Review In Brief: Two Great Rebel Armies: An Essay in Confederate Military History by Richard McMurry

Books on Confederate Armies

Two Great Rebel Armies: An Essay in Confederate Military History. Richard M. McMurry. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press (1989). 204 pp. 1 map.

Richard McMurry takes a look at the two largest armies in the Confederacy in what is, as the title indicates, an extended essay. The Army of Northern Virginia, ably led by Robert E. Lee, was able to compile a large number of impressive victories during the war. The Army of Tennessee, led by various men of less than stellar ability, was only able to win at Chickamauga, and even that victory proved barren strategically. The author considers various factors that affected the two, including geography, logistical concerns, leadership on all levels (particularly among lower level officers), pre-war militia systems in Virginia and Tennessee, and even the Federals who faced each army. He concludes that in every case, the Army of Northern Virginia benefited from these factors while the Army of Tennessee was negatively affected. I have seen it stated in several places that McMurry is saying that the men of the Army of Northern Virginia were better than the men of the Army of Tennessee. I did not get this sense from my reading of the book. Instead, McMurry is stressing that the men in leadership positions in each army were very different. The vast majority of the men who had graduated from military schools such as West Point, VMI, and the Citadel were concentrated in the Army of Northern Virginia to that army’s immense benefit. The Army of Tennessee started out with many men who were untrained in the art of war, and that army’s problems were exacerbated as casualties started to deprive it of even the small number of leaders who had that previous military experience. In other words, McMurry believes the raw material was there to work with, but the Army of Tennessee did not have experienced men available in large enough numbers to work with this raw material.

The last chapter of the book discusses the views of historians Thomas Connelly and Albert Castel on Robert E. Lee and also looks at the ways in which the Confederate government, specifically Jefferson Davis, could have prosecuted the war. McMurry sides with Castel in defending Lee from Connelly’s attacks, and stresses that the Confederates were right to try to win the war in the east. With that said, the author believes the war was eventually won in the west by the Federals. I found it somewhat odd that McMurry would quote Connelly’s entirely negative opinions on the western generals and agree with them while at the same time defending Lee from the same negative opinions. In a way, this did make sense, as it fits McMurry’s own views on the generals of each theater. Perhaps Connelly is just a negative historian in general, however. Reading this book has increased my interest in Connelly’s two volume history of the Army of Tennessee, and that set has moved much higher up my reading list as a result.

Overall, I enjoyed McMurry’s short work, finishing it over one weekend in just three sittings. It really is startling to see how many trained military men ended up in the Army of Northern Virginia for various reasons at the expense of other Confederate armies. Likewise, it was illuminating to see all of the other advantages, intentional or otherwise, which were routinely provided to the Confederacy’s largest army. This particular book is directed at students of these two largest Confederate armies and of Confederate grand strategy during the Civil War. I definitely recommend it to any student of the war.

204 pp., 1 map.

© Copyright Brett Schulte 2006. All rights reserved.

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