Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Review - "The Great Partnership: Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and the Fate of the Confederacy" by Christian Keller

[The Great Partnership: Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and the Fate of the Confederacy by Christian B. Keller (Pegasus Books, 2019). Hardcover, maps, photos, illustrations, appendix, notes, index. Pages main/total:xxiv,248/352. ISBN:978-1-64313-134-4. $28.95]

The May 10, 1863 death of Lieutenant General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson ended what was one of the Civil War's greatest winning combinations of army commander and principal subordinate. The relationship between Army of Northern Virginia commander Robert E. Lee and wing/corps commander Jackson was the military collaboration most celebrated in the Southern Confederacy and most feared in the North. In his new book The Great Partnership: Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and the Fate of the Confederacy historian Christian Keller argues that Jackson's demise was not only a calamity for Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia but his irreplaceable loss formed a strategic inflection point, a contingent moment in history that significantly altered the course of the war in the East. While it is never suggested that Jackson's death doomed the Confederacy to defeat, the book does maintain that the Army of Northern Virginia's high command would never again perform on the level that it did under Lee, Jackson, Longstreet, and Stuart. By mid-1863 the Confederate war effort's margin for error was already growing conspicuously thin, and the absence of Jackson would make the road to ultimate victory a much steeper one to climb.

The greater narrative portion of the book comprises a thoughtful reflection on the performance of the Lee-Jackson command team from the Seven Days through Chancellorsville. While the author is obviously highly impressed with the partnership's strategic fit, he does dutifully address the military literature's coverage of Jackson's most frequently discussed flaws and missteps. Throughout, Keller effectively cuts through the pervasive post-war mythologizing of Jackson by employing a judicious assessment of both wartime and later writings. Readers are definitely encouraged to pore through the endnotes, which are rich in additional dissection of sources, their reliability, and areas of disagreement between contemporary and modern writers.

Jackson and Lee shared the same strict devotion to duty and both possessed exceptional military gifts independent of each other, but forming a truly extraordinary command team required more. According to Keller, three major factors—closely aligned strategic vision, personal friendship, and shared religious conviction—were essential elements that transformed the talented Lee-Jackson duo into the titular "great partnership." With the Army of Northern Virginia facing long odds in men and material, the relationships between Lee and his principal subordinates required exceptional sympatico in order to have any chance of ultimately triumphing over the North's principal field army and military colossus, the Army of the Potomac. In Keller's estimation, the war produced perhaps no better example than Lee and Jackson of mutual understanding between army and wing/corps commanders. Both men shared similar views on theater strategy and the necessity of conducting offensive operations to destroy or force to the negotiating table an already formidable enemy that would only get stronger as the war progressed. If anything, Jackson was even more aggressively offensive-minded, advocating very early in the war for destructive strikes into Pennsylvania against economic targets such as mines and factories. Jackson's role as strategic soulmate and advisor combined with his ability to carry off with full conviction the risky offensive maneuvers planned in concert with Lee cemented the partnership and brought with it key elements of impressive victories at Second Manassas, Harpers Ferry, and Chancellorsville. With Jackson's death, Lee never found a replacement who came anywhere near to possessing those same qualities. The wisdom of their shared offensive-mindedness has been the subject of endlessly inconclusive debate among both scholars and enthusiasts, but the greater point is that the army never regained the unity of purpose that it demonstrated during the height of Jackson's powers.

Absolute mutual trust was necessary in order to successfully carry out the high-risk strategy jointly favored by Lee and Jackson, and Keller persuasively argues that the close personal friendship that developed between the pair was key to their success. Lee saw great promise in Jackson very early in the war, but they didn't really become acquainted with each other until the Seven Days, when Jackson's performance did not come close to meeting Lee's lofty expectations. This disappointing showing is likely what made Lee apportion the greater part of his army to Longstreet during the post-Peninsula Campaign reorganization of the army into two wings. Such misgivings would prove only temporary, however, and the book traces how Jackson rapidly regained Lee's trust during the Second Manassas and Maryland campaigns. Their friendship blossomed during the winter of 1862-63, when both men camped in close proximity and interacted with each other on a regular basis. Keller believes that this bond, which included a free exchange of ideas, further streamlined army command and control in very significant ways. The author found no evidence that personal friendship clouded the subordination necessary to the smooth operation of all armies, which is always a possibility. Instead, the situation proved to be quite the opposite. Even when Jackson disagreed with Lee's decisions, as he did on several occasions, he did not sulk or continue to press his own views (as was the case with countless Civil War generals) but rather immediately set out to follow his commander's orders to the best of his ability. Keller further argues successfully that the exceptional professional trust that developed between Lee and Jackson, buttressed by the mutual personal knowledge and understanding gained through close friendship, made Jackson the ideal instrument for carrying out Lee's mission-oriented style of army leadership and command.

