Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Book review - Lost Victories

Just finished reading a book called Lost Victories: The Military Genius of Stonewall Jackson by Bevin Alexander. The book is an analysis of General Jackson's military career in the Civil War.

Mr. Alexander makes several good points in his book. He accurately points out that, in some areas, Jackson was ahead of his time in his strategy and innovative in his tactics. He covers the early war and Jackson's desire to take the war to the Northern populace. This strategy was proposed by Jackson just after the Valley Campaign while the Army of the Potomac was engaged creeping up the peninsula towards Richmond. Mr. Alexander accurately states that Lee and Davis overruled Jackson and ordered him to Richmond to take part in the Seven Days battles.

What Mr. Alexander does not discuss was the grand strategy of the Confederate States. Their aim was to be seen as defending themselves, not as the aggressor. By the time of Sharpsburg it was clear that the tactic of defense had succeeded in winning the emotional battle on the diplomatic front but a win on Northern soil was needed to firm up the deal. As Mr. Alexander properly notes, no politician likes to back a loser.

Sharpsburg is the point where Mr. Alexander makes his next unusual point. He claims that Lee's orders to concentrate at Sharpsburg effectively lost the campaign. As evidence he points out that the Army of Northern Virgina had already scored a major victory by capturing Harper's Ferry and the garrison there. By concentrating at Sharpsburg, Lee committed to a stand-up slugging match with no room to maneuver and against a heavier foe. This resulted in his army being bled white. Upon reflection it seems that Mr. Alexander has a point here.

While his Sharpsburg analysis is interesting and thought provoking, he has one major flaw. In Mr. Alexander's book Jackson made no mistakes. Those that history has attributed to him are credited to his subordinates or to Lee. Lee is knocked about pretty sharply on the strategical and tactical fronts as well. While Mr. Alexander is proper to credit Jackson with much, it may be a bit of a leap to consider him as the strategy source for the Army of Northern Virgina.

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