Guest Review Lee’s Army during the Overland Campaign: A Numerical Study

Here’s a guest review by Jim Epperson of Alfred C. Young’s book, Lee’s Army During the Overland Campaign:  A Numerical Study.  Jim is a former math professor, now an editor, and a proud University of Michigan alum, but we don’t hold any of those against him.  🙂

 

 

A book that is subtitled “A Numerical Study” sounds more like the kind of math book I might have written in my earlier professional career as a math professor, instead of a significant new Civil War offering, but this book delivers solid research and new information.

 

What we might call “Confederate numerology” for 1864 is very deficient, for three basic reasons: 1. The Confederates simply did not keep good records; 2. Many of the records they did keep were burned during the evacuation of Richmond and on the retreat to Appomattox; 3. Robert E. Lee’s directive of the previous year, in which he ordered that “the reports of the wounded shall only include those whose injuries in the opinion of the medical officers, render them unfit for duty.” The result is that we have very poor information about the strength of the Army of Northern Virginia in 1864, and even worse information about losses. The book under review is an outstanding effort at addressing these issues.

 

“Official sources” about Lee’s strength and losses in 1864 are simply minimal. The last field return is dated April 20, and is only for part of the army. Reports of losses are virtually non-existent. Alfred Young has combed a variety of “unofficial” sources, including newspapers and hospital records, as well as regimental CSRs (Compiled Service Records) in the National Archives. The result is not a sterile book of numbers and tables (although these do exist). Young organizes his discussion by unit organization, so there are “mini-histories” of each corps, each division in the corps, and each brigade within the divisions, including appropriately organized sections on the cavalry and artillery, as well as the several reinforcement formations that were sent to Lee, mostly later in May. These accounts do tend to emphasize the Battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House. Thus the narrative amounts to an overview-by-unit of the Overland Campaign.

Young’s conclusions are three-fold: The Army of Northern Virginia was slightly stronger at the beginning of the campaign than is usually assumed, it received significantly more reinforcements than is usually assumed, and sustained higher casualties.

 

Typically, Lee’s strength at the outset of the campaign is estimated at 64,000; Young credits him with 66,000. Young estimates total casualties for the campaign (including Trevilian Station and Wilson’s Wharf) at 33,646. I do not have handy any estimate for the strength of reinforcements sent to Lee, but Young calculates this as almost 25,500, which means that Lee’s total strength for the campaign was over 90,000, although he of course never had nearly this much at any one time.

 

There are a couple of additional interesting peripheral nuggets of information. As Longstreet’s two divisions of First Corps returned from Tennessee, they left a “trail” of men behind them—furloughs, sick, wounded, detached men—that would catch up to the army throughout May; Young estimates that as many as 1,860 men were added to the divisions of Field and Kershaw in this way. Also, the Confederate cavalry got really beat up during the campaign. Even though they were able to hold their own in many actions, casualties were heavy (over 2,500, out of a total strength of 12,845—nearly 20%) and the poor performance in the Shenandoah Valley that fall may have been set in motion in May and June. (And, of course, the casualties in horseflesh are not at all available, and would have sapped the strength of the cavalry even more, especially since Confederate troopers had to provide their own mounts.)

 

The book is not without flaws. The name of the Catharpin Road, which figures heavily in the movements into the Wilderness and on to Spotsylvania, is consistently rendered as the “Carpathian Road,” which this reviewer—now an editor by profession—found very amusing. Apparently an editor or spell-checker fiddled with the book after it left the author’s hands.

 

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