Review: Over Lincoln’s Shoulder

by James Durney on September 10, 2009 · 2 comments

Over Lincoln’s Shoulder
by Bruce Tap

Product Details

  • Paperback: 332 pages
  • Publisher: University Press Of Kansas (January 20, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0700614265
  • ISBN-13: 978-0700614264

OverLincolnsShoulderTheCommitteeOnTheConductOfTheWarBruceTapVery few Civil War hobbyists do not hold a strong position on the Joint Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War (CCW).  The committee frequently is the object of attack for a variety of reasons.  The WWII Truman Committee, with very similar functions, is reputed to have said they would not repeat the mistakes of this group.  Many authors finding the CCW on the other side of their main character have attacked the committee.  The committee has a reputation for partisanship, working toward a desired answer, being manipulated by astute individuals and damaging the Union war effort.  Historically, the CCW managed to pick the wrong general more often than not while working to destroy anyone not agreeing with their political position.

This book remains as fresh, readable, intelligent and useful as it was when published in 1998.  Simply put, it is the most balance history of the committee, combining scholarship and readability into an effective package.  Reading this book will give you a fair detailed look at the CCW coupled with an understanding of their motivation.

The Introduction provides the reader with a short history of books and views on the CCW.  The author takes us from the end of the war to the 1990s, in about seven pages.  This is an intelligent summary of the history of the CCW.  While never attacking any book, the author does an excellent job stating the author’s views.  This provides us with an introduction coupled with an overview that places the CCW in a full historical context.

The CCW was publically set up to investigate the defeats at First Bull Run and Ball’s Bluff.  An unstated motivation was Congressional distrust of a strong Executive.  In 1861, Congress had enjoyed being the power in government facing a string of weak Presidents.  Abraham Lincoln was a drastic change and that was upsetting to more than one member of congress.  An additional consideration is the political difference between the Radical Republicans, Republicans, the President and the War Democrats.  War to save the Union was not what the Radicals envisioned, they were looking to destroy slavery and remake Southern society.  Chapter One, “To Invigorate a Timid Administration” is both a summary of