- The Washington Times - Friday, October 3, 2003

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.

However, that was part of Halleck’s failings. All wars, Maj. Goss emphasizes, are political as well as military contests; certainly a civil war is. Lincoln realized that he needed the Butlers, Bankses and McClernands as allies in the politics of war.

Still, the stereotypes of blundering politicos and competent professionals are full of exceptions. John A. Logan, a political general, was also one of the best combat commanders of the war. Among West Pointers who were military failures were Irvin McDowell, John Pope, Ambrose E. Burnside and — despite all his organizing achievements — George B. McClellan.

It was possible for Lincoln to employ political generals, in fact, because military professionalism had not yet advanced far enough to make the distinction between professionals and amateurs clear-cut. That would come, the author points out, with the completion of the military education system through specialized branch schools to the level of war colleges, a process that by World War I had left political generalship on the Civil War model unthinkable.

Yet that later, more advanced military education system had to pay some attention to political and diplomatic issues as well as military ones. By the same token, Maj. Goss emphasizes, the most successful Union generals were professionals but not narrowly military and able to develop a due appreciation of the political implications of military strategy. Grant and Sherman were much more than battlefield leaders. Their strengths lay not in tactical achievements so much as in developing military strategies that would undermine the Confederate will to fight.

A detailed and comprehensive study of the rivalry between Union political and professional generals, acknowledging the virtues of both, has been overdue. Thomas J. Goss has filled the need admirably.

Russell F. Weigley is the author most recently of “A Great Civil War: A Military and Political History, 1861-1865.”


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