Friendship was not the only binding factor between Lee and Jackson that translated into professional success. Keller also builds a compelling case that profound and compatible religious conviction fostered an even deeper bond between the two men that bore strategic fruits. Even though they came from different denominational backgrounds, Lee and Jackson (along with Jeb Stuart as well) shared a providential, evangelical Protestantism that the author believes to have been a "gigantic bonus" in the sense that anything that forges through deeply-held beliefs and mutual ties an even deeper connection among strategic team members enhances "command-team efficacy." On the other hand, Keller perceptively notes that deaths within such tight-knit groups can also have disproportionately negative effects on the survivors, and indeed Lee (whose health was already failing in early 1863) and Stuart both took Jackson's loss very hard.

One of the book's most effective chapters demonstrates how the loss of Jackson stung the entire Confederate nation. In it, Keller quotes numerous passages from letters, journals, and newspaper editorials from Virginia to Texas sharing similar language of catastrophic loss. Some writers concluded that another leader would rise up to take Jackson's place, but they often seemed more hopeful than expectant and many more feared the loss would prove irreparable. The chapter supports the popular interpretation, most prominently expressed in the writings of Gary Gallagher, that by 1863 the entire Confederate nation, along with most northern and foreign observers, came to view the Army of Northern Virginia (and by extension the winning combination of Lee and Jackson) as the embodiment of the Confederate cause and its progress.

How the Gettysburg Campaign would have gone had Jackson lived has always been a popular parlor game among armchair generals, but Keller is more concerned with showing how Jackson's death had far-reaching strategic implications through its sweeping alteration of the high command composition and capabilities of the Army of Northern Virginia. This issue has also been a topic of frequent discussion in the literature. Soon after Jackson's death and on the very eve of a new campaign, the army was permanently reorganized from two large infantry corps into three smaller ones, with two (Second and Third Corps) led by generals entirely new to corps-level command. While General Ewell's signal success at Second Winchester briefly raised hopes that the spirit of Jackson was alive and well, for the rest of the campaign and beyond it would become clear that none of Lee's generals would be up to the task of adequately replacing Jackson. Though Keller fully acknowledges that the Army of Northern Virginia performed best when the complementary strengths of Lee, Jackson, Longstreet, and Stuart were at full flight, his many negative criticisms of James Longstreet in the book will undoubtedly raise the ire of Old Pete's most ardent admirers. Even so, the author mostly presents the post-Chancellorsville rise of Longstreet to the role of Lee's chief advisor and principal subordinate as a study in contrasts, with Longstreet consistently measuring up poorly when compared side-by-side with Jackson's strategic compatibility, loyalty, and trust with Lee.

A fresh reappraisal that should thoroughly engage even the most skeptical readers, Christian Keller's The Great Partnership combines sound, perceptive analysis with a deft sifting through postwar myth and legend to present a new and unfailingly interesting examination of what made the command team of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson so militarily effective. In recognizing that the influence of Lee and Jackson extended well beyond their own army, the book also informatively explores what the famous partnership meant to Confederate national fortunes before and after Jackson's death. Highly recommended.


  1. Thanks for this review. I had some reservations about this book when you first noted it as a Booknote, which I commented on at that time. Your review quells my unease, and I'll go ahead and purchase a copy.

  2. Thanks for this review. I had some reservations about this book when you first mentioned it as a Booknote, which I commented on at that time. Your review has quelled my unease, and I'll be purchasing a copy.
    Phil LeDuc

    1. Give it a whirl. It's worth your time.

    2. By the way, sorry for the double posting. I thought the first one hadn't taken for some reason. - PL

    3. That happens a lot. I usually just delete one of the copies. I've never used the comment system from the outside in, so to speak, but apparently it often gives people the impression that the comment didn't go through the first time. Thanks for sticking with it!

  3. Thanks for the review, Drew. I have not yet read this, though I am looking forward to eventually getting around to it. What struck me out the chute was the title, and positioning of the book. It seems to be selling a two-legged stool that was always a three-legged stool.

    Reminded me of the Lincoln story (with apologizes to Old Abe for generalizing) where he asks Sec of War Stanton how many legs a fox will have if they deem his tail a leg. "Five" shot back Stanton. Lincoln shook his head and said, "No, four. A tail will always be a tail, regardless of what we call it."

