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Death of a Nation Essay

Clifford Dowdey’s Death of a Nation: The Story of Lee and His Men at Gettysburg is a military history examining the Confederate loss at this epic battle, particularly the decision-making process and the Southern commanders’ failure to perform up to their potential. Partly a fawning defense of Robert E. Lee and partly an insightful study of why the South even dared invade the North, it demonstrates the author’s Southern bias without trying to justify slavery, as well as Dowdey’s fusion of history and storytelling.

The book looks almost exclusively at the Civil War’s largest battle, in which Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia invaded the North in hopes of scaring Lincoln into halting the war and recognizing the Confederacy. Instead, as Dowdey’s title implies, it proved the Confederacy’s apex as a military power, beginning its two-year decline and ultimate collapse.

Dowdey, a native of Richmond, Virginia, who produced numerous histories and novels about the Civil War, takes a decided pro-Southern stance and offers a rather generous view both of the Confederacy, never approaching its defense of slavery, and of Lee, the inventive, chance-taking commander who proved the South’s greatest leader. The first chapter, “Rendezvous with Disaster,” conveys in its title how Dowdey sees the battle, yet he is loath to blame Lee for the loss.

He opens with an account of Confederate troops invading Pennsylvania, depicting them not as a menacing enemy but as a somewhat merry band: “[The] Confederate soldiers had not committed acts of vandalism or abused the inhabitants. On the contrary, the troops had been highly good-humored in the face of taunts and insults” (3). The author then introduces the general as a striking, almost godlike figure, quoting an officer who deemed him “a kingly man whom all men who came into his presence expected to obey” (5); this description recurs throughout the book.

Subsequent chapters describe the buildup and the battle itself. In chapter two, “The Opening Phase,” Dowdey portrays the decision-making process that led to Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania as a Jefferson Davis-engineered travesty, “a necessary expedient in the policy of static, scattered defensiveness” (27). The author considers Lee almost a victim of Davis’ vanity, rigidity, and inability to admit his own lack of military expertise, and he absolves the man he believes “embodied the image of the patriarchal planter who, as military leader, assumed benevolent responsibility for his domain” (33).

Throughout the battle, which dominates much of the book, Dowdey introduces Lee’s subordinates as characters in a novel or drama, describing their personalities in lively, even somewhat chatty detail. Jeb Stuart, whose cavalry failed in its reconnaissance duties before the fighting began, appears as a capable soldier who refused to believe he erred; Richard Ewell is a crusty but soft-hearted eccentric whose marriage softened his fighting skills; and John B. Hood is “a fighter, not a thinker” (174).

He reserves his harshest criticisms for James Longstreet, deeming the lone general to openly question Lee’s decision to wage the unwise assault best known as Pickett’s Charge, a lying defeatist. Dowdey claims that “objective historians and Longstreet partisans have tried to re-evaluate him outside the text of controversy. This is almost impossible. . . . Many other men performed below their potential at Gettysburg, but only James Longstreet absolved himself by blaming Lee” (340).

By the end of the book, one realizes that Dowdey will not concede that the figure he admires may have simply made fatal errors at Gettysburg. Dowdey’s descriptions of the battle cover the three days in a generally accurate but not original manner. He alternates between broad, sweeping pictures of dramatic combat and close-up accounts of individual Confederate units and soldiers. (He gives little mention to Union action throughout the book, making clear that his sole interest is depicting Lee’s army and not providing a holistic history of the battle.

) Though his approach provides reliable but not groundbreaking information, Dowdey makes clear that he considers Lee’s defeat not the venerable commander’s fault (despite his own tendency to take long chances against the larger and better-armed Union Army), but rather his subordinates’ inability to perform as competently as they had in previous battles. In this account, Stuart’s ego kept him from realizing he failed in his scouting duties, A. P.

Hill lost his usually strong will, Richard Anderson staged a poor excuse for an assault on Cemetery Ridge with undisciplined, poorly-led Carolinian troops (rather than the Virginians that Dowdey, the Virginian, favors), and Ewell did not adequately prepare his troops for their attack. While Dowdey concedes that Lee, “alone in the center of the vacuum, could not have been less aware of the total collapse of co-ordination” (240). However, he implies, Lee’s unawareness was not his fault, but that of usually-reliable subordinates who curiously failed all at once.

