I first met prolific author Jeffry D. Wert (and his charming wife, Gloria) during a Civil War seminar almost 13 years ago, and the following summer spent an amazing few days riding at the back of a bus with him and the late Dr. Joseph Harsh during another conference. I probably learned more about the conflict in those few hours than I had up to that point, just by keeping my mouth shut (mostly) and my ears open.
Jeff’s latest book is A Glorious Army: Robert E. Lee’s Triumph, 1862-1863, and below he discusses the project.
BR: While I’m sure my readers are very familiar with your works, how about telling us about yourself?
JW: I am a native Pennsylvanian and taught history at Penns Valley Area High School in the central part of the state for 33 years. I am now retired from the profession. I am an avid Atlanta Braves and Penn State football fan.
BR: Your new book is about the Army of Northern Virginia from 1862-1863, from Seven Days to Gettysburg. What prompted you to look at this army for this period?
JW: Lee and the army’s record during those thirteen months is arguably unmatched in America’s military annals. Although I have covered the army in previous books, I wanted to write a more analytical study on the reasons for their successes and do it, hopefully, in a smooth-flowing narrative. My book is not a detailed tactical work but looks at leadership, morale, and the common soldiers’ fighting prowess.
BR: What did you turn up during your research that surprised you?
JW: The amount of straggling in the army was endemic during 1862. It reached a climax in the Maryland campaign but was a problem with the rank and file until Chancellorsville. It appears from the evidence that straggling was minor during the Gettysburg Campaign. Secondly, my research convinced me more that Lee’s aggressiveness offered the Confederacy its best chance for independence. Admittedly, it is a controversial subject, but the results, I think, speak for themselves. Finally, I address whether Lee took the so-called “bloodiest roads” and concluded that he chose the tactical offensive when circumstances dictated it, except for July 3, 1863 at Gettysburg. Malvern Hill resulted in a tragedy because of misinformation.
BR: Can you sum up for us, in a nutshell, how Lee was able to be successful for most of this period, and what caused his setbacks?
JW: When Lee assumed temporary command of the army on June 1, 1862, it was as though all the stars aligned for the Confederacy. The Union Army of the Potomac’s subordinate leadership could not match the likes of Jackson, Longstreet, Stuart, Ewell, A. P. and D. H. Hill, and others. To be sure, the caution of McClellan, the incompetence of Pope and Burnside, and the unraveling of Hooker contributed to the Confederates’ victories. Lee’s infantry’s incalculable ‘élan in battle was a significant factor.
BR: What is your research and writing process? Did you visit archives and sites, and how much of a role did online research play?
JW: I am old-fashioned in my methodology. I put my research on note cards and write my books on legal-sized paper. I am blessed with a wife who is an excellent assistant, and she transcribes my words into a word document. I edit from printed pages. During my research, I visit archives and libraries. I use the internet to locate manuscript collections and fortunately for historians more institutions are putting letters and diaries online, making it unnecessary to travel as much.
BR: How has the book been received so far?
JW: The book has been reviewed in a few places and has been praised. None of the major Civil War magazines have had a review in as of today. I am gratified to have been a main selection of History Book Club and Military Book Club.
BR: What’s next for you?
JW: For the first time in many years, I am not under contract on another project. I may do another book in the future but not at the present.
So for the first time in years, Mr. Wert is taking a break. I have a feeling it won’t be too long before something catches his eye and we hear from his pen – really, his pen! – once again.