General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse. By Joseph Glatthaar. Free Press, 600 pages, paperback, $20.00.

Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia: A Statistical Portrait of the Troops Who Served under Robert E. Lee. By Joseph Glatthaar. The University of North Carolina Press, 209 pages, cloth, $50.00.

Is there anything left to learn about Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia? The short answer is yes. More interesting answers are in Joseph Glatthaar’s two most recent books.

Click to read photo caption. Library of Congress

Historians have written thousands of books about Lee and his soldiers. Yet no one had written a narrative about the entire Civil War from the perspective of Lee’s soldiers. To write that book, Glatthaar scoured thousands of primary sources; his bibliography in General Lee’s Army is forty multicolumned pages. But to help him choose the right sources, Glatthaar did something else rare for Civil War historians: he turned to statistics.

There exists no single list of soldiers who served in the Army of Northern Virginia. So Glatthaar pieced one together. He made a chronological list of all the battles and organized each unit that participated by branch—artillery, cavalry, and infantry—and assigned a number to each unit for every branch. Then he selected units randomly. Finally he assigned a number to every soldier in those units and randomly selected numbers until he had a list of six hundred soldiers. He searched microfilm at the National Archives to find each soldier’s service record, which led him to pension records, census records, and obituaries. Then he went back to the individual archives to find more about the soldiers and their comrades.

The method Glatthaar used took years, but it allowed him to get a clearer sense of Lee’s men and create a narrative based more on facts than a few scattered opinions.

“We’ve hit a point in history scholarship where people are cherry-picking evidence,” Glatthaar says. “When you’re dealing with so many Civil War soldiers, you can find a statement in their letters to justify any kind of argument.”

Glatthaar’s analysis also helped him debunk some long-held opinions about Lee’s soldiers. Most weren’t poor and most didn’t desert for the reasons historians have long given.

According to Glatthaar’s analysis, 35.5 percent of Lee’s troops were from wealthy families, even though just 24.7 percent of the South’s citizens were considered wealthy. Twenty-three percent of Lee’s soldiers were from the middle class; 27 percent of Southern citizens were considered middle class. Lastly, 41.7 percent of Lee’s soldiers were from poor families, but 48.4 percent of citizens were considered poor.

“This negates the argument about ‘rich man’s war; poor man’s fight,’ doesn’t it?” Glatthaar says. “The rich guys were actually overrepresented.” 

Click to read photo caption. Library of Congress

Glatthaar says most of the rich soldiers enlisted to preserve their way of life, which was dependent on slavery. Many of these soldiers said they joined the fight to protect their homes, their families, and their right to live how they always had. Once they were on the battlefield, though, their way of life turned into something completely different. “Soldiers thought they would just slug it out in the open field against the Yankees and rely on superior character and skills to win the day,” Glatthaar says. “It never crossed their minds that they’d have to wield axes and shovels. That was work for slaves.”

From the moment Lee took command he challenged that naïve perspective of warfare, Glatthaar says, and tried to inspire his officers to instill more discipline and a stronger work ethic.

“Our people are opposed to work,” Lee wrote to Confederacy president Jefferson Davis in 1862. “Our troops, officers, community, and press all ridicule and resist it.” Lee described how in ancient times Roman soldiers had dug trenches and built fortifications to protect themselves during battle campaigns. “There’s nothing so military as labor and nothing so important to our army as to save the lives of soldiers,” he wrote.

Lee and his lieutenants got the men to dig trenches and to build fortifications and barracks. In fact, Lee got every last ounce out of his soldiers as they drove Union troops out of Virginia and won many battles against superior numbers. But the war plodded on. Federal troops maintained pressure, and Southern states couldn’t get necessary supplies to Lee’s men, leading to the war’s desperate end.

Click to read photo caption. Library of Congress

Throughout most of 1864, according to Glatthaar, Lee’s soldiers typically ate only a quarter-pound of meat and some cornmeal each day. “They weren’t taking in enough good nutrition to break down the food they were actually eating,” Glatthaar says. 

Glatthaar wondered what the nutritional value of such food was. He called Boyd Switzer, a nutritional biochemist at UNC, who calculated that Lee’s men consumed thirty-five to forty grams of protein a day, much less than they should’ve been eating. They consumed 6 percent of the recommended daily amount of vitamin A, 15 percent of the vitamin E, 3 percent of the vitamin K, 10 percent of the calcium, and 41 percent of the potassium, not to mention nowhere near enough vitamin B.

“They were getting about nine hundred calories a day,” Glatthaar says. But their days were full of walking, fighting, and working. Today’s soldiers, he says, eat four thousand calories a day just to maintain muscle mass.

Life under Lee: at a glance

A few more of Glaathar’s findings about the soldiers in Lee’s army.

  • Nearly 25 percent of all Confederate soldiers fought in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
  • Nearly half were born in Virginia or North Carolina, and nearly half claimed Virginia or North Carolina as their prewar state of residence.
  • Officers were three and a half times more likely to own slaves than were their enlisted troops.
  • In 1860, 25 percent of Southern households had slaves, but 44 percent of soldiers’ households owned slaves.
  • A disproportionate share of soldiers who held slaves gravitated toward the cavalry. The artillery attracted the fewest slaveholders.
—Mark Derewicz

It’s been well known that Lee’s soldiers suffered from dysentery, skin ailments, night blindness, anemia, scurvy, and diarrhea. Glatthaar’s findings put the soldiers’ suffering into even bleaker context—they were starving to death. Their challenge to survive and win battles became greater in the winter of 1864 and early 1865. 

The men were forced to wear the same boots and clothes for so long that the fabric disintegrated. “There were times when soldiers would appear for inspection without pants or shoes,” Glatthaar says. As the weather grew cold in late 1864, some of Lee’s men said they were eager for a battle because winning meant they could take blankets, shoes, and clothes from Union soldiers. “This was mind-boggling,” Glatthaar says. “I knew things were bad, but soldiers eager for battle so they could find an overcoat? I would never have anticipated that.”

Despite the desperation, the Army of Northern Virginia inflicted heavy casualties on Union forces throughout 1864 even as Lee’s best officers were killed and desertions increased.

Some scholars have found a correlation between soldiers’ misery and desertion rates. But Glatthaar found a stronger motivation for desertion. 

Married soldiers were 30 percent more likely than single soldiers to desert their units. And soldiers with kids were 80 percent more likely to desert. By far, the most desertions took place in February and March of 1865, when Lee’s army lost a brigade—some one hundred men—every ten days. This was during Sherman’s desolating march through the South. “Soldiers were just worried about their families,” Glatthaar says. “Desertion, really, was all about their kids.”

Deserters weren’t cowards, he says. They hadn’t lost faith in the Confederate cause. They left Lee’s army for pretty much the same reason they had joined—to protect their homes, their families, and their way of life. 

Joseph T. Glatthaar is the Stephenson Distinguished Professor of History in the College of Arts and Sciences.