The work ends somewhat abruptly, with Lee’s broken army withdrawing from Pennsylvania after Pickett’s failed charge (in which the general whose name it bears appears as a minor figure) and returning to Virginia; the author offers no broad conclusion or explanation of the battle’s meaning within a larger context. Dowdey, primarily a fiction writer and college instructor who also produced numerous histories of the Army of Northern Virginia, approaches the work with a storyteller’s vigor and flair, writing this history with a novelist’s attention to visual details and his characters’ personalities and quirks.

Frequently, he aims to stir the reader’s attention by adding what his characters may have said or thought in rich, occasionally overstated terms. For example, he deems Ewell “this quaint and lovable character” (121); Jubal Early becomes “the bitter man [who] became as passionate in his hate for the Union as he had formerly been in its defense” (123); and Union general Daniel Sickles (one of the few figures for whom he shows genuine scorn) is “an unsavory, showy, and pugnacious character from New York who went further on brassy self-confidence and politicking .

. . than many a better man went on ability” (203). In trying give his characters personality, Dowdey writes often picturesque and lively prose but also offers a somewhat distorted picture that more detached academic historians may find objectionable. For example, while Lee can do no wrong, Jefferson Davis, the Confederacy’s much-reviled president, appears as nearly as much a villain as Longstreet. Of Davis, Dowdey writes: “The crisis [in the South’s military fortunes] was caused largely by the defense policies of the president.

. . . Among the limitations of this self-aware gentleman was an inability to acknowledge himself in the wrong” (14). As a Lee apologist, Dowdey implicitly blames David for the South’s collapse, though he wavers on this by adding: “Lincoln had at his disposal unlimited wealth, the organized machinery of government, a navy, the war potential of heavy industry, and a four-to-one manpower superiority.

Davis led a disorganized movement in self-determinism composed of proud and fiercely individualistic provincials (15-16). Dowdey comments little about the South in general and does not directly glorify the Southern cause, though he also refrains from any mention of slavery or racism. He seems to simply accept the South as it was, writing his works to illustrate a particularly regionalist sense of pride, if not in its plantation past, then certainly in Lee, its most shining example of military leadership and manhood.

He reveals, perhaps unintentionally, his own sense of romance about the South when he writes: “In a land where the age of chivalry was perpetuated, the military leader embodied the gallantry, the glamour, and the privilege of the aristocrat in a feudal society” (15). Characters like Lee, he implies, gave the South respectability and nobility, while lesser individuals, like the supposedly duplicitous, disloyal Longstreet and the rigid, arrogant Davis, somehow stained it and failed to match its ideals. Despite Dowdey’s biases, he cannot be faulted for failing to do research.

He includes a short bibliographic essay at the end, explaining his sources’ strengths and limitations. In addition to using many secondary sources, he relies heavily on participants’ personal documents, such as letters and memoirs, though he concedes that “the eyewitness accounts are subject to the fallibility of memory, and many of the articles suffer the distortion of advocacy or indictment” (353). This last comment is telling, because Dowdey himself neither advocates nor indicts the Old South, but rather aims to depict the military aspects.

The result is a work that shows clear fondness for the South’s self-image as an embattled land of chivalry, but to his credit, Dowdey does not excoriate the North or its leaders. Lincoln scarcely appears in this volume, but the author pays some compliments to Union generals whom historians have seen less favorably, such as Joseph Hooker (whom Lee soundly defeated at Chancellorsville) or George Meade (who won at Gettysburg but failed to pursue and destroy the remains of Lee’s army as it withdrew).

Death of a Nation is not a comprehensive history of the battle of Gettysburg, but neither does it claim to be. Instead, it is an often-entertaining, well-researched account of the Southern side’s participation, including its ill-starred behind-the-scenes planning and the personal dynamics among the commanders who underperformed at this key point in the war.

Though Dowdey’s conclusion is so brief as to be unsatisfactory, one can draw one’s own conclusion from this volume’s title and the battle it describes: that defeat at Gettysburg meant the Confederacy’s failure to win its nationhood. Dowdey does not openly lament this fact, but instead shows the process that made this failure a reality. Dowdey, C. (1958). Death of a Nation. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

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