    How would Lee's campaigns early in the war have unfolded without Longstreet running the other half of the equation? The Great Partnership--and I can say this WITHOUT reading the book--was Lee, Longstreet, and Jackson (and perhaps Stuart).

    1. Ted: I tend to agree. Drew's review will probably cause me to pull the $$$ trigger since I definitely trust his assessments, but I'll do that with some skepticism. I think that the Lee-Jackson "partnership" gets a lot of mileage from historians based on the Second Bull Run Campaign - and even then it was Pete who delivered the final stroke.I also steer wide of much in the way of post-Chancellorsville speculation regarding Jackson. Whatever his strategic "compatibility" or not with Lee, Longstreet was a significantly better tactician than Jackson and - aside from, possibly, McLaws - was able to exercise command without putting half his subordinates under threat of arrest.

  4. I understand Jackson's brilliance (there is no denying he was one of the Great Captains of the war). But each time I look deeper at the battles in which he fought, I pause. The 1862 Valley was magnificent, but Seven Days' was a disaster (for whatever reason). He was nearly routed on the field at Cedar Mountain. He exposed his position at Second Manassas for reasons I have yet to fully grasp, and was nearly routed there, too. A bit more Union coordination and creativity and that would have been the end of Jackson's wing.

    He thought the invasion of Maryland was a good idea (I don't believe Longstreet did, but I could be wrong) and he thought that dividing the army into many pieces (against Longstreet's adamant advice otherwise) was sound policy. The ANV paid a steep price for that strategic blunder (Lee's in the end) when Little Mac came calling faster than anyone (except Longstreet) believed possible.

    Jackson fought well on the 17th of September, but with an army devastated in every way and without any logisitical system, wanted to assume the offensive. Huh?

    At Fredericksburg, his line was the only placed pierced and his front, in some ways, was a mess. Longstreet's artillery and men were much better aligned to cover the terrain in their front. And then Old Jack wanted to launch a night attack. Hmm.

    The attack at Chancellorsville was brilliantly executed.

    Except for Cedar Mountain and Suffolk (where, contrary to common wisdom Longstreet was given FOUR contrary orders, and he carried the out pretty well, all things considered), Longstreet played a major role in each of these affairs--and he saved the army's bacon at least once (Second Manassas).

    He was likely almost (but not quite) as difficult as the Elder Krick paints, but after losing my wife and all my kids to Yellow Fever I am pretty sure I would be a miserable pr**k. As a tactician he was head and shoulders better than Jackson. And Lee, who often pitched his tent by Old Pete, and rode with him, loved him. Of that there is little doubt.

    All of this boils down to whether this should have been called "The Great Triumvirate" and included Old Pete. But then, that has already been written. It is called "Lee's Lieutenants."

    Still, I will read this because these are the sorts of studies I like the best.


    1. Ted: Allow a certified (or certifiable?) Stonewall "Myth Buster" to reply. Regarding the '62 Valley Campaign (which was against the Union's "C Team", lest we forget), Jack was mediocre at Kernstown, McDowell, and Port Republic. He was mediocre at Brawner's Farm (where, as at Cedar Mountain, he had a large numerical advantage). At Second Bull Run he failed to exploit Longstreet's devastating attack on Chinn Ridge. And I would take issue with the execution of the flank march on May 2, 1863. It started late, would have been jumped on by other than Howard/Devens/et al., and took too long - as evidenced by the fact that Jackson was following up in the dark and we know how that worked out. As for Longstreet, I'll cut him a break on the independent commands (Suffolk and Knoxville) - this is about working with Lee. Last word - a good partnership is one in which there is reasoned disagreement because one member's views need to go through challenge in order to hone the thinking. I believe that in that respect Longstreet may have been at least as valuable.

    2. Hi John, I agree with you. I was being the kinder and gentler Ted when I wrote that. The first I read on the CW was "Lee's Lieutenants." I was about 11. I then branched out and as someone who has always questioned pretty much everything, and one who likes to dig on his own, I did. A lot.

      I have never accepted the "Jackson was all that and Longstreet was a putz" argument. Seems to me, at least as much or more of the time, it was the other way around. That was certainly true when it came to tactics--and corps commanders had better be better at tactics than strategy.

      If I had to lead that army I would have rather had Longstreet, who--as you note--questioned, challenged, and argued with his commander, than a general acquiesced and did as told. That always makes you a better ______ [fill in the blank]. I run my business the same way, and have always encouraged my employees to come in and challenge any decision. And they do. :)



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