive issue of the enlistment of black soldiers in the Army of Northern Virginia. Initial reaction to the idea, as Power demonstrates, was somewhat more mixed than has been previously assumed. There were, however, a large number of men opposed to the idea. Once Lee, however, came out in support of it, up to and including the formation of integrated units, that ended almost any further opposition to the issue. As with so many other things in the Confederacy, however, this was again a case of too little, too late.

Power also has some very humorous material in the book about secret weapons and some other hair-brained schemes that are most enjoyable to read.

The book throughout is marked by superb research, done mostly in collections of letters, papers, and diaries written at the time. Power very carefully minimized the use of post-war memoirs, and I think this greatly contributes to the quality of the book. Lee’s Miserables also has a very pleasant style, and makes for a very good read.

Taken all together, this work clearly merits all the praise it has garnered thus far. It certainly elevates Power into the top rank of historians of the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee’s Miserables is an absolute must read for anyone with an interest in the Civil War in the east.

Reviewer: R.L. DiNardo, USMC C&SC   

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