Book Review Public and Private Recollections of Confederate General Edward Porter Alexander

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Feb 5, 2017

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E. P. Alexander, circa 1900
Nearly fifty years after the conclusion of the American Civil War, Edward Porter Alexander’s book Military Memoirs of a Confederate became available to the public. Alexander’s opening remarks begin with the following passage:

The following pages is not at all to set forth the valor of Confederate arms nor the skill of Confederate generals. These are as they may be, and must here take their chances in an unpartisan narrative, written with an entirely different object. That object is the criticism of each campaign as one would criticise [sic] a game of chess, only to point out the good and bad plays on each side, and the moves which have influenced the result.[1]​

At first glance one would assume a historian of the time wrote this and not a former Confederate Brigadier General who fought in every major campaign in the Eastern Theater. Alexander’s book quickly became a classic following its publication in 1907. Historian T. Harry Williams noted, “probably no book by a participant in the war has done so much to shape the historical image of that conflict.”[2]​ Even President Theodore Roosevelt wrote to Alexander saying, “I have so thoro[ugh]ly enjoyed your ‘Military Memoirs’ that I must write to tell you so.”[3]​ Part of this praise is due to the fact that Military Memoirs is almost completely void of the mythmaking of the Lost Cause. Although Alexander’s public views of the Civil War have been described as honest and fair, it is easy to question if his personal correspondence shares similarities to his public work. This is something that remained unanswered until his personal recollections of the war were published in 1989. By comparing Military Memoirs of a Confederate and Fighting for the Confederacy, it becomes clear that Alexander’s goal was to provide a critical narrative of the Civil War no matter who the audience was. In so doing, Alexander stands uniquely apart from other historians and Confederate veterans of the time.....

One of the most interesting things to compare between the two works is Alexander’s criticism of his former superiors. Very few Confederate veterans criticized men like Robert E. Lee. One of the best examples of this is found during his analysis of the September 1862 Antietam Campaign. In Military Memoirs Alexander wrote, “Lee took a great risk for no chance of gain except the killing of some thousands of his enemy with the loss of, perhaps, two-thirds as many of his own men. That was a losing game for the Confederacy. Its supply of men was limited; that of the enemy was not. That was not war!”[8]​ While this was a critical assessment, Alexander goes into even more detail about Lee’s actions at Antietam in Fighting for the Confederacy. Alexander states that, “I think, [Antietam] will be pronounced by military critics to be the greatest military blunder that Gen. Lee ever made.”[9]​ Alexander’s critique of Lee goes further in his personal account when he says,

Lee’s inferiority of force was too great to hope to do more than to fight a sort of drawn battle. Hard & incessant marching, & camp diseases aggravated by irregular diet, had greatly reduced his ranks, & I don’t think he mustered much if any over 40,000 men…A drawn battle, such as we did actually fight, was the best possible outcome one could hope for.[10]​

Although Alexander is more critical of Lee in his personal recollections than in his published correspondence, he is still one of the only Confederate veterans to critique these figures during a time when the Lost Cause mentality was so influential.