The War Within the Union High Command
Politics and Generalship during the Civil War
Thomas Joseph Goss
Peter Seaborg Award, Honorable Mention
With Union armies poised to launch the final campaigns against the Confederacy in 1864, three of its five commanders were political generals—appointed officers with little or no military training. Army chief of staff Henry Halleck thought such generals jeopardized the lives of men under their command and he and his peers held them in utter contempt. Historians have largely followed suit.
“[Not everyone will agree with his conclusions, but] Gosss thoughtful reassessment is sure to attract the attention of military historians generally, and Civil War scholars in particular.”
—American Historical Review
“For a subject that has received a wealth of attention over the last century, Goss has managed to add something new and engaging by producing thoughtful and perceptive analyses of the war within the Union high command.”
—Civil War HistorySee all reviews...
“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.”
—North & South
“A significant contribution to Civil War scholarship.”
“A valuable book. Civil War history needs more studies such as this one to refresh the field, recast old questions and get us beyond simplistic assumptions about Civil War military history.”
—Civil War Book Review
“The author is to be commended for his broad reading of sources, his ability to propose questions, and his analytical skill in responding to them. Despite the well-known fact that some political generals suffered badly in battle, Goss finds that their service in the war was valuable. To some extent, the book is a defense of political generals who commanded in occupied areas and began reconstruction of state governments. Recommended.”
“A superb analysis of Union strategy and policy during the American Civil War.”
“A useful book that deserves a wide audience, both academic and public.”
—History: Reviews of New Books
“A detailed and comprehensive study of the rivalry between Union political and professional generals, acknowledging the virtues of both, has been overdue. Goss has filled the need admirably.Russell F. Weigley in ”
—The Washington Times
“General readers and serious students alike, especially those with an interest in generalship and the politics of war, will find much of value in this fine book.”
—Civil War News
“Union ‘political generals’ were so inept, the story goes, that they should never have led armies. Not so, says Goss, whose argument is sure to create as much debate among modern readers as it did among wartime participants. . . . An important book.”
—John F. Marszalek, author of Sherman: A Soldiers Passion for Order
“A significant contribution that clarifies and sharpens our understanding of the strengths, weaknesses, and accomplishments of these generals, while at the same time providing a more complex vision of Union command overall.”
—Herman Hattaway, author of Shades of Blue and Gray
“A must read for all serious students of the Civil War and the institutional development of the United States Army.”
—Albert E. Castel, author of Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864See fewer reviews...
Thomas Goss, however, offers a new and more positive assessment of the leadership qualities of these Northern commanders. In the process, he cuts through the stereotypes of political generals as superfluous and largely inept tacticians, ambitious schemers, and military failures. Goss examines the reasons why the selection process yielded so many generals who lacked military backgrounds and explores the tense and often bitter relationships among political and professional officers to illuminate the dynamics of Union generalship during the war. As this book reveals, professional generals viewed the war as a military problem requiring battlefield solutions, while appointees (and President Lincoln) focused more emphatically on the broader political contours of the struggle. The resulting friction often eroded Northern morale and damaged the Norths war effort.
Goss challenges the traditional idea that success was measured only on the battlefield by demonstrating significant links between military success and the achievement of the Unions political objectives. Examining commanders like Benjamin Butler, Nathaniel Banks, John McClernand, John Fremont, and Franz Sigel, Goss shows how many filled vital functions by raising troops, boosting homefront morale, securing national support for the war—and sometimes even achieving significant success on the battlefield. Comparing these generals with their professional counterparts reveals that all had vital roles to play in helping Lincoln prosecute the war and that West Pointers, despite their military training, were not necessarily better prepared for waging war.
Whether professional or appointed, Goss reminds us, all generals could be considered political inasmuch as war is a continuation of politics by other means. He shows us that far more was asked of Union commanders than to simply win battles and in so doing urges a new appreciation of those appointed leaders who were thrust into the maelstrom of the Civil War.