Public and Private Recollections of Confederate General Edward Porter Alexander

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E. P. Alexander, circa 1900

Nearly fifty years after the conclusion of the American Civil War, Edward Porter Alexander’s book Military Memoirs of a Confederate became available to the public. Alexander’s opening remarks begin with the following passage:

The following pages is not at all to set forth the valor of Confederate arms nor the skill of Confederate generals. These are as they may be, and must here take their chances in an unpartisan narrative, written with an entirely different object. That object is the criticism of each campaign as one would criticise [sic] a game of chess, only to point out the good and bad plays on each side, and the moves which have influenced the result.[1]

At first glance one would assume a historian of the time wrote this and not a former Confederate Brigadier General who fought in every major campaign in the Eastern Theater. Alexander’s book quickly became a classic following its publication in 1907. Historian T. Harry Williams noted, “probably no book by a participant in the war has done so much to shape the historical image of that conflict.”[2] Even President Theodore Roosevelt wrote to Alexander saying, “I have so thoro[ugh]ly enjoyed your ‘Military Memoirs’ that I must write to tell you so.”[3] Part of this praise is due to the fact that Military Memoirs is almost completely void of the mythmaking of the Lost Cause. Although Alexander’s public views of the Civil War have been described as honest and fair, it is easy to question if his personal correspondence shares similarities to his public work. This is something that remained unanswered until his personal recollections of the war were published in 1989. By comparing Military Memoirs of a Confederate and Fighting for the Confederacy, it becomes clear that Alexander’s goal was to provide a critical narrative of the Civil War no matter who the audience was. In so doing, Alexander stands uniquely apart from other historians and Confederate veterans of the time.

Edward Porter Alexander was born into a prominent slaveholding family in Washington, Georgia on May 26, 1836. He received his education from tutors at home before attending West Point Military Academy, where he graduated third in the Class of 1857. He was politically moderate, but when Georgia seceded from the Union, he left the United States Army in February 1861. He became Captain of Engineers in the Confederate Army while also holding the positions of Chief Signal Officer and Chief of Ordnance. Although he was asked to perform many different tasks, he immediately excelled as an artillerist. Alexander served on the staff of P.G.T. Beauregard, Joseph E. Johnson, and Robert E. Lee, literally fighting from First Manassas to Appomattox.[4]

Immediately following the conclusion of the Civil War, Alexander’s superior, James Longstreet urged him to write a history of the First Corps. Although he approached this project with urgency, he found he could not garner enough correspondence from veterans and abandoned the project in the late 1860s. Throughout the next decade, Alexander published essays on the Confederate artillery in the popular series, Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. Robert Underwood Johnson, the principle editor of Battles and Leaders, commented that people could “rely implicitly on anything…[Alexander] said.” Throughout this period, Alexander’s children pressed him to write a memoir of his time in the war, but he continuously insisted he did not have the time. However, this changed in 1897, when President Grover Cleveland asked him to settle a boundary dispute between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. This arbitration job gave Alexander ample free time to begin writing his military memoirs for his family. In a letter to his wife Bettie, Alexander wrote, “When I start writing on those times, I hardly know where to stop.”[5]

Although this memoir was meant only for his children and his close friends, Alexander said he was “anxious to eliminate all mistakes as if it were for publication.” In places where he was unsure, Alexander left blanks and planned to reexamine and edit his work when he left Greytown, Nicaragua and returned home. Alexander left Nicaragua on October 14, 1899 and quickly edited the original manuscript by correcting names, dates, distances, and other necessities. Through the editing process, he converted his memoir into a rigorous critique of the Confederacy’s campaigns. While Alexander presented the Greytown reminiscences to his family, he also worked on a second version that was meant for a public audience.[6] After talking with historians at the time, Alexander was urged to remove much of his personal observations and incorporated information on campaigns that he did not participate in to make it a traditional study of the Army of Northern Virginia. Alexander also tempered many of his harshest judgments before his work Military Memoirs of a Confederate was published in 1907.[7]

A comparison of his personal account, Fighting for the Confederacy, and his published work, Military Memoirs, provides a clear insight into the life and opinions of Alexander’s postwar views. Although Fighting for the Confederacy was actually created before Military Memoirs, it was published nearly a century later. Both works were written approximately thirty years after the Civil War’s conclusion and although Alexander’s memory was extraordinary, he did the bulk of his writing in Greytown, Nicaragua. Only once he returned to the United States at the start of the twentieth century did he have the ability to traverse battlefields and sift through his home library. A close examination of these two works not only shows the eloquence and intelligence of Alexander but also provides the reader with a better understanding of his public and private views of the American Civil War and how he stands out amongst other former veterans.

