Review: Crisis of Command in the Army of the Potomac

by Brett Schulte on April 9, 2009 · 2 comments

crisisofcommandinthearmyofthepotomacsimson Review: <i>Crisis of Command in the Army of the Potomac</i>Simson, Jay W. Crisis of Command in the Army of the Potomac: Sheridan’s Search for an Effective GeneralMcFarland (August 14, 2008). 245 pages, maps, illustrations, index. ISBN: 978-0786436538 $39.95 (Paperback).

As a Civil War general, how would you go about avoiding the wrath of Union Major General Phil Sheridan?  The three generals Sheridan sacked, William W. Averell, Alfred T. A. Torbert, and Gouvernour K. Warren, probably should have asked rising star Ranald Mackenzie according to author Jay W. Simson.  In Crisis of Command in the Army of the Potomac: Sheridan’s Search for an Effective General, author Simson covers the Civil War careers of the Union generals above, detailing how three of them met their demise at the hands of Sheridan while the fourth, Ranald Mackenzie, earned his praise and admiration.

General Phil Sheridan prized aggressiveness in his subordinates, especially those who were able to be aggressive without his direct orders.  In varying degrees, the three Union generals who Sheridan fired or shuffled off to Civil War backwaters were unable or unwilling to be aggressive and take the initiative when favorable situations arose.

General William W. Averell was the first of the three generals Sheridan disposed of.  Averell was a “man who preferred mountains”, according to author Simson.  Averell seemed to be an average and at times above average general when he wasn’t under the direct command of superior officers.  Averell was relieved after the battle of Chancellorsville for his timid performance in the Union Cavalry Corps.  Sent to an independent command in the mountains of western Virginia, Averell performed solidly in 1863-1864.  His issues with superiors arose again in 1864 when he was ordered to serve under Phil Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley.  After performing well at Third Winchester, Averell failed to pursue Early’s beaten army after Fisher’s Hill, and Averell was summarily relieved from duty a second time.  Averell lacked the initiative and aggressiveness Sheridan desired.

A.T.A. Torbert, the second of the generals Sheridan had no use for, had the opposite problem Averell did.  Torbert, “the man who was promoted too far”, had a difficult time unless he was directly under a superior officer who gave him clear, direct orders with little left to interpretation.  After commanding a VI Corps brigade throughout most of the war, Torbert was assigned to lead the First Division of cavalry in the Army of the Potomac in March 1864.  Torbert was involved at Trevilian Station and was later promoted to command the Cavalry Corps in the Army of the Shenandoah in August 1864.  Many wondered if he could command at a corps level.  Torbert helped turn the Confederate left at Third Winchester, but was late in getting there.  Torbert’s major failure, however, occurred at Milford in the Luray Valley, an eastern offshoot of the Shenandoah proper.  Torbert was to get behind Early’s army at Fisher’s Hill and mop up survivors.  He never made it, doing very little to attack the Confederate cavalry positioned to stop him from this very mission.  After Sheridan gave him a tongue lashing, Torbert moved out and promptly won a smashing victory at Tom’s Brook, earning him a bit of a reprieve.  Perhaps sensing Torbert was not the man for the job, Sheridan sent him on a difficult raid in the direction of Gordonsville in the winter of 1864.  After this inevitable failure, Torbert was bumped up to command the Valley District for the final campaigns of 1865 since the fighting in the Shenandoah was all but over.  Torbert did not or could not operate independently, something a Corps commander needs to be able to do to have success.

The third and least deserved relief happened to Major General Gouvernour K. Warren, commander of the Army of the Potomac’s V Corps for much of 1864-1865 and according to the author “the man who suffered from combat fatigue”.  Warren had been “the hero of Little Round Top”, a highly regarded engineer who spotted the lack of troops there and who directed Strong Vincent’s brigade to defend the hill.  Warren rose to Corps command, leading II Corps in the campaigns of late 1863 due to Winfield Hancock’s absence for his Gettysburg wound.  When Hancock returned, Warren became permanent commander of the V Corps for the start of the 1864 Virginia Overland Campaign.  Simson says the continued grind of the constant battles in the spring and summer of 1864 caused post traumatic stress disorder in Warren, and he grew unwilling to throw away the lives of his men without very good reason.  Grant, who initially rated Warren highly, soon grew tired of his constant questioning of orders and suggestions for what others should do.  This came to a head in March 1865 at the battle of Five Forks.  Grant had given Sherman orders to relieve Warren if he did not satisfy Sheridan.  Naturally Sheridan, who was tough to satisfy on a good day, completely misread Warren’s demeanor and subsequent actions on the battlefield and unfairly (the author’s and reviewer’s opinion both) relieved Warren just as a spectacular victory was being wrapped up.  That Warren had quite a bit of a hand in creating the victory makes his removal even more unfair and unwarranted.

