The War within the Union High Command: Politics and Generalship during the Civil War

By Clifford, James | Infantry, March/April 2004 | Go to article overview

The War within the Union High Command: Politics and Generalship during the Civil War


Clifford, James, Infantry


The War Within The Union High Command: Politics and Generalship During The Civil War. Thomas J. Goss. University Press of Kansas, 2003. 300 pages. $34.95.

Thomas J. Goss takes a fresh view of an old argument regarding the selection of Union generals in the Civil War. The traditional view is that Abraham Lincoln passed out general's stars liberally based on political considerations. The argument holds that these political generals were necessary in order to entice large ethnic and political groups to enlist, thereby turning the Civil War into a "peoples" war. Any other approach would have ensured a quick and certain end to the Civil War resulting in the permanent establishment of a Confederate States of America. An extension of the argument is that the political generals were mostly failures as military leaders, and as Lincoln's political position strengthened he began to jettison them in favor of the professional officers produced by West Point. The professionals from West Point, according to this line of reasoning, provided the battlefield victories that resulted in the restitution of the Union.

Goss has no quarrel with these conclusions, but he comes to them from a different perspective. His goal was not to revise any historical conclusions, only to lend some clarity on Lincoln's motivations regarding particular leaders. He finds that Lincoln appointed generals with individual mandates for each. While some historians judge generals by only their military accomplishments, Goss recognizes battlefield performance as just a part of the equation. The author's approach is indeed fresh, unlike any others found in Civil War literature. He departs slightly from the typical Jominian angle in favor of a more Clausewitzian view. While recognizing the military aspects of the war, Goss emphasizes Clausewitz' dictum that warfare is politics by other means.

It would be inaccurate to say that at the outset of the Civil War America had a professional officer class despite the existence of the Military Academy. It is more accurate to observe that Americans considered warfare the purview of any reasonable intelligent, hard-working man. Therefore, Americans expected its leading citizens to step into a military role when the situation called for such. …

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