New Framework for Examining Generalship
'Superb Analysis of Union Strategy and Policy' The War within the Union High Command: Politics and Generalship during the Civil War. Thomas J. Goss. University Press of Kansas. 300 pages; notes; index; $34.95.
How effective the military means chosen by commanders are to achieving the political ends of the state is a question that forms the foundation of much of the curriculum at the military's senior service colleges. Thomas Goss, an officer in the U.S. Army and a recent instructor at West Point, explores this relationship in his superb analysis of Union strategy and policy during the American Civil War. In The War within the Union High Command, Goss challenges the traditional view that the North's political generals were routinely incompetent. Indeed he posits that three of its five generals who conducted the final campaigns against the Confederacy in 1864 were political commanders who achieved a marked degree of success in correlating military strategy to Lincoln's political objectives.
Rather than examining both Union and Confederate generals, Goss concentrates on the Union political commanders. Not surprisingly he draws definite distinctions between the professional soldiers Lincoln elevated to command, namely West Point graduates or those commanders who had service as career regulars with frontier or Mexican War experience, and those politicians-in-uniform, who together shaped the foundation of professionalism of the U.S. Army officer corps. In examining political generals, Goss narrows his focus by analyzing those commanders who were clearly made general officers and given important commands because of the immense level of political pressure exerted on Lincoln by their influential supporters.
Goss defines military effectiveness as the fulfillment of assigned missions and the accomplishment of political objectives. In so doing, he expands the discussion of professionalism beyond the boundaries of the battlefield and closely aligns officership to the inseparable relationship between war and politics.
Using this Clausewitzian criterion as a framework, Goss opines that those Union commanders who failed to see or accept this distinction frequently encountered insurmountable problems when they planned and executed campaigns that did not advance the Union cause toward victory. This failure to link battlefield success with specific goals of the Lincoln administration applied to both the professional and amateur officers who commanded the various armies throughout the war.
How then did the Northern generals fare? Goss assigns mixed results to both West Pointers and the political generals. Although West Pointers often had four times more tactical experience than their politically appointed peers, Military Academy graduates experienced 16 defeats in the 44 major battles they commanded.
The political generals were a different story. For every John McClernand and Franz Sigel, neither of whom exhibited any martial ability, there was a Nathaniel P. Banks, a Benjamin F. Butler or a …