Thursday, November 6, 2014

Dozier (ed.): "A GUNNER IN LEE'S ARMY: The Civil War Letters of Thomas Henry Carter"

[A Gunner in Lee's Army: The Civil War Letters of Thomas Henry Carter edited by Graham T. Dozier (University of North Carolina Press, 2014). Softcover, photos, notes, bibliography, index. 367 pp. ISBN:978-1-4696-1874-6 $39.95]

Students of the campaigns of the Army of Northern Virginia have undoubtedly encountered the name Thomas Henry Carter here and there in their readings. Of the many talented young artillerists that occupied the lower and middle command levels in Lee's army, Carter was regarded as one of the finest. Fortunately, those interested in Carter's life and wartime experiences now have an excellent resource in A Gunner in Lee's Army: The Civil War Letters of Thomas Henry Carter edited by Graham Dozier of the Virginia Historical Society (where the original documents reside).

At 31 years of age, Thomas Carter began the war as a battery commander, leading the King William Artillery during the Peninsula, Maryland, and Fredericksburg campaigns. Promoted rapidly from major and then lieutenant colonel, he was a battalion commander at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. In 1864, now Colonel Carter served in the Overland Campaign and was 2nd Corps Chief of Artillery during Jubal Early's Shenandoah Campaign. The next year, he found himself in the Richmond-Petersburg siege lines, ultimately following the army to its demise at Appomattox and surviving the war.

The Carter correspondence, 103 letters nearly all of which were written to his wife Susan, exhibits all the qualities of the best candidates for publication. The writing is voluminous and frequently touches upon the type of subjects most interesting to readers and scholars alike. Letters often open or close with talk on personal business matters, reminding readers yet again of the many non-traditional plantation and farm management duties thrust upon wives when their husbands went off to fight.  Home matters aside, Carter writes about his own war experiences in some detail (especially later on).  He also frequently commented on military bureaucracy, slavery, and politics while also freely offering pointed assessments of the strengths and shortcomings of his fellow officers*. Though it's unstated if he ever made his position public, Carter told his wife he supported arming slaves to fight in the Confederate army in exchange for immediate manumission. In his writings, he could be very critical of the Confederate government and its president, projecting deep frustration toward how the army was raised, organized and run.  Lamentations surrounding discipline, mainly the lack of it among members of the Confederate government and military, is a common theme throughout. Carter's disgruntlement with the army boiled over during the series of 1864 disasters in the Shenandoah, his letters praising Union army discipline while at the same time denouncing the independent spirits of his fellow Confederate officers and the infantry they commanded as destructive to unit cohesion and effectiveness. 

It should be mentioned that large coverage gaps exist in the letters. The absence of correspondence for long periods of time encompassing the Seven Days battles, Gettysburg, and the Overland Campaign is doubly unfortunate given the significance of those events.

Editor Graham Dozier performs well all the tasks expected of the job. While he transcribes the letters largely as is, the footnotes are numerous and extensive. Like all top quality edited letter collections, the breadth and depth of Dozier's own research is on par with that found in original manuscripts, his work in this regard clearly demonstrated in the editorial narrative and notes. The first chapter comprises a fine biographical essay for Carter, his pre-war life one rather typical of a member of his class. With two prestigious medical degrees, Carter nevertheless passed on a career in that profession in favor of managing his father's estate with its 100 slaves. Dozier also provides narrative introductions to each of the seven chapters covering the war years, always keeping the reader abreast of Carter's personal activities during each campaign and battle (whether covered by the letters or not). He concludes the book with an account of Carter's life after the war, when the Virginian carved out new occupations in education and railroad arbitration while remaining active in Confederate veterans organizations.

The Carter letters collected in A Gunner in Lee's Army comprise an exceptionally informative primary resource for those researching the mid-level command structure of the Army of Northern Virginia's artillery arm. On top of the significant intrinsic value of the correspondence, Graham Dozier's expert editing considerably enhances the scholarly merit of the material.


Comments:
* - Carter has nothing but positive things to say about Earl Van Dorn (affectionately calling him "the Earl", which I've never come across before), but then again he never served with him in the West and Trans-Mississippi!  Carter also frequently praises D.H. Hill, Robert Rodes, and Robert E. Lee, though he criticizes Lee for being too soft on underperforming subordinates (the command discipline issue again). Carter was very protective of the artillery's reputation, successfully obtaining a retraction from Jubal Early, who found general fault with his command's performance during repeated defeats at the hands of Phil Sheridan's army in the Shenandoah. Carter's observation that Richard Ewell appeared "pale", "thin", and "feeble" at the outset of the Gettysburg Campaign might add fuel to the notion that physical limitations lay behind Ewell's rather passive behavior during the battle, at least to a greater degree than typically conceded (by most estimations, Ewell's amputation recovery seems to have gone well).


More CWBA reviews of UNC Press titles:
* Nature's Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia
* A Field Guide to Gettysburg: Experiencing the Battlefield through Its History, Places, and People
* Kennesaw Mountain: Sherman, Johnston, and the Atlanta Campaign
* With a Sword in One Hand and Jomini in the Other: The Problem of Military Thought in the Civil War North
* The Civil War in the West: Victory and Defeat from the Appalachians to the Mississippi
* Shifting Loyalties: The Union Occupation of Eastern North Carolina
* West Pointers and the Civil War: The Old Army in War and Peace
* Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign (link to author interview)
* A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War (link to author interview)
* In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat
* The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864
* Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson's Valley Campaign
* Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession
* Trench Warfare under Grant & Lee: Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaign
* Plain Folk’s Fight: The Civil War & Reconstruction in Piney Woods Georgia
* Retreat from Gettysburg: Lee, Logistics, and the Pennsylvania Campaign
* Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War: The Eastern Campaigns, 1861-1864

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