The first thing that catches your eye about this impressively comprehensive volume is the number 426. Like most of you, I grew up on Ezra J. Warner’s number of 425 Confederate generals. But Mitcham alertly reminds us that at Richmond in the final days of the Confederacy, Admiral Raphael Semmes, his squadron scuttled in the James River, was appointed brigadier and given command of army troops (#426).
With a reference work such as this, you don’t read it front-to-back, but check out the entries. “Richard Brooke Garnett,” who was killed in Pickett’s Charge, ends with “General Garnett has a cenotaph in Hollywood Cemetery.” Good work, Dr. Mitcham (Ph.D., university professor). I raised $3,000 nationwide to dedicate that stone on Gettysburg Hill, July 3, 1991.
“The purpose of this book is to make the reader feel as if he has come to know, even if only glancingly, every Confederate general: who he was, what he did, and how well he did his job.” This is a pretty ambitious plan, given that the author’s entries for his subjects run from just 500 to 600 words.
Aside from his able biographical sketches, Mitcham offers more than sixty generals’ nicknames. Most are familiar, but I had forgotten “Seminole” Kirby Smith. He also notes when generals went by middle names (Moxley Sorrel), and adds pronunciation aids (presumably from descendants) such as Umstead (Armistead) or Guest (Gist).
The author’s bibliography shows immense research: biographies, state biographic compilations, Bud Warner’s Generals in Gray, Jack Davis’ The Confederate General (six volumes, 1991), and the Owens’ Generals at Rest (1997) are there, of course; Stewart Sifakis’ Who’s Who in the Civil War (1988) is another handy guide. Omissions are rare: I might point out that Herman Hattaway’s “unpublished Ph.D. diss.” is now a book, S. D. Lee (1978).
One picks up a lot of odds and ends in even a quick perusal. I had forgotten that it was Johnston in Mississippi who sent Pemberton’s cavalry off to Bragg’s army; Vicksburg’s defender repeatedly complained that he had no eyes on Grant’s advance. And catch this: from Bridget Smith’s recent work on “Buck” Van Dorn’s murder, Mitcham relates that Dr. Peters killed the general not just because he was messing around with Jessie, his wife, but also with his fourteen-year-old daughter!
The author is not afraid to editorialize: “Lee’s attitude toward slavery has been beaten to death by historians.” And how about the statue of a Confederate general in Richmond that “was toppled from its pedestal in 2020 as part of a widespread leftist campaign against American history.”
Mitcham offers bold historical judgements: in the Atlanta Campaign, “Johnston showed his usual timidity and retreated more or less constantly,” leading the author to judge Old Joe as the “most overrated” Confederate general. Mitcham’s conclusion that the South had the better lot of generals than the North will not be as debated as much as his judgment that Davis was a better commander-in-chief than Lincoln (“a military illiterate”).
Mitcham does not attempt to be thorough. His entry for Stonewall Jackson doesn’t even mention the Valley Campaign. But in turning his pages, one frankly doesn’t know what to expect next. (A good thing.) Take this instance: while declaring that Bedford Forrest’s “victories are too numerous to discuss here,” Mitcham microscopes his domestic life:
Forrest married a demure Christian woman and was completely devoted to her; indeed, he treated all women as if they were queens. He did not believe in sex outside of marriage and once cashiered one of his best friends for having sexual relations with an unmarried female, stating that he would not have in his army anyone who would “do that” to a woman, nor would he tolerate any man telling dirty jokes in front of a woman.
With entries like this, Mitcham’s Encyclopedia may not be definitive. But if you remember Conan Doyle’s “The Red Headed League”–in which Jabez Wilson is hired to copy an encyclopedia word-for-word–when reading this one, you just might want to take out your pencil and paper.
The Encyclopedia of Confederate Generals: The Definitive Guide to the 426 Leaders of the South’s War Effort
By Samuel W. Mitcham, Jr.
Regnery History, 2022