“It don’t hurt a bit to be shot in a wooden leg.” —Lt. Gen Richard S. Ewell, CSA
It’s no surprise that we have a multitude of books, factual and fictional, good and bad and indifferent, about the Civil War. Still, it is possible to be surprised in spite of oneself. A few years ago I was asked by The Sewanee Review to write an essay review, a “chronicle” of new and representative Civil War books. In ignorance and innocence I accepted the assignment. The sampling of books I had to deal with involved some 31 new titles to be added to the more than 70,000 already written and published about the subject, said to be at roughly the rate of a book a day published for every day since Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. And that was a while ago. I haven’t counted and am not planning to, but I have lately seen the figure of 80,000 here and there and can’t think of any good reason to doubt it. Because American publishing (though mostly owned by foreign conglomerates) is first and last a business, it seems a safe inference to guess that the Civil War, in all of its aspects, great and small, remains fascinating to a large body of readers. The story of “The Lost Cause”—or, if you prefer, “the War of the Rebellion”—is anything but a lost cause.
I start out this way to point out emphatically how complex and how difficult it has to be for a writer coming onto the scene here and now. That writer must master an enormous amount, a veritable mountain range of printed material; must turn again to the primary sources, to which, out of America’s attics and barns and old steamer trunks, more and more is constantly being discovered and added. And our intrepid author must also be fully aware of the current, ever-changing intellectual trends in Civil War scholarship and interpretation. Whether he elects to follow the fashions of our day or to challenge them, he has to take notice of them, the cliches and conventions of the mainstream as well as the reflexive attitudes of the fringes, lunatic and otherwise. Having managed all this, and served the sentence of hard labor that goes with it, the writer must then speak out persuasively with authority, and have something intelligent and interesting, and maybe even new, to say about the subject.
Let me dissipate any suspense and acknowledge that George Walsh has managed all of the above accomplishments, gracefully and generously. Damage Them All You Can is a genuine contribution to our history of the Civil War. He has achieved this by several excellent choices. First, he has limited (if close to 500 pages can be called “limited”) himself to a close concentration on the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, its battles and final defeat told chronologically, year by year, from 1861 to Appomattox in April of 1865, and even beyond that in a brief final chapter, “The Survivors,” in which he tells us what became of some of those who lived to see the end of it. His notes give us a solid sense of his diverse sources ranging from a wealth of primary materials to unquestionable modern masterpieces (for example, Shelby Foote’s three-volume narrative history, The Civil War, and Douglas Southall Freeman’s Lee and Lee’s Lieutenants] to very recent scholarly studies of particular people, places, and events. One test for Civil War buffs, and a problem for writers, has been the favorite-battle-syndrome —how does the author handle a particular battle, or a part of one, that the reader knows well. Is the account of the second day at Gettysburg up to snuff? Does this version of the Crater cover the whole story? I can hardly call myself a buff; but, even so, perhaps because of its proximity to my home in Charlottesville, over the years I have interested myself in the Battle of New Market in 1864. Not seriously changed, it was and is a small and manageable battlefield (and a vital, if limited victory for the Confederacy). Walsh’s account, his choices of what to leave in and what to leave out, what to feature and what to give short shrift, add up to the best and most thorough account that I have seen thus far, except for a superb book, The Battle of New Market by Paxton Davis, devoted exclusively to that battle.
He seems to do as well on the great battles—Manassas, Seven Pines, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness and Spotsylvania and all the others, all that long epic roll of bloody names, the bloodiest (so far) in our history—and especially well on the last stages of the war, the sieges of Richmond and Petersburg, Jubal Early’s campaign in the Valley, the terrible retreat toward Appomattox. Walsh achieves an admirable balance, allowing events to happen as they did in fact without permitting the known and final ending to shape his story. It is so simple, yet so seldom done. All too often even our best writers and historians allow the outcomes, known to ourselves but not to the participants, to shape and inform their storytelling. Walsh avoids this fallacy, and thus we feel the coming future, the results of this event or the other, as they, especially the leaders of the Army of Northern Virginia, felt them. He is able to show and tell his tale from something very close to their point of view. He is seldom judgmental except in the most obvious and unavoidable ways. For example, as a man writing in the 21st century, he does not even pretend to give credence to arguments defending the practice of slavery. On the other hand he does not deny the virtue, courage, and sense of honor shown by individuals who were, at that time, on the wrong side of history. In the opening sentence of his preface Walsh tells us outright the shadowy thought that dogged his whole venture: “In researching and writing this book on the gallant but doomed Army of Northern Virginia, one question stayed uppermost in my mind: how could Lee’s men have fought so bravely, so long and at such terrible cost to defend an institution as inherently evil as slavery?”
In one sense, that question remains unanswered, as mysterious at the end as at the beginning, but only if we can ignore something known (though often with age, gently forgotten) by every combat veteran of the past century and a half, the bloodiest in human history. Namely that causes in and of themselves, good or evil, have next to nothing to do with victory or defeat in war. The greatest army ever to fight on American soil was (is) the Army of Northern Virginia. Their leaders, brilliant or inept as the case may be, led them by the thousands to the slaughterhouse of the first full-scale modern war. They fought to the end until they were ordered to surrender, not for the sake of any known Cause other than the inspired defense of their homes and home place from alien invaders. The greatest military force of our own savage century-plus-three was probably the German Wermacht of World War II, most of whom (not counting SS fanatics), it seems, were not Nazis or even sympathetic to Nazi ideas and the Nazi agenda. Nevertheless they fought on to a bitter end long beyond any reasonable prospect of anything but utter defeat and unconditional surrender. Read anything written by Paul Fussell, who was very much there, about World War II. Or, better and more aptly, read the justly celebrated Memorial Day speech (1884) by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., wounded Civil War veteran and survivor: “You could not stand up day after day, in those indecisive contests where overwhelming victory was impossible because neither side would run as they ought when beaten, without getting at last something of the same brotherhood for the enemy that the north pole of a magnet has for the south, each working in an opposite sense to the other, but unable to get along without the other.”
Very few of the soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia were slave-owners or, for that matter, deeply concerned with the nuanced and complex details of states’ rights or other large socio-political problems. They obeyed their orders and, first to last, fought with courage and fury.
Walsh’s story of the Army of Northern Virginia gains a narrative quality through the imaginative characterization of Lee and his officers, both generals and field grade. We meet them early and watch them act out their stories, grow and change, if they live, throughout the long war. If the Civil War was our first modern and “total” war, and America’s worst war when measured by the ratio of casualties and population, it was also the last war where our high-ranking officers were greatly at risk, genuinely participants. No surprise that (roughly) one out of 12 of the Union generals was killed in action or that the Southern losses were one out of five, 20 percent. They have a legitimate place in the story, unlike our more recent military leaders most often miles (sometimes continents) away from any more dangerous prospect than slipping and falling in a bathtub. It is meet and right that Damage Them All You Can tells the story of the leaders. Their brigades were rightly named after them in the Army of Northern Virginia. They led their men in person, in the flesh. Victories and defeats were personal.
Damage Them All You Can is a fine book, an important contribution to the literature of the Civil War. If the question that spurred and haunted the author isn’t answered, it is because it can’t be. Meantime, however, he has given us an accurate account of the war as viewed and experienced by Lee’s great army and as persuasively witnessed by an intelligent and empathetic 21st-century writer.