Doing damage: War novel chronicles carnage
In parting with his elite Army of Northern Virginia, General Robert E. Lee expressed gratitude, affection, and admiration. He told his beaten men, “I earnestly pray that a merciful God will extend to you his blessing and protection.”
That prayer for a merciful God came four years after Lee challenged the rag-tag force he commanded to “damage them all you can,” when confronting the enemy.
They did. Throughout the Valley Campaign and Chancellorsville and Spotsylvania, they extracted as much life and will from their foe as could have been hoped. Much of their success was thanks to Lee’s bold and unpredictable maneuvers.
With 85,000 men, the Army badgered and bloodied the army of George McClellan enough in the Seven Days to sideline it completely for an assault on Washington. In the words of one admiring reader of George Walsh’s book on the Army of Northern Virginia, “Man for man, it out-Generaled and out-fought all that the North could throw against it.”
For a time. It was a brief high-water mark for the Southern cause.
Eight years in the writing, Damage Them All You Can traces its roots to another Civil War author’s labor. It was as a publisher for Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, the 1975 Pulitzer Prize-winner, that Walsh recognized his fascination with the subject. In telling the history of the Army of Northern Virginia, Walsh has as his subjects some of the finest personalities of the war.
Here is the stoicism of Stonewall Jackson and the flamboyance of J.E.B. Stuart. Here is the enigmatic George Pickett, and his ill-fated charge. Here is James Longstreet, and his ill-fated reputation. Here is foolproof material for a gifted writer and creative scholar.
Still, Lee’s army has been the fodder for as many poorly composed histories and works of fiction as brilliantly executed constructed military strategies. Happily, Walsh’s book does not batter the facts and fortunes with excess force. His writing is clear and insightful, and his pace never hinders his story. This is, in the words of the Virginia Quarterly Review, a book that “belongs on the shelf with Catton and McPherson, Foote and Freeman, Wiley and Williams.”
And lest you think Walsh was just seduced by the Lost Cause, the New York native is currently at work on a book about Grant’s Northern Army. Make more room on the shelf.
George Walsh will sign copies and discuss Damage Them All You Can: Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at New Dominion Bookshop on January 23 at 5:30pm. Downtown Mall, 295-2552.