Book Review: Seven Days: The Emergence of Lee by Clifford Dowdey (Four Stars)

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Book Review: Seven Days: The Emergence of Lee and the Dawn of a Legend by Clifford Dowdey

(Four Stars)

“McClellan was in fact the most modern of generals then active: he was an executive. His talents were m [sic] organization and administration. But, as a general, McClellan hated to go near a battlefield.”

Most students of history know that George McClellan almost won the Civil War in the spring of 1862. This book explains why … and why not. A monumental effort, involving tracking every major unit of both armies, often with biographies of commanders down to the brigade level. Weather, ordnance and rations are detailed.

“The next day the guns in the unfinished fort at Drewey’s Bluff, turned back the James River fleet of the U. S. Navy, nowhere in the war did so few accomplish so much in significance of the course of the war followed.” (Did you know? I didn’t, but find his judgment persuasive.)

Countless many typos, perhaps due to OCR scanning of printed text, obscure the ebook.

“Joel Cook, correspondent for the Philadelphia Press, considered the misdirected shell that struck (then Confederate commander) Johnston ‘the saddest shot fired during the war. It changed the entire Rebel tactics. It took away incompetence, indecision and dissatisfaction and gave skillful generalship, excellent plans and good discipline.”

“One week from the day when, investing Richmond on two sides within five miles of its streets,” McClellan lost all but his ego. “At the end (of the war, Lee) was back where he had begun, penned up in works withstanding a siege whose result was made inevitable by arithmetic.”

Foreshadowed Gettysburg: Lee lost track of both his and the opposing armies; Stuart off somewhere else, Longstreet stolid, and Jackson no more engaged during Seven Days, despite his famous march to reach the battle site, than he would be at Gettysburg, after his death. “One year and two days later (actually thirteen months later, Confederate general Lew), Armistead led his same brigade to the enemy batteries on another hill, at Gettysburg, and fell mortally wounded with his hand on a Federal gun.”

I live less than a mile from the banks of the Chickahominy River. Dowdey’s descriptions are vivid enough that I had less trouble determining where each unit of the opposing armies were than they did 150 years ago and 50 years after he wrote.

“Where McClellan abandoned the initiative by conceiving of every detail that could go wrong, Lee and his generals confidently agreed to seize the initiative by conceiving only of what could go right.” Both erred. “Lee’s improvised offensive sent his four columns of infantry on four roads to intercept McClellan where McClellan wasn’t going to be.” In the end, McClellan lost the engagement (“We only failed to win.”) more than Lee won it. (“Yes, he will get away because I can not have my orders carried out.”)

“It was as all through the Seven Days, Confederate infantry against Union guns, spirit against iron, and spirit was not enough in the open ground to be crossed.”

“For at the Seven Days, when the Army of Northern Virginia was born, the old America died, and the Union Lincoln and McClellan tried to restore became as lost in time as the traditional society Lee sought to preserve.”

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