When Civil War Generals Clashed

Article excerpt


Some publishers promise readers through exaggerated book titles more than the authors intend. This can lead to cases of buyer's remorse. Happily, it is not the case with Victors in Blue, which, despite its faintly misleading subtitle, is still a valuable addition to anyone's Civil War library and a treat to read. First, it is not at all about the roughly 550 men who held the rank of general in the regular and volunteer armies of the United States in that war. Nor is it in any way a study of the command-and-control structure of the Union armies or of how the commander in chief Abraham Lincoln shaped the war strategy. Rather, it is the valedictory musings of a grand figure of American historiography, the Civil War scholar Albert Castel, who is now 83 and closing out a career that has produced a shelf of books of biography and campaigns (mostly in the western theater of the war) that other historians use as standard reference works.

At its core, the book looks at how the campaign strategies of just a few generals - Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, Thomas and Meade, mainly - collided with the political agendas of Lincoln, his Cabinet and a dysfunctional U.S. Congress, and how those confrontations often spelled the difference between victory and stalemate on the battlefield.

Mr. Castel argues persuasively that in the Civil War, the Union generals often found the greatest success when they were able to break free of the often contradictory micromanaging of Washington and he maintains his focus on what happened at the nexus when the first modern industrial war collided with modern mass politics; where winning at the election polls was as critical as a blind charge on a battlefield. Think of this book as a seminar in which Mr. Castel leads the reader in a conversation filled with fresh insights but also manages to provoke disagreement. Feel free to disagree with him, for I certainly do on a number of points.

I do agree, however, with his first premise that while much has been written about the impact of the telegraph, the steamboat, the railroad and increased firepower of the weapons used in the Civil War, those technological innovations did not automatically translate into greater command control in the field for the Union generals.

Noting that, by 1862, Union armies usually fielded at least 25,000 troops and often far more in a battle, Mr. Castel asserts, For all practical purposes the leader of such an army could personally supervise and direct no greater areas of a battlefield than did Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Julius Caesar .. or for that matter, Frederick the Great and Napoleon Indeed, his ability to control what went on actually was less than that of those mighty warriors.

It was the very technological advances that were the cause of this loss of control. The ability to move huge numbers of troops to the battlefield and the increased deadly firepower of weapons meant that far more troops were more widely dispersed over a wider field of action. …