Lee’s Terrible Swift Sword

LEE’S TERRIBLE SWIFT SWORD: FROM ANTIETAM TO CHANCELLORSVILLE, AN EYEWITNESS HISTORY takes as its focus General Robert E. Lee’s engagement of his Army of Virginia’s enemy, the Army of the Potomac, commanded by three less-than-brilliant generals: McClellan, Burnside, and Halleck. Lee’s grand strategy of heading North to Maryland and Pennsylvania to engage the Union Army on its own soil appeared to be working, until his forces ran into heavy Northern resistance at the great battles of Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville, which weakened them sufficiently to slow their thrust into Southern Pennsylvania.

Richard Wheeler’s book is more about the small incidents as reported by common soldiers and officers, townspeople and politicians than it is about the sweep of battle. Nevertheless, the eyewitness accounts are so well chosen and adeptly woven into the author’s historical narrative that one ends up with a knowledge of how each battle was conducted and what each meant in the context of the war.

Readers are offered an unfiltered look at the war’s camground ennui and battle terror, beginning with the aftermath of McClellan’s puzzling failure, the Virginia Peninsular Campaign, an omen of bad things to come for the Union forces. One hears the bewildered comments of army privates as they slog their way out of the Peninsula, and hears what President Abraham Lincoln, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, General “Stonewall” Jackson, and General Lee had to say as armies prepared for future battles. Then we are led directly into the line of fire as participants describe in sometimes nauseating detail the effects of massed cannon and rifles on human beings, Wheeler supplying just enough narrative so we understand the “big picture.”

What emerges in these accounts is a portrait of stolid, measured courage in battles where wounds were hellish and disease killed more than bullets ever could. The good humor and grace under pressure of both Union and Rebel troops is well recorded in this masterful assemblage of testimony to the reality of war.