Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Joseph T. Glatthaar, "General Lee's Army"

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.


Anonymous said...

History is certainly written by the victor.

c0c0b33f said...

very interesting, but i'm not sure what the math used here is supposed to represent. simply adding soldiers who both served in the csa and either lived or worked with/for a slave owner doesn't represent how these people may have felt about slavery at all. the author seems to warn against what conclusions can be drawn, then proceeds to draw them (with the help of the reviewer).

Jeremy said...

I recently finished reading this book as well. It is critically important in understanding the link between the CSA volunteers and slavery. As to the comment that the data doesn't show how the soldiers actually felt about slavery, Glatthaar quotes many, many soldiers who make it very clear where they stand on the issue. So much to the point that one volunteer even turned his racial language to Union soldiers, describing them as an "ungodly, fanatical, depraved Yankee race."

Anonymous said...

Yes, it is not only possible, but quite probable that the number who owned slaves overlaps witht he humber who lived with parents who owned slaves. It is an inaccurate assumption that these percentages can be added together.

The true story that is often not told is that these statistics do not reveal the differences between the hearts of northern and southern citizens. Many in the South did not agree with slavery but the economy was based on it.

In the North slavery only ceased to exsit because it was not economically viable in industrialized communities. In fact, most of those states had passed laws that made it illegal for free blacks to live there. The narative that southerners were racists and norhterners were not is completely unfactual.

Anonymous said...

Wow--such sloppy statistics. No wonder real scientists, as in the "hard sciences," look down their noses at "social scientists".