Thursday, 1 June 2017

Lee’s Lieutenants A Study in Command - Douglas Southall Freeman

Book Review by "Mr Steve"

The American Civil war is one of my main wargaming areas of interest, so when this book was mentioned on TMP, I put it on my list for possible purchasing pending further investigation of course, I am not the type of person who rushes out and buys a book just because it has the words Wellington or Napoleon in the title for example.

Originally published in three volumes back in 1942, Freeman was following up on his Pulitzer Prize winning four volume study on Robert E. Lee and it was said that he was prouder of this new set of books than anything else he had written.

It is available today in several formats, you can still buy the three volumes individually or there are various abridgements published by different people over the subsequent years as it is rather lengthy. I chose to buy the one volume version abridged by Stephen Sears in which he says that he has reduced it down to about one third of the original by leaving out the fourteen appendices and the bulk of the battle details which he says quite rightly you can find easily elsewhere, however this book still runs to over 800 pages (plus notes etc).

I don’t think there’s much point in detailing each chapter as they just run the course of the war which anyone interested in the Civil War will know so I will sum up the general content instead.

First of all it only covers the Army of Virginia and any temporary detachments from it, so it covers Jackson in the Valley, Longstreet at Chickamauga and early in the Valley towards the end, so there is very little on anyone in the West or Trans-Mississippi unless they come into contact with these detachments (Bragg gets briefly covered this way).

It also is solely interested in the command structure and the generals who served in the east, all the battles of course are covered in adequate detail but under the above premise.

I found this a very interesting book as the theme that runs throughout is the Confederates struggling to find the right quality of leaders to replace either the incompetent, the discontented or more frequently the dead.

After a few brief biographies it leads into 1st Bull Run where we first meet the future potential leaders that will become very well known and the author shows how in the early stages of the war getting coordinated action from people who were learning as they went was almost impossible. Both Jackson and Longstreet don’t initially show up that well being either slow or indecisive but this is only to be expected and they were not the only ones doing so. Indeed the whole Peninsula campaign is one cock-up after another with no one really knowing what they were doing or being that well
controlled from above.

The first section of the book concentrates a lot on Stonewall Jackson and Freeman’s version of his career is again interesting. He is of course very successful but his man management skills were very poor with frequent attempts to court martial various generals or transfer out people he didn't like. His inability to delegate is quite clearly put across and you get a mixture of his genius and flaws equally so it isn't a glorious depiction of a great general that you sometime get in some books, quite often things were going wrong because his subordinates had no idea on what they were supposed to be doing once the initial actions had taken place or broken down.

The death of 'Stonewall' Jackson
James Longstreet then takes up the large proportion of the narrative after Jackson’s death, interspersed with sections on Jeb Stuart as and when he comes to the fore and then Freeman covers the setting up of the three Corps system and the struggle Lee had in finding not only Corps commanders but generals for both Divisions and Brigades.

Lee through out the war couldn't just promote who he wanted; there was the normal political infighting as you would expect along with some surprising legal problems over the process of appointing generals and then there were downright fits of pique from people who thought they deserved a certain command rather than someone else and so would refuse to serve under or alongside them. There was also the problem of whether the man was from the right state to lead the troops concerned and if they trusted him to do so. Freeman gives frequent examples of when otherwise experienced troops performed badly because they didn't have faith in who was leading them or if they were a recent appointment, that they didn't know him enough to trust him with their lives.

As has been pointed out recently on TMP, this isn't the book to pick as your Civil War master, there are far better ones available that cover the war in much greater depth however it does cover all the battles the Army of Northern Virginia (ANV) took part in and more importantly all the little actions that took place, this is important because given the high mortality rate of the Confederate general staff, they didn't only get killed in the famous battles.

At the end of each chapter Freeman reviews all of the generals performances in any actions that have taken place and how any replacements if they were required or any restructuring was then decided upon.

For me, the last part of the book which details the fighting around Petersburg and the break out that ended at Appomattox is again very interesting as its a part of the war that I had previously not spent much time on, after all, its just trenches and stuff isn't it? I found how Lee had to constantly juggle his increasingly limited resources to keep Grant from breaking his lines completely and we see the return of some old friends like Beauregard and Picket taking major parts again.

By now we are starting to see war fatigue really affecting decision making and it reminded me of another book that I have and which I read many years ago:

Campaigning with Grant by General Horace Porter.

In it he recalls (if I recall correctly) that once the Union army laid siege outside Petersburg and tried to winkle the Confederates out of their trenches and forts, that previously sound and experienced Union generals had to be relieved of their duties due to their lack of initiative and/or of aggression. This applied to even well known generals who had fought the whole war and had risen up the ranks. It shows that battle fatigue has always been with us and is not just a modern phenomenon.

What stood out for me? Well the campaign around Petersburg as I already mentioned, Early's campaign in the Valley which brought him to the outskirts of Washington was familiar but what happened after that? Well when he arrived it was with a Corps but by the time he fought his last battle at Waynesboro he was down to only 1000 infantry, 6 guns and around 100 cavalry. He escaped over the mountains with just a handful of men only to be relieved of command and sent home on permanent leave, a sad end to a proud career. (Freeman’s family lived near Early’s house and as a child he always sprinted past it as it was said the old general ate little boys)

John B Gordon wounded five times at the Sunken Road talking to R.E. Lee - Don Troiani
Finally the general who doesn't get his due acclaim in my opinion, General John B.Gordon, in from the start and a participant at all the major battles, he even led the last charge of the ANV whilst trying to break through the Union lines the day before the surrender. Perhaps if he had been promoted earlier to Corps command instead of Ewell or AP Hill then ………….. Well probably not, but he was one of those who just got better and better rather than the reverse.

Small sketch maps of campaigns and battles are scattered throughout and whilst not super detailed are essential for following the action and is good to see, the writing style is also excellent as you would expect from a Pulitzer Prize winner.

You will find yourself following certain generals careers as they come to Lee’s notice and then are promoted from Regimental to Brigade command up to Divisional and even Corps level until most of them meet a sad end. It clearly shows how desperate Lee was to find and identify good leaders, often brigades were led by colonels as there just wasn't a suitable candidate for promotion to general.

I will finish with a couple of quotes from the book:
“ In July 1863 six of the nine Divisions were under officers who had not commanded them in July 1862 and only five of the thirty-eight infantry brigades were led by men who held the rank of Brigadier General twelve months ago”

“ In June 1864, after a month's fighting, 37% of the general officers were out of action”

An all round good book covering the Civil War in the East in a different way. Glad I bought it.

Pages: 910
Main Text: 816 pages
Best Price I found today was: £26.89 from Wordery

This has been a Mr Steve production.


  1. Nice review "Mr Steve".

    I have been on the look out for a book on ACW generals, as most only cover the well know names. You are right in identifying the fatigue and losses amongst Lee's commanders. He really struggled to keep a consistent team round him and some of the men he was forced to rely on were clearly not up to the job.


  2. Lee's Lieutenants was the first serious book (or series of books) that I read on the Civil War. I remember stumbling across it in the public library and then when I went to the USA in 1978 I bought volumes 1 and 3 in the gift shop at Lee's house at Arlington at a cost of $20.00 per hardback volume. Regrettably they did not have a copy of volume 2 and I had to wait another 12 years until I bought a copy of it. Freeman's narrative style that makes this series a real page just want to read on and on to see what is going to happen next, even though you probably already have a pretty good knowledge of the campaigns. After all these years I still pick out a volume from time to time to re-read - chapter or two.

  3. Sears has also written a new book entitled "Lincoln's Lieutenants". That should be a good read too.