BOOK REVIEW: ‘Victors in Blue’

VICTORS IN BLUE: HOW UNION GENERALS FOUGHT THE CONFEDERATES, BATTLED EACH OTHER, AND WON THE CIVIL WAR
By Albert Castel
University Press of Kansas, $34.95, 362 pages

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.

Thus, as he notes, on the third day of the battle at Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee’s depleted army of 60,000 was spread along a five-battle line. At Waterloo in 1815, Napoleon had massed his 71,000 infantry, cavalry and cannons on a 2 1/2 mile front “which enabled him to view the entire battlefield through a small telescope and react quickly to what happened on it as it happened.”

Mr. Castel’s storyline rightly begins with rehabilitating the reputation of Union Gen. William Rosecrans, who saved West Virginia for the Union in 1861 (even through George McClellan took the credit) and gave the Union its first strategic victory. But I become somewhat equivocal when so much else of the book is dominated by his first among equals, Ulysses S. Grant. For Mr. Castel, there is Grant, and the rest of senior commanders are really supporting actors whose light is merely his reflection.

This is where the collegial seminar could become heated. Grant must not be denied his triumph both as an overall strategist, as a political confidant of the president’s and as having, as Shelby Foote once said, “that kind of three o’clock in the morning courage” that precludes panic in a crisis. But it might be more accurate to argue that Grant too often found himself bogged down and stalemated until his friend William T. Sherman or generals such as Philip Sheridan or George Thomas scored a triumph somewhere else to break the impasse.

For example, Mr. Castel gives Sherman his props for capturing the railhead of Atlanta, but he barely mentions his Christmas 1864 seizure of Savannah. Sherman’s forced march through the Carolinas that led to the surrender of Joseph Johnston’s army the next spring is treated as a psy-ops campaign that disheartened Confederate political resolve more than it achieved by force of arms. What nonsense.

There are other “wait-a-minute” moments in Mr. Castel’s narrative, and they are fun to fume over, I must admit. He repeats the charge that George Meade should have pursued Lee after Gettysburg. But my great-grandfather had marched from Frederick, Md., overnight to fight for three days in Pennsylvania’s July heat on Meade’s right flank with the 68th Pennsylvania Volunteers in that melee. There was no way he or anyone else in Meade’s army could have gone a step further to capture Bobby Lee after that, Abe Lincoln and Albert Castel notwithstanding.

Still, it’s a good book to get the juices flowing. One senses it would be enormous fun to actually talk to the author about this book, and you can’t say fairer than that.

James Srodes is author of “On Dupont Circle,” which will be published by Counterpoint in August.

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