One of the most interesting things to compare between the two works is Alexander’s criticism of his former superiors. Very few Confederate veterans criticized men like Robert E. Lee. One of the best examples of this is found during his analysis of the September 1862 Antietam Campaign. In Military Memoirs Alexander wrote, “Lee took a great risk for no chance of gain except the killing of some thousands of his enemy with the loss of, perhaps, two-thirds as many of his own men. That was a losing game for the Confederacy. Its supply of men was limited; that of the enemy was not. That was not war!”[8] While this was a critical assessment, Alexander goes into even more detail about Lee’s actions at Antietam in Fighting for the Confederacy. Alexander states that, “I think, [Antietam] will be pronounced by military critics to be the greatest military blunder that Gen. Lee ever made.”[9] Alexander’s critique of Lee goes further in his personal account when he says,

Lee’s inferiority of force was too great to hope to do more than to fight a sort of drawn battle. Hard & incessant marching, & camp diseases aggravated by irregular diet, had greatly reduced his ranks, & I don’t think he mustered much if any over 40,000 men…A drawn battle, such as we did actually fight, was the best possible outcome one could hope for.[10]

Although Alexander is more critical of Lee in his personal recollections than in his published correspondence, he is still one of the only Confederate veterans to critique these figures during a time when the Lost Cause mentality was so influential.

Similarly with his criticism of Confederate generals, Alexander actually compliments men like General Ulysses S. Grant of the Union army. In Military Memoirs Alexander writes, “The entire credit for the strategy belongs, I believe, to Grant, though possibly it may be shared by Meade’s chief of staff, Humphreys, whose modest narrative makes no reference to the subject.”[11] This simple accreditation, along with his critiques of Jackson and Lee, caused some former Confederates and Southerners to believe Alexander was too harsh on former Confederate leaders. By looking at these statements it becomes clear that Alexander really tried to criticize each campaign like a game of chess and not show favoritism to one side over the other.

The lack of Lost Cause ideology in Alexander’s public and private correspondence is not the only thing to gain from his recollections. There are many differences to be found in Military Memoirs and Fighting for the Confederacy. The most obvious is the greater proportion of personal material in the latter and the more scholarly flavor of the former. Because Alexander tempered many of his harshest judgments and removed much from his personal accounts, Military Memoirs lacks much of the raw power found in Fighting for the Confederacy. In Fighting for the Confederacy, Alexander often revealed the hard scenes of war that were not told by other veterans or correspondents. One example of this is from May 3 at Chancellorsville, just after his guns at Hazel Grove achieved superiority of the Union’s at Fairview. While the Federals were in retreat Alexander moved into position and recalled:

By the time we could get over, the enemy had abandoned his 25 gunpits, & we deployed on the plateau, & opened on the fugitives, infantry, artillery, wagons—everything—swarming about the Chancellorsville house, & down the broad road leading thence to the river. That is the part of artillery service that may be denominated “pie”—to fire into swarming fugitives, who can’t answer back. One has usually had to pay for this pie before he gets it, so he has no compunctions of conscience or chivalry…[12]

Confederate artillery in action at Hazel Grove.

This account of the delight Alexander got in killing the enemy is often exempt from other accounts of war, which makes his recollections one of the better.

Another example of this blunt rhetoric is found when he describes the fighting at the Battle of the Crater in July 1864. This is one of the first times Confederate soldiers ever saw significant numbers of African American troops fighting for the Union. In Fighting for the Confederacy he is very frank when explaining how this impacted Confederate soldiers. Alexander simply states:

In fact there were, comparatively, very few Negro prisoners taken that day. It was the first occasion on which any of the Army of Northern Virginia came in contact with Negro troops, & the general feeling of the men toward their employment was very bitter. The sympathy of the North for John Brown’s memory was taken for proof of a desire that our slaves should rise in a servile insurrection & massacre throughout the South, & the enlistment of Negro troops was regarded as advertisement of that desire & encouragement of the idea to the Negro. That made the fighting on this occasion exceedingly fierce & bitter on the part of our men, not only toward the Negroes themselves, but sometimes even to the whites along with them…Some of the Negro prisoners, who were originally allowed to surrender by some soldiers, were afterward shot by others, & there was, without doubt, a great deal of unnecessary killing of them.[13]

The matter of fact accounts Alexander provides is something unseen in most memoirs of Confederate veterans and sets his accounts above the rest.

Because Military Memoirs lacks much of the flavor of his personal recollections, it is presented as more of a polished and scholarly work. At times, this published version briefly shares similarities with Lost Cause accounts of the war. Although it is not heavily filled with this rhetoric, it is more prominently found in Military Memoirs than in Fighting for the Confederacy. One of the best examples comes in Alexander’s concluding statements. Here he says:

I cannot bring my narrative to a close without a brief summary of the record made by the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in the two years, nine months, and nine days during which it was under the command of Robert E. Lee, from June 1, 1862, to April 9, 1865. In this brief period of a thousand days, with inferior numbers, poorly equipped and but badly supplied with food and clothing, it fought seven great campaigns…This last campaign [Overland] endured for eleven months, during which the guns were scarcely silent a single day. Lee’s army at its greatest numbered less than 85,000 men. It put hors de combat more than 262,000 Federals within the period mentioned.[14]

In this telling, Alexander describes an unequal battle where Confederates prolonged the war thanks to the superior generalship of Robert E. Lee. Alexander falls under the Lost Cause belief that the Confederate fight was hopeless due to the overwhelming numbers the Federals had at their disposal. While Fighting for the Confederacy is almost void of this, Military Memoirs has more examples of this mentality. With the latter being published in 1907, there is a possibility that Alexander included such statements to gain more support from his public audience. Whether this is true or not, both of these recollections remain some of the best accounts of the Civil War.

