The Exploits of General Lee's Immortals
With General Lee’s Immortals, Michael C. Hardy has filled an important gap in the campaign history of the Army of Northern Virginia. The Branch-Lane Brigade, made up of North Carolinians and originally a part of Ambrose Powell Hill’s famous Light Division, served the Confederacy in nearly every major battle in the Eastern Theater, from Seven Days to Appomattox. Hardy does not fall short in describing the Brigade’s military exploits – those praiseworthy: tenacious fighting élan and dogged defensive efforts, as well as those less than virtuous, depending on your sectional leanings: members of the brigade were responsible for the accidental wounding and subsequent death of Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson.
I’ll give credit where credit is due. Hardy writes military narrative in fine style. His brisk history will certainly appeal to those who revel in detailing all the complicated moving parts of a Civil War era brigade on campaign and in battle. Hardy wisely turns to the historical actors to complete his story and lets the soldiers themselves add the (often grim) specifics of war. Each chapter offers ample first-hand evidence penned by soldiers in the Brach-Lane Brigade, and their vivid descriptive language adds greatly to the story. Hardy’s account is interspersed with a number of informative chapters on medical care, camp life, prisoners of war, and army discipline. And thus, the fighting is broken by brief snippets from the daily lives of soldiers in the Army of Northern Virginia. This inclusive narrative is of course welcome in a military history with grand ambitions. Hardy covers them well.
My concerns with this book are those of an analytical sort. In regard to war causation, Hardy only briefly addresses the subject. He inserts nods to “state rights” and southern conceptions of “freedoms” without sufficiently unpacking what those words and phrases might mean in the context of the sectional debates of the antebellum period. But to be fair, causation is not Hardy’s primary focus. Yet, as this is a military history, more concerning is his evaluation of black men serving in the Confederate Army. Historians have long noted that black people – primarily slaves but some free as well – numbered among Confederates on campaign as servants in the army, performing the tasks of servants. Hardy accepts with only thin and very problematic evidence the controversial (and unsubstantiated) claim that black men were enlisted by the Confederate government and willingly served the Confederate cause as combat soldiers throughout the war.
Despite my analytical objections, I found this book very accessible. Those who appreciate the military history of the Confederacy will certainly find much to praise in Hardy’s work.