I have been making my way through Joseph T. Glatthaar's new book, General Lee's Army: From Victory to Collapse and wanted to pass along some initial thoughts.
To put it simply, Glatthaar has produced one of the most detailed portraits of the Confederate army I have ever seen.
The research is meticulous. Based on primary documents, manuscripts, published letters, and diaries of about 4,000 soldiers, Glatthaar has constructed a representative sample of some 600 Confederate soldiers. His database allows him to:
...address some of the most important questions, many of them answered unsatisfactorily by previous scholars, about who these soldiers and their families were and what their wartime experiences were like, including background, slave ownership, occupation, wealth, family, desertion, conscription, illnesses, casualties, and many more. (xiv).
Glatthaar confronts these findings early in his narrative.
For example, one of the most loaded questions regarding the Confederate Army goes something like this: "How many Confederate soldiers were slave owners?"
Though it is a common question, historians have never been able to arrive at a simple answer.
For example, in For Cause and Comrades, James M. McPherson tried to explain why men fought in the Civil War. He constructed a database of 1,076 soldiers, 647 Union and 429 Confederate. When he turned to Confederate motivations, he was surprised to find "only 20 percent of the sample of 429 Southern soldiers explicitly voiced proslavery convictions in their letters or diaries" (p. 110). However, McPherson acknowledged that none at all dissented from that view.
But what did that mean? If one in five Confederate soldiers expressed proslavery convictions, did that mean 20 percent of Confederate soldiers were slave owners? No. Only about one-third of Confederate soldiers who expressed pro-slavery convictions came from a slaveholding family. While McPherson provided anecdotal evidence, his methodology prevented him from arriving at a simple answer.
Glatthaar is able to do what previous historians have failed to do, but be warned, his answer is not a simple one.
He finds that 10.27 percent of enlistees in the Confederate army in 1861 personally owned slaves (p. 19). While just 4.95 percent of whites owned slaves in the Confederacy, one might conclude the average Confederate enlistee was more than twice as likely to be a slave owner as a common citizen in the Confederacy. However, the conclusion fails to tell the whole story.
Glatthaar finds that more than one in every four (25.62 percent) enlistees lived with a parent who was a slave owner.
If we combine those enlistees who owned slaves (10.27 percent) with the number who lived with parents who owned slaves (25.62), we find that 35.89 percent of enlistees either owned slaves or lived with parents who did.
While 24.9 percent of Confederate households owned slaves, we might conclude that volunteers in 1861 were 42 percent more likely than the general population to own slaves themselves or to live with family members who did. Yet again, Glatthaar cautions against forming that conclusion just yet.
He finds that one in every ten volunteers did not own slaves themselves, but lived in households headed by non-family members who did.
If we combine the 10 percent of enlistees who lived with non-family members who owned slaves, with the 35.89 percent figure we arrived at earlier (volunteers who were slave owners or who lived with parents who owned slaves), we find that nearly half of all Confederate enlistees in 1861 either lived with slaveholders or were slave owners themselves.
Glatthaar concludes his point:
Nor did the direct exposure stop there. Untold numbers of enlistees rented land from, sold crops to, or worked for slaveholders. In the final tabulation, the vast majority of the volunteers of 1861 had a direct connection to slavery. For slaveholder and nonslaveholder alike, slavery lay at the heart of the Confederate nation. The fact that their paper notes frequently depicted scenes of slaves demonstrated the institution's central role and symbolic value to the Confederacy. (p.20)
Of course, slavery is merely one of the many issues that Glatthaar deals with.
Is Glatthaar's book worth reading? Yes. It is an important book; it is a complex, yet highly readable, analysis of General Lee's Army. I know I'll be using it for quite some time.