For nearly two years, Alexander refought the war in his study in Greytown, Nicaragua. Although he was thousands of miles away from the battlefields he knew so well, Alexander sought to tell the real story of the war. The conviction that only those closest to him would ever see his narrative gave him the freedom to express his true opinions. Unlike other veterans, both North and South, Alexander almost completely avoided the ritual humility and sentimental praise of friend and foe alike. While he edited his reminiscence to present to a public audience, his true beliefs still emerged in Military Memoirs. Although these opinions were tamed and his personal views were mostly removed, Military Memoirs had been viewed as an account that could not be matched until his personal recollections were found and published in 1989. In doing so, Alexander’s two books represent a unique achievement in the literature of the Civil War.

[1] Edward Porter Alexander, Military Memoirs of a Confederate: A Critical Narrative (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1907), vii.

[2] Introduction by T. Harry Williams in a reprint of E. P. Alexander, Military Memoirs of a Confederate, ed. T. Harry Williams (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1962), xxxv.

[3] Edward Porter Alexander, Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander, ed. Gary W. Gallagher (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), xiii.

[4] Maury Klein, Edward Porter Alexander (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1971), 1-14.

[5] Alexander, Fighting for the Confederacy, xv-xvi.

[6] Alexander’s Greytown reminiscence that he gave to his children were later published in 1989 and is known today as Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander.

[7] Alexander, Fighting for the Confederacy, xvi-xx.

[8] Alexander, Military Memoirs, 249.

[9] Alexander, Fighting for the Confederacy, 145.

[10] Alexander, Fighting for the Confederacy, 145-146.

[11] Alexander, Military Memoirs, 547.

[12] Alexander, Fighting for the Confederacy, 210.

[13] Alexander, Fighting for the Confederacy, 462.

[14] Alexander, Military Memoirs, 618.

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8 Responses to Public and Private Recollections of Confederate General Edward Porter Alexander

  1. JOHN THOMAS says:

    The last quote from Military Memoirs seems more a statement of facts rather than a Lost Cause reflection.

    • Nate says:

      I feel that this is still one of the few myths that persist. It is true that Grant did outnumber Lee, but a great many works have recently found Lee had more manpower and more losses than previously believed. Alfred Young III found in his statistical analysis that Lee lost at a minimum of 33500 while having 66,000 under his command May 4, 1864. Dr. Newton found that by June 30, there were 15,000 missing casualties in the ANV thus adding a grand total of 56,000 Confederate casualties while still maintaining an army of 70,000 in Virginia. Roughly 60,000 of them around Petersburg. Attrition did not take place during the Overland Campaign only the attrition of the Confederate officers.

  2. meven89143 says:

    I think John Thomas got it right. It seems that you have fallen under the spell of the Civil War Historians “Guild” which holds that every mention of being outnumbered must be part of the Lost Cause theme. Lee mostly fought outnumbered and did an exceedingly good job of it. Very good article and I enjoyed it.

  3. Robert Denney says:

    I have read both books, and your post has raised my interest to read them again. I know that Alexander made his reputation as an Artillerist, and Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville are certainly evidence for that.

    My question to all is how he seemingly miscalculated the bombardment of Cemetery Ridge prior to Pickett’s Charge? Many historians say it had little effect.

  4. Mike Maxwell says:

    In “Point of View” segment of “Military Memoirs of a Confederate (1907)” General Alexander states: “The world has not stood still in the years since we took up arms… We now enjoy the rare privilege of seeing what we fought for in the retrospect. It no longer seems so desirable. It would now prove only a curse. We have good cause to thank God for our escape from it, not alone for our sake, but for that of the whole country and even of the world.”
    Make of it what you will.
    But it does not appear to be Lost Cause rhetoric.

  5. One of my favorite things about the book was Alexander‘s observation of RE Lee’s behavior on the night of October 6, 1864. Even though Lieutenant General RH Anderson was present and should have commanded the ANV troops in their attempt to re-capture Fort Harrison, Lee had lost faith in him and so Lee decided to command the attack himself.

    Direct command of troops was not Lee’s style and he was extremely nervous about exercising it and when Alexander contradicted his assertion that they were to meet at a certain time, Lee descended into pettiness.

    Lee’s nervousness and his pettiness make him all the more human. Alexander provides a look at this little known side of the generals personality

    Bryce

  6. Craig says:

    Lee was greatly outnumbered during the overland campaign. This is an established fact.

  7. Cecily Nelson Zander says:

    Gary Gallagher has written an essay on this exact topic — offering prescient comparisons of Alexander’s two memoirs in an excellent volume about Civil War writing (Civil War Writing: New Perspectives on Iconic Texts [LSU Press: 2019]).

    You can also find his lecture on Alexander’s memoirs on CSPAN — worth a watch for anyone who want to learn more about Alexander’s process of writing and editing the two texts.

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