Volume 76
Number 1

The Shaman’s Gift

Deliberate Vision

Before Madness

Lee's Miserables


























































































IN A CONSERVATIVE GREY SUIT AND TIE, Civil War historian and author
J. Tracy Power ’80C
looks oddly out of place in the midst of a Sons of Confederate Veterans picnic in suburban Atlanta. “Living historians” in carefully reproduced outfits mill about the grounds, which include the original home of a Confederate sergeant, a military campsite replica, and a small graveyard dotted with mossy, crumbling headstones, many marked “CSA.”

Power shares the reenactors’ fascination for what life was like for Confederate soldiers, especially in the last, humiliating year of their defeat, and he and the costumed soldiers trade information on hardtack, weapons, troop movements, letters home.

In fact, Power may know more than anyone about the everyday fabric of Confederate soldiers’ lives. His prize-winning social study of the morale of Lee’s increasingly ragtag army in 1864—65, Lee’s Miserables: Life in the Army of Northern Virginia from the Wilderness to Appomattox, is perhaps the most comprehensive analysis of the subject to date.

Inside a small chapel on the grounds, the group falls silent as Power begins his presentation with a slide show of soldiers’ portraits. The young men’s and boys’ baby faces belie the horrific scenes they must have witnessed; their frailty is a testament to their army’s everyday difficulties in getting food and clothing. Although thousands deserted Lee’s army in the last year of the Civil War, many stayed on—some still convinced they could win.

Power’s journey toward writing Lee’s Miserables began when he was growing up in Lawrenceville, Georgia, just a short distance from the Confederate graveyard.

“I’ve always been so lucky to know exactly what I wanted to do,” he says.

Power was five years old when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and the event had a “powerful effect” on him. The following February, his teacher taught the class about Abraham Lincoln on President’s Day and told the class how Lincoln, too, had been assassinated. Power remembers reading Clara Ingram Judson’s Abraham Lincoln, which described the Civil War as “a dreadful war because it was between people who once were friends, sometimes with brother against brother and father against son.”

Driven to find out all he could about the country’s most catastrophic historical event, Power read voraciously about the subject, visited local campaign sites, and went to the Cyclorama, a diorama commemorating the 1864 Battle of Atlanta.

“By the time I was in the third grade,” he says, “my teachers told my parents they should try to get me interested in something else.”

Undaunted, Power asked his mother to drive him to libraries during his childhood and early adolescence so he could do more serious research. As a teenager, he telephoned well-known Atlanta historians such as Franklin Garrett, who agreed to an interview. At fifteen, Power attended a two-day volunteer workshop for the American Red Cross at Emory. At the campus bookstore, he bought a special issue of Civil War Times Illustrated, one of the most venerable publications of its kind. It contained a story called “The Common Soldier of the Civil War,” by Emory professor Bell I. Wiley.

“I’d known all about the generals and the battles,” says Power, “but not about the common soldier.”

Excited, the teenager looked up Wiley’s phone number in the Atlanta directory and called the professor to tell him how much he liked the article. Wiley thanked him and asked if he’d read his earlier work, a 1943 book called The Life of Johnny Reb.

After reading Johnny Reb, Power began to wonder if he could transform his love of history into his life’s work. He immediately began work on a book of his own, which he called The Morale of the Confederate Common Soldier, 1864—65.

By the time Power entered Emory in 1976, Wiley had been retired for two years but still taught some classes as professor emeritus.

“I was lucky enough to be his student and his friend,” says Power.

Power found himself at home in the John Gordon Stipe Society, reveling in its focus on creative scholarship, and he published two papers in the Emory Scholar. Linda Matthews, head of Emory’s Special Collections at the Woodruff Library, remembers Power well.

“We don’t usually get undergraduates in here who are so focused,” Matthews says. “Tracy knew what he wanted to do.”

After Power graduated from Emory in 1980, he pursued a master’s degree at the University of South Carolina (USC), where he completed a thesis on Stonewall Jackson. He worked in the state historic preservation office while pursuing his Ph.D. at USC under the tutelage of Professor of History Clyde N. Wilson.

For his doctoral dissertation, Power proposed the idea he’d had in his head since he was a teenager–to write about the morale of the common Confederate soldier in the last, desperate year of the Civil War. He would focus on Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia (one of four armies constituting the Confederate forces).

“By that time, I’d had some articles published. I’d done manuscript research for ten years. Clyde never asked or expected me to tailor my ideas to fit him. He felt his role was to facilitate,” says Power. (Today, Wilson says Power’s dissertation was “the finest, most mature piece of work I’ve ever seen.”)

The University of North Carolina Press published Power’s dissertation as Lee’s Miserables in 1998. The work has won numerous prizes, including the Richard Barksdale Harwell Award from the Atlanta Civil War Round Table, the 1998 Jefferson Davis Award from the Museum of the Confederacy, the 1999 Jerry Coffey Award for writing excellence from the Grady McWhiney Research Foundation at McMurry University, and second place for the 1999 Lincoln Prize, the most prestigious award in the field of Civil War history, presented by the Lincoln and Soldiers Institute at Gettysburg College.

Power made extensive use of letters to document the day-to-day lives of the soldiers who called themselves “Lee’s Miserables” in homage to Victor Hugo’s epic 1862 novel of social injustice.

“Tell Robert if he can bring with him some meat it will be best so he will not have to commence starving right away,” one man wrote to a friend whose son had been drafted.

A colonel wrote from Petersburg, a few weeks before surrender, “You need not send my clothes, nor flour, nor anything else to me, my dearest, we will either be killed or captured or the road will be destroyed before this letter reaches you.”

Power’s “marshalling of letters is incomparable,” says Thomas S. Burns, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Late Ancient and Medieval History. “Only someone who’d grown up with such an interest from his teenage years could amass such a fine collection.”

“Tracy is a very solid, even-handed historian, old-fashioned in the good sense,” Wilson says. “He has no particular axes to grind.”

In fact, as a historian with the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Power feels he should avoid publicizing his personal opinions on such political hot-button issues as state use of Confederate symbols. (The South Carolina legislature recently voted to move the Confederate battle flag from the top of the capitol to a memorial on statehouse grounds, after a raging controversy there.)

“My take on [the Civil War] has always been [to understand] the point of view of the people who were there,” Power says, “so I try very hard not to let latter-day concerns interfere. . . .

”This book is about the Confederate experience. That’s a major part of history, whatever your viewpoint about it. A historian should make that real and comprehensible.”

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Eléonore Raoul Professor of History at Emory and chair of the Lincoln Prize committee, has often warned of the dangers of trying to make history politically correct.

“If we view history only through the lens of contemporary political considerations, we risk misunderstanding the motivations and beliefs of people at the time and losing the diversity of historical experience,” Fox-Genovese says.

Power, who is one of three editors of the recently published book, The Leverett Letters: Correspondence of a South Carolina Family, 1851—1868, has already begun work on his next subject, a biography of George Washington Custis Lee supported in part by an Andrew W. Mellon Research Fellowship.

Custis Lee, the Confederate commander’s eldest son, was valedictorian of his West Point class and a United States Army officer who served the Confederacy as aide-de-camp to Jefferson Davis. Lee’s parents’ farm, Arlington, was confiscated by the U.S. government for failure to pay taxes. Later, the Army’s quartermaster buried soldiers in Lee’s mother’s rose garden, a site that eventually became Arlington National Cemetery.

As he looks toward the future, Power still cannot quite believe his nearly lifelong project is finished.

“The book was an idea for twenty-five years,” he says. “I don’t think I will ever do as much as that again. When I first held the book in my hand, I couldn’t believe it was a tangible thing. I guess I could have dreamed of being a paleontologist or an astronaut or a baseball player. But I didn’t chase after a dream because I could do it. History was my first love.

“To have written a book, to be able to teach. . . . What more can I ask for?”

Krista Reese is a frequent contributor to Emory Magazine.


© 2000 Emory University