In Ranald Mackenzie, “the man who proved the rule”, Sheridan finally found someone who could be aggressive and seize the initiative without direct orders.  Mackenzie’s father was a disgraced U.S. Naval officer, and the young man spent most of his life trying to emulate his father’s style, according to Simson.  Mackenzie, who graduated first in his class at West Point in 1862, was connected repeatedly with G.K. Warren.  He served in various engineering positions in the Army of the Potomac from 1862 to 1864.  Mackenzie was placed in command of the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery (serving as infantry) after they lost their colonel at Cold Harbor.  He was hated by his men, but they respected him.  Many wanted to shoot him in the next battle they fought, but his incredible display of courage and disregard for danger at Third Winchester changed their mind.  The cruel martinet seemed to show an entirely different personality when in battle.  He was promoted to brigade command in the VI Corps for the rest of Sheridan’s Valley Campaign and was given command of the cavalry division of the Army of the James in time for the campaigns of 1865.  Here he shined.  Mackenzie cut Pickett’s force off from Lee’s main body at Five Forks and helped to block Lee’s escape in the Appomattox Campaign.  Mackenzie was a successful Indian fighter after the war acting as “Sheridan’s troubleshooter”, and Simson goes into far too much detail on this portion of Mackenzie’s life considering the book’s topic.

I enjoyed the topic covered, as other than the Warren removal I had not read much on Sheridan’s decisions to relieve these men from their commands.  Simson writes in an enjoyable style, but there are some issues with the book.  First, the author oftentimes gives far too much background, again considering the subject of the book.  The four “parts” of the book, one for each man covered above, were ostensibly about each man and how he came to be sacked by Sheridan.  However, many times pages would go by without a single mention of the man being covered or what he specifically was doing.  This will be a decent feature for those not familiar with these campaigns, but the topic of the book lends itself to more advanced readers of Civil War books.  Speaking of advanced readers, they expect many good maps.  This book does have maps, but lacks anything more than basic high level overviews of campaigns.  Maps which covered the commands of each of these men would have been much better suited for a book with such a narrow focus.  The layout of the book into four parts also causes some repetition.  Since both Torbert and Averell were involved in Sheridan’s 1864 Valley Campaign, the events are covered in each of their respective parts of the book.  This happens frequently and detracts a bit from the book’s appeal.  Simson must enjoy discussing the Indian Wars after 1865.  Otherwise he would not have devoted several chapters to Mackenzie’s post-Civil War Indian fighting.  I found these chapters to be wholly unnecessary considering the book’s theme and focus.  Despite these misgivings, the book is a solid look at an under-discussed topic.  Simson has an overall positive view of Phil Sheridan, unlike his friend and acquaintance Eric Wittenberg, and discusses this in his epilogue.

The book primarily relies on secondary sources judging by the bibliography.  Only three manuscript collections were consulted.  The bibliography, however, does contain quite a few sources.  The index was functional and served its purpose.

Crisis of Command in the Army of the Potomac is an interesting look at a controversial topic.  Was Sheridan right to sack all three men?  His decisions were probably not justified, especially in the case of Warren.  However, his will to win, to be in on the kill, helped to end the war in the East.  Simson does a solid job, despite the book’s flaws, in discussing what happened to these men and why.  The book will be especially interesting to students of the later campaigns in the Eastern Theater, especially the 1864 Valley Campaign.  Others with less interest may not find the information contained to be worth the steep $39.95 price tag for this paperback book.

I would like to thank Beth Cox at McFarland.

You may order the book directly on McFarland’s web site or by calling 1-800-253-2187.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jay W. Simson July 2, 2009 at 3:01 pm

I must say on the whole that I personally enjoyed the review finding it to be both evenhanded and accurate.
However, I do have at least one bone to pick. The bibliography listed a lot more than just three primary sources. Included within the general bibliographty were at least two dozen direct primary sources such as collections of letters (published in book form), personal memoirs, regimental histories, etc.
I think before one criticizes my choice of sources, one should be sure of what he is talking about.

Reply

admin July 2, 2009 at 4:45 pm

Jay,

I never said you only used three primary sources. I said you consulted three manuscript collections. There are obviously other primary sources than manuscript collections, which anyone who regularly reads this blog already knows. I think before one criticizes me for something I didn’t say, one should be sure he knows what was actually written.

Brett

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