Robert J. Wynstra. At the Forefront of Lee’s Invasion: Retribution, Plunder, and Clashing Cultures on Richard S. Ewell’s Road to Gettysburg. Civil War Soldiers and Strategies Series. Kent: Kent State University Press, 2018. Illustrations, maps. 384 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-60635-354-7.
Reviewed by Robert Glaze (Lincoln Memorial University)
Published on H-CivWar (February, 2019)
Commissioned by G. David Schieffler (Crowder College)
Few events possess a historiography as bloated as that of the Gettysburg Campaign. In addition to the battle’s countless single- and multi-volume histories, interested readers can find books devoted to individual soldiers and units, the cavalry, artillery batteries, the Peach Orchard, Little Round Top, and Devil’s Den. Those who want to venture outside the bounds of conventional and academic histories can find numerous volumes dedicated to such subjects as the supposed ghostly hauntings of the town and battlefield. It is little wonder, then, that the arrival of a new volume pertaining to Gettysburg elicits shoulder shrugs and eye rolls from some historians and buffs. However, in this beautifully written narrative history, Robert J. Wynstra shows that despite all that has been written before, there is still more to be said about this storied campaign.
At the Forefront of Lee’s Invasion chronicles the myriad interactions between soldiers and officers of the Army of Northern Virginia’s Second Corps and Union civilians in Maryland and Pennsylvania during the opening stages of the Gettysburg Campaign. As the author notes, given that this campaign marked many Confederates’ first sustained contact with Northern civilians, it is an episode worth analyzing. Oftentimes, Confederate officers and soldiers abided by Robert E. Lee’s orders to protect private property, so in many ways, Wynstra’s story is one of restraint. There were notable exceptions, and, as the author shows, episodes of violence, excess, and vandalism were typically linked to Confederate alcohol abuse. Moreover, Lee’s order was not universally popular in the Army of Northern Virginia. Some soldiers vocalized their dissent, claiming that they should exact revenge for both real and imagined Union plunder in the Deep South. Despite these challenges, Confederate officers typically did all in their power to ensure that Lee’s occupation policies were honored.
Nevertheless, Wynstra emphasizes the importance of perspective: what was considered necessary forage to one group was wanton plunder to another. The Army of Northern Virginia’s supply needs guaranteed that Marylanders and Pennsylvanians would suffer on account of the Confederate invasion. While some Yankees expressed their surprise at the Southerners’ restraint, others characterized them as little more than an invading Vandal horde. For example, Richard S. Ewell’s force ordered the people of Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, to provide two thousand loaves of bread, forcing the town’s women to scramble to their kitchens. Drug stores often fell victim to the medical needs of the campaigning army, while stables, dry goods stores, and armories were also popular targets. At times, store owners were forced to sell their goods in exchange for Confederate currency, which was little consolation for small business owners already suffering due to wartime exigencies.
Nowhere is restraint less evident and clashing cultures more apparent than when Ewell’s men came into contact with African Americans. Wynstra shows that Confederates “considered the rounding up of runaway slaves as being no different than the confiscation of other movable property, such as horses and cattle” (p. 82). Escaped slaves in the Confederates’ path often found themselves impressed and sent South to return to bondage. Invading Southerners were also reluctant to distinguish between escaped slaves and free blacks, as the latter sometimes suffered the same fate as the former. Wynstra shows that slave hunting was common in the Confederate army, not just the action of rogue factions. In fact, he postulates that it was so commonplace and banal that the Confederates made little note of the practice.
Wynstra also discusses the interaction between Confederate soldiers and Northern women, which makes this book a good companion read to Lisa Tendrich Frank’s The Civilian War: Confederate Women and Union Soldiers during Sherman’s March (2015). The Confederates’ opinions of Northern women usually varied according to how the women received them. If women reacted with passivity or enthusiasm, Ewell’s men commented on their grace and generosity. However, the soldiers reacted with disgust when women greeted them with disdain, disobedience, and foul language. Largely due to this latter vice, their descriptions of Pennsylvanian women of German descent were especially unflattering. Here again, the “clashing cultures” of the book’s subtitle is evident: the same group of soldiers that bristled at a woman’s use of profanity felt no reservations about condemning free blacks to enslavement.
Wynstra’s argument is largely implicit, as narrative is the driving force of this work. The book progresses chronologically. Even the introduction, which serves to establish the context of Lee’s invasion and Ewell’s ascendance, is purely narrative history. Yet Wynstra’s narrative is smooth, and the author deftly interweaves primary source quotations with his own prose. The book avoids an overabundance of block quotations that plagues much Civil War military history. Compared to other university press monographs, the book is lavishly illustrated. In addition to maps and portraits, the inclusion of period photographs of occupied towns add much to the narrative.
Some readers will be disappointed that At the Forefront of Lee’s Invasion is not a conventional, thesis-driven academic history. Moreover, the book may have benefited from a traditional introduction and conclusion in which the “clashing cultures” aspect of the story is directly unpacked, as this is a subject worthy of more attention. Nevertheless, this book is superb narrative history that adds to our understanding of the Civil War’s most chronicled campaign. This alone makes it worthy of applause.
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Robert Glaze. Review of Wynstra, Robert J., At the Forefront of Lee’s Invasion: Retribution, Plunder, and Clashing Cultures on Richard S. Ewell’s Road to Gettysburg.
H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews.
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