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Posted on Aug 15, 2013 in Books and Movies

Lee’s Army in the Overland Campaign: A Numerical Study – Book Review

By Neal West

Lee’s Army during the Overland Campaign: A Numerical Study. Alfred C. Young III, Louisiana State University Press, 2013. Hardcover. 428 pages. Appendix A: Tables; Appendix B: Maps; Appendix C: Order of battle. Notes. Index. $39.95.

“By the 1st of May [1864], Grant had accumulated an army of more than one hundred and forty-one thousand men on the North bank of the Rapidan; and General Lee’s army on the South bank, including two of Longstreet’s divisions, which had returned from Tennessee, was under fifty thousand men, of all arms.

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Grant’s theory was to accumulate the largest numbers practicable against us, so as, by constant ‘hammering,’ to destroy our army ‘by mere attrition if in no other way.’—Jubal A. Early, addressing Washington & Lee University, January 19, 1872.

“[I]t appears that General Lee’s total … present for duty, of all arms, [was] sixty-three thousand nine hundred and eighty-four … at the opening of the campaign of 1864.”—Walter H. Taylor; Four Years with General Lee. 1877.

How many men did Robert E. Lee actually have available to contest Grant’s Overland Campaign and how many became casualties? Historians—and champions of the Lost Cause—have wrestled with this question of numbers since the end of the Civil War. But with so many records lost or destroyed during the cataclysmic retreat of Lee’s army and the Confederate government’s abandonment of Richmond, no accurate count can possibly be made. Or can it?

This was the task voluntarily accepted by Alfred C. Young III in Lee’s Army during the Overland Campaign: A Numerical Study. While discussing John W. Busey and David C. Martin’s Regimental Strengths at Gettysburg with a National Park Service employee, Young remarked that someone should replicate those author’s methods with a study of the Overland campaign. “Why don’t you do it?” was the casual reply.

Ten years of research followed as Young perused Confederate service records (CSRs) at the National Archives and compiled unit rosters. As expected, many gaps in the records were found, with little hope of filling them, until Young discovered that Southern newspapers often printed casualty lists after major actions.

In Part One of Lee’s Army, and armed with these new sources, Young provides in introduction and overview of his research methods and finding. We learned that Young first compared individual Confederate soldier CSRs with unit rosters. When gaps were found in those sources, Young used quarterly clothing issue records to identify if an individual was present or not. Record-of-event cards, recorded after the war and filed with the CSRs, were also consulted in order to gain a truer picture of Lee’s actual strength in early May 1864.

Most historians have estimated Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to have contained 60,000–62,000 men, about one-half of Grant’s host. This number was based on the army’s April 20, 1864, abstract of field returns contained in volume 33, series I of the Official Records. This number comes close to the 64,000 number counted by Walter Taylor. Taylor, however, may be including rear-area troops. Subtract them from the Official Record number and Lee had 52,984; close to Early’s “under 50,000″ number.

Young, however, counts many men missing from the April 20 returns. Portions of the Second Corps, and all of the infantry along with three battalions of artillery from the First Corps, are missing. Adding these missing men, along with other parts of Longstreet’s Corps returning from East Tennessee, and the number grows from 52,984 to 63,888; not that far off the common 60-62,000 estimate.

But after consulting and cross-referencing the CSRs, clothing issue records, muster rolls, hospital records, Federal POW lists, and applying a mathematical model to account for men not actually present, Young comes up with a new estimate of 66,000 men at the beginning of the Overland Campaign. To test his model, Young compared his model results against known regimental strengths documented in regimental histories, as well as the June 30 field returns, and found them to be quite accurate.

Part Two of Lee’s Army contains a compilation of individual unit discussions and casualty breakdowns to accompany the sixty-nine unit strength/casualty tables contained in appendix A. Young here applies the same thoroughness of research methodology to estimate reinforcements gained and casualties lost to the army throughout the campaign.

It must be noted that Young appears to have no axe to grind. Many of the post-war writings by ex-Confederates had striven to diminish the battlefield accomplishments of General U.S. Grant and the Army of the Potomac. This was usually done by expanding the disparity in numbers as much as possible in order to swell the legend of Confederate gallantry as much as possible—as if Lee and his soldiers’ reputation needed such inflationary tactics.

What Young found was that some of the previous estimates are not that far off, while other numbers were seriously skewed. For example, Lee’s army was only about 4,000 men stronger at the beginning of the campaign than previously thought. In reinforcements, however, the history has been changed. Instead of the maximum 78,000 men available quoted by Walter Taylor, Young counts 98,000! Casualty figures also come out much higher and much more damaging to the AoNV’s combat efficiency than previously estimated. Young’s estimate of 33,500 men lost during the campaign shatters the legend that Lee’s had decimated Grant’s army while suffering only half as many casualties.

Alfred Young has provided a superior addition to Civil War literature and plugged a substantial hole in our knowledge of the Overland Campaign. Casual readers might not find much to savor in the book’s listings of percentages, charts, and tables. Regimental historians, genealogists, battlefield guides, and other researchers, however, will find Lee’s Army during the Overland Campaign: A Numerical Study a valuable addition to their library.

Neal West is a retired USAF veteran living in Southern Maryland with his wife of 32 years, too many cats, and a speedy miniature pincher aptly named “Blitz.” Mr. West volunteers at Manassas National Battlefield conducting a few tours and demonstrating historic weapons. He received a Bachelor’s in American Military History and a Master’s in Military History, Civil War concentration, both conferred by American Military University. Neal is a frequent contributor to ArmchairGeneral.com and operates AnotherBullRun.com.

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