Damage Them All You Can by George Walsh is the history of the Army of Northern Virginia in the Civil War. The book covers all the major battles the army was involved in and analyzes command decisions. It is pro-Robert E. Lee, but Walsh’s opinions are solid and he does not hold back on criticisms. I will use this review to partly judge Lee’s performance in the major battles.
Walsh sets the stage for the “Lost Cause” by pointing out how statistically dominating the North was. In 1860, there were 22 million whites in the North versus 5.5 million in the South. The North had 1.3 million factory workers versus 110,000. 97% of firearms were produced in the North, 94% of textiles and 90% of industrial production. The North had twice the railroad capacity and more than twice the draft animals (an often overlooked advantage) . Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia had its work cut out for it. The book makes a case for the army doing as well as it could have.
1. Mechanicsville – Good plan, but Jackson did not launch a flanking attack and A.P. Hill prematurely launched a series of bloody frontal attacks on a very strong defensive position – Lee rating = 7
2. Gaines’ Mill - Good plan, again Jackson is slow in engaging 7
3. Savage’s Station - Plan was too complicated and relied on suspect generals (a recurring theme) 5
4. Glendale and Frayser’s Farm - poor coordination and poor performance by Jackson, but Lee is not forceful enough in demanding he move 5
5. Malvern Hill - suicidal frontal attacks that are ill-coordinated; inexcusable 2
6. Second Manassas - daring plan that came together for a stunning victory; first clear look at Lee’s formula for success: aggressive maneuvering, faith in his army, and his ability to read his opponent’s deer-in-the- headlights reactions; Longstreet begins to show his stubbornness when it comes to offensive tactics 8
7. Antietam - the decision to stay and fight was very questionable and the decision to remain on the battlefield for another day was borderline insane, but the handling of the battle was artful (although dependent on incompetency by McClellan) 8
8. Fredericksburg - not much planning involved here; credit for letting the opponent play the aggressor and accepting the defensive role (which thrilled Longstreet, but chafed Lee) 8
9. Chancellorsville - Lee’s masterpiece, but dependent on passiveness on the part of Hooker; should have been a terrible defeat; Lee’s decisions are breath-taking in their daringness 10
10. Gettysburg - Lee’s penchant to allow initiative by his generals back-fires in several instances, but the ultimate decision to launch Pickett’s Charge is totally on him 4
11. The Wilderness - Lee takes advantage of Grant leaving two flanks open and relies on the fighting ability of his men 8
12. Spotsylvania - Lee anticipates Grant’s maneuver, but mars the victory by agreeing to Ewell’s holding of the Bloody Angle salient 7
13. Cold Harbor – similar to Fredericksburg in that Lee allows the enemy to win the battle for him 8
One theme of the book is that Lee was often let down by his generals. Walsh is especially hard on Ewell and Longstreet. However, it is apparent that Lee’s method of allowing his commanders flexibility in carrying out their orders was a double-edged sword. It led to some great successes, but also some failures. Lee can mainly be faulted for not realizing which of his generals (e.g. Ewell and Lonstreet) needed firm orders. He also should have fired some of them.
The book is very well written. Walsh did copious research and it shows in the numerous quotes from both the officers and the foot soldiers. The first person accounts are kept short and blend in seamlessly with the narrative. Although the book does not have much on soldier life (other than an excellent chapter on the subject), the quotes by regular soldiers give a clear view of their combat experiences.
Walsh humanizes the commanders. He provides interesting biographical information on most of them. Strangely, this drops off in the second half of the book. Another fault is the lack of maps. The book includes many interesting anecdotes.
The main takeaway from Damage Them All You Can is the incredible bloodshed in these Civil War battles. Few Americans have any conception of what the soldiers went through. More amazing is the losses among the officers and generals. The power of honor and peer pressure has never been better used to the destruction of men than in the Civil War.