Thursday, February 15, 2024

Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander

A friend and fellow ACW buff wrote, suggesting I read this book. I thought that was a good idea, put the letter on top of a pile of mail and then forgot about it. Much later I went through the stack of mail, discarding most and came upon the letter again. I purchased the Kindle edition and was pleased. Alexander starts with a long chapter about his life up the secession crisis. One of the other officers in the old army he most liked was McPherson. He mourned that Union officer’s death around Atlanta.

 


Alexander wrote well. While he followed the Lost Cause as far as denying slavery was a major cause of the war, he did not shy away from criticizing mistakes made by other Confederate icons, like Lee and Stonewall Jackson. His comments about darkies and such lead me to believe he wasn’t unhappy that southern states were “redeemed” from Reconstruction.

 

He began his career in grey as a supply officer for artillery. This gave him the perspective of logistical limits. You know the old saw, amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics.

 

He thought there were two chances for Confederate victory; 1st Manassas / Bull Run and Glendale, the penultimate battle of the Seven Days in 1862. I rather disagree about the first, since the green army collapsed in victory almost as totally as the Union army did in defeat, with politician / officers giving speeches and troops wandering around seeking souvenirs of the battle they thought ended the war. Glendale might have been a really serious defeat for the Army of the Potomac. The Union troops escaped largely because Stonewall Jackson failed to advance, as he often did during the Seven Days. It was the nadir of his Confederate career.

 

Alexander thought having McClellan return from James/Appomattox Rivers a serious error, adding two years to the war. He did note that McClellan's extreme caution might negate the advantage of the position. Yes indeed.  Alexander then became an artillery officer in Longstreet’s corps and in time the corps artillery CO. He often complained about the quality of Confederate long-range artillery ammunition; faulty fuses and rounds that might start to tumble in flight. Gamers might consider this.

 

He thought Lee’s decision to stand at Sharpsburg / Antietam was foolish. I concur. Lee risked crushing defeat and at best might repulse the Union assault. The ex-supply officer didn’t see Gettysburg as possibly decisive; the Confederate army was 150 miles from their railhead and couldn’t remain long enough to gain any but a transitory advantage. (The Prussian general staff later determined that efficient horse-drawn wagons could supply troops no more than 72 miles from a railhead, and the Confederate supply services weren’t all that efficient.)

 

A tenet of the Lost Cause was that Grant was nothing but a butcher who used massive numerical superiority. Alexander noted the superiority; also, that his Union opponents were much better directed. Both Lee and Grant made some errors during the Overland Campaign.  

 

Lee was indecisive during Grant’s critical crossing of the James, in large part because he could not believe the Yankees could move that many troops and wagons in a few days. By the time he realized what was happening, Petersburg was under attack, saved only by Beauregard’s heroics, Smith’s caution and the exhaustion of Hancock and his troops when they did arrive. Grant was now back where McClellan was in 1862, but Grant was aggressive and skillful. Lee’s army was pinned in a siege. The end was matter of time.

 

Alexander liked many of his colleagues, but rued Hood replacing Joe Johnston. As for Polk, he said the Lord had made him a bishop but not a general. Denying a basic Lost Cause trope, he said Longstreet was not responsible for the defeat at Gettysburg. I’ve read many accounts of Longstreet being wounded at the Wilderness. This was the first time I realized Longstreet's right arm was paralyzed.


There are some amazing stories here. Late in the war, Alexander had to sleep on the floor of a crowded railway station because the next train wasn't due until the morning. Sleeping on the floor next to him was Confederate Vice-President Stephens, back from an abortive peace conference within Union lines.

Very near the end, Alexander withdrew nearly 700 Confederate dollars from a bank and managed to convert it into a $10 gold coin. There's more like this.

 

I heartily recommend the book to Civil War buffs. There are limitations to the Kindle edition. Links to footnotes worked intermittently on the Kindle device, perhaps half the time or less. The links work on the desktop PC, but I like to read curled up in the easy chair or in bed before lights out. Not the author’s fault, but Amazon’s.