The War Within the Union High Command: Politics and Generalship During the Civil War, by Thomas J. Goss. (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2003. Pp. 271, $34.95, Hardback, notes. ISBN 0-7006-1263-7)
The Lincoln administration’s use of political generals in the Union army’s high command has a definite image problem in the eyes of both historians and the general public. Thomas Goss enthusiastically sets out to improve this view in his book The War Within the Union High Command. Far from Henry Halleck’s claim that placing amateurs in uniform was “simply murder”, Goss argues that political generals were a necessary offshoot of contemporary partisan politics and national culture and were in the end vital to Union victory.
One of the problems of studying political generals is formulating an all-encompassing definition of just what makes an officer a political general. Goss uses three major criteria: (1) the person must jump from civilian life immediately to general officer rank and command, (2) the candidate’s pre-war career must be a political one, and (3) a political general must lack enough previous military experience to justify an appointment as a general officer purely on a military basis. Of course, exceptions abound, and the author freely admits it.
Though many are mentioned in the text, the author has selected six high-ranking generals to focus on. These are equally divided between West Point trained professional officers (Halleck, Grant, and Sherman) and politicians (Ben Butler, Nathaniel Banks, and John Logan). The list is a good one, though the inclusion of Logan can be quibbled with. To begin with, he fails the first of Goss’s criteria in that he began the war as a regimental commander. More important, the validity of comparison suffers because, unlike the other five generals, Logan did not have long-standing independent command at the army level. His inclusion appears to be mostly for balance, to show that some political generals had considerable tactical skill.
Using a long list of examples, Goss examines America’s long standing dual military tradition that has career officers fighting alongside amateurs of natural ability and character. Though the process began at the end of 1864, generalship did not take on the qualities of a true exclusive profession until after the Civil War ended. Politicians and the general public had at least as much regard for the self-made adaptable citizen-soldier as they did for the West Point “clique”, probably more so. Lincoln certainly embraced this dual tradition, it was just a question if the political gains of the amateurs outweighed the costs of their military defeats. Goss argues that the president had distinctly different expectations of professional and political generals. West Pointers were expected to win military victories and political generals were to recruit, rally public support for the war, and advance the government’s political aims at home and at the front. Proof of this is in Lincoln’s swift removal of professionals after a single large defeat while he continued to place constantly defeated men like Banks and Butler in one important army-level command after another.
Goss argues for a new assessment of Civil War generalship in which political skills are valued as highly as tactical ability. All generals in a civil war must be politicians to some degree. For advancement, both officer types relied similarly on patronage and political intrigue. The author also makes the intriguing point that political generals made better department commanders of occupied territory as they were more in-tune with the partisan politics and war aims of the Lincoln administration and could use their political skills to better regulate the populace.
All of Goss’s arguments have merit but he sometimes overreaches when illustrating his points. In attempting to prove his assertion that both amateurs and professionals had similarly mixed military results (especially early in the war), the author uses data points that are too one-sided in number and uses parameters that are so subjective in nature that useful conclusions cannot really be formed. Additionally, Goss exaggerates the military successes of some of the political generals while minimizing the costs of their defeats. As an example, he gives Butler too much credit for what were essentially naval victories at New Orleans and Hatteras Inlet.
Not everyone will agree with the author’s bolder assertions, but The War Within the Union High Command is a thought-provoking book that the specialist and general reader alike can enjoy. Those interested in the subject of political generals and the evolution of the American concept of generalship will want this book on their shelves at home.
(Reprinted with the permission of North and South Magazine, originally appeared in vol. 7 #6, reviewed by Andrew Wagenhoffer)