As the Civil War dragged on, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, like Lee himself, came to symbolize the South’s hopes and dreams. Ultimately, Lee and his army symbolized the Confederacy itself, which partially explains why so many want Confederate monuments removed.
The soldiers in that army were fiercely loyal to their commander, but they also referred to themselves as “Lee’s Miserables.” Army conditions continued to deteriorate in the last year of the war, with growing shortages of food rations, medicine, uniforms, and more. A constantly hungry army will not fight as well as one that has at least minimum sustenance. And food was a signal factor in the rising numbers of desertions.
In 1998, J. Tracy Power published Lee’s Miserables: Life in the Army of Northern Virginia from the Wilderness to Appomattox. It may be almost 25 years old, but the work is still up-to-date, and it is so largely because Power told a very different kind of story that most Civil War histories up to that point.
For many decades after the conflict, books focused on battles, military strategy, generals and leading political figures, and military memoirs. It wasn’t until the 1980s that many historians began paying attention to the daily life of soldiers in the war. And that included Power. He examined thousands of letters, memoirs, newspaper articles, and other sources to create a picture of how the soldiers in Lee’s Army fared during the war’s last year, how they experienced various battles, and what drove an increasing number to desert.
And, yes, it was the soldiers who called themselves “Lee’s Miserables,” a title immediately suggests Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, first published in 1862.
Power organizes his account by the battles, beginning with the Wilderness and Spotsylvania in May, 1864. That’s followed by Cold Harbor, Shenandoah Valley, the siege of Petersburg (with the famous explosion created by Union miners), the Richmond front, a number of smaller battles, and finally Appomattox. He allows the soldiers to describe their experiences, how they understood battle outcomes, and the growing toll of shortages.
When Lee surrendered at Appomattox in April 1865, it was the soldiers themselves who experienced the first and most immediate psychological blow. They had been considered, and likely considered themselves, the last best hope for the Confederacy, and now it was all at an end.
Power is an associate professor of history at Newberry College in Columbia, South Carolina, and director of the Newberry College Archives. He received his B.A. degree from Emory University and his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of South Carolina. He taught history at several colleges and served as a historian in the State Historic Preservation Office of the South Carolina Department of Archives and History. He’s a past president of the South Carolina Historical Association and has received a number of awards for his academic teaching and his publications. In addition to Lee’s Miserables, he’s also published Stonewall Jackson: Hero of the Confederacy and served as co-editor of The Leverett Letters: Correspondence of a South Carolina Family 1851-1868. He’s lectured and written widely on the Civil War and South Carolina’s history from the American Revolution to the Civil Rights Movement.
Lee’s Miserables is history from the ground up. The men who were the soldiers in the Civil War’s most famous army tell their story and their stories of victory, defeat, daily life, and eventually surrender.
Top photograph: Three members of the 4th Georgia Infantry Regiment in the Army of Northern Virginia: Capt. Eugene Hawkins, Col. William Willis, and Capt. Howard Tinsley.