Mississippi author, Allie Stuart Powell, prefaces his recent work, Rebels in Repose: Confederate Commanders After the War, with remarks about the sad fate of Confederate monuments. Powell neither laments nor lauds their removal, but the controversy surrounding them causes him to wonder, “Who were these men? What did they do with their lives after the war?”
Over the course of nine chapters, Powell presents succinct biographies of eight well-known generals (and one admiral), then makes mention of ten notable, but less familiar figures.
The chapters vary in length: Robert E. Lee comprises 57 pages, while P.G.T Beauregard is accorded 12.
Unfortunately, only two post-bellum portraits are included, Lee and Joseph E. Johnston facing each other across a small table, and another of an older and stouter Fitzhugh Lee.
Readers cannot help but wonder what the others looked like.
Despite Powell’s ambition to examine the postbellum lives of these Confederates, the biographies are generally weighted toward the antebellum and Civil War years.
This is not necessarily a defect; it is for their Civil War exploits that these men are chiefly remembered. It also adds to our understanding to read how well-prepared they were for battle. Fourteen out of nineteen commanders attended West Point, achieving a range of success. R. E. Lee, Beauregard, and Braxton Bragg finished in the top five of their respective classes. James Longstreet ranked fifty-fourth out of fifty-six; George Picket came in last. Eleven were officers in the Mexican-American War; Raphael Semmes commanded the U.S.S. Somers. Nathan Bedford Forrest, John Gordon, Wade Hampton, and Stand Watie had no military experience prior to the Civil War. However, that never proved an impediment.
Stand Watie, a slaveholding Cherokee from the Indian Territory, is the most unusual general to be profiled. Watie feared, presciently, that the Union would eventually turn the Territory into a state.
As southern states seceded, Watie founded the Southern Rights Party and tried to persuade Cherokees to support the South. In 1861, he organized a Cherokee cavalry regiment which patrolled the territory’s northern border.
Considered the “Bedford Forrest of the west,” Watie and his men launched over a hundred raids against Union troops, once netting a million- dollar haul of food and materiel. On June 3, 1865, Watie was the last Confederate general to surrender.
After the war ended, battles were refought in publications such as Century Magazine and The Land We Love.
Memoirs also aroused controversy. Longstreet was pilloried by Jubal Early in particular, but also criticized by Hampton, Bragg, and Gordon.
Jefferson Davis was the chief target of Johnston’s memoirs, but Hood and Beauregard were also disparaged. On the other hand, Bragg and Beauregard stepped in to assist Hood (or his penniless orphans) financially, Beauregard provided Early with a livelihood in Louisiana, and Semmes, upon appeal, sold sixty chronometers in England and gave half the profit to several of his struggling junior officers
A handful of generals turned to politics. Gordon served two and a half terms as a Georgia Senator and one term as Governor. Johnston, after his disqualification for public office was removed in 1877, served one term as a congressman from Virginia.
Fitzhugh Lee became that state’s governor in 1885, and Stephen Dill Lee served as a state senator in Mississippi. In 1876, Hampton was elected Governor of South Carolina, and subsequently served two terms in the U.S. Senate. Alabamian Joseph Wheeler was elected eight times to Congress, beginning in 1880. During the Spanish-American War, Wheeler donned a blue uniform and led a cavalry company.
He was buried at Arlington Cemetery in 1906, one of a handful of former Confederates to be so interred.
Rebels in Repose is an engaging read, generally fair-minded in assessing its subjects’ characters and abilities.
Those familiar with Robert E. Lee and his family might quibble with some of Powell’s statements.
Mary Custis Lee, for example, deserves better treatment; Powell describes the young Mary as a “sharp-tongued, sharp-featured brat of a girl.” It is debatable if Lee ever “felt the shame of treason against his beloved United States.’’
Nevertheless, Powell writes extensively of Lee, whom he describes as “a great man.” For decades, Americans shared that opinion, but today, Powell writes, “Lee the national hero no longer exists.” Of course, he still deserves to be.
Powell’s book might be expected to whet the appetites of its readers.
His Confederates are an intriguing group of men, and many will wish to know more about them.
Suggestions for more comprehensive biographies can be gleaned from the bibliography.
Title: Rebels in Repose: Confederate Commanders After the War
Author: Allie Stuart Powell
Publisher: The History Press