Mighty Clash Rattles the Sabers of Political, Professional Generals

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 4, 2003 | Go to article overview

Mighty Clash Rattles the Sabers of Political, Professional Generals


Byline: Russell F. Weigley, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The war to which Thomas J. Goss' title refers was that between the civilian politicians in uniform and the professional soldiers among American Civil War generals. Except for the absence of bloodletting, it was a conflict rivaling the larger war in ferocity.

The George G. Meade versus Daniel E. Sickles controversy is an example. Meade's criticism of Sickles for advancing his Third Corps into the Peach Orchard salient on the second day at Gettysburg provoked interminable sparring between the two generals' partisans - and tireless efforts by Sickles to denigrate Meade's entire conduct of the battle. This reviewer is a member of a small minority in believing that much can be said in favor of Sickles' advance at Gettysburg, but regardless of the merits of that position, it is difficult to escape the impression that Sickles has never received an altogether fair hearing from historians because he did not belong to the West Point fraternity of professionals.

His not belonging is consistent with U.S. Army Maj. Goss' showing in "The War Within the Union High Command" that, to an extraordinary extent, the professionals from the beginning won the postwar battle for the major credit for Union victory. Almost immediately in postwar writings, there emerged the stereotype of able professional generals - notably Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, Philip H. Sheridan and, to a lesser degree, Meade and George H. Thomas - against blundering military amateurs - Benjamin F. Butler, Nathaniel P. Banks and John A. McClernand, among others.

It probably, in large part, is because of the early triumph of the professional generals in historical memory that until this book, no one had written a full-length study of the war inside the war between the professional soldiers and the political generals. Maj. Goss, who holds a doctorate in history and is a strategic planner for Homeland Defense at the U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs, systematically attacks the stereotypes.

The notion that military success was almost inseparable from a professional military education and experience has prevailed particularly among those who have judged Union victory to be the product of eventual Northern triumph on the battlefield. While the war was still in progress, the general in chief of the Federal Army, Henry Wager Halleck, consistently championed this view, that success in war essentially was a matter of winning battles and campaigns, and so Halleck took an especially dim view of political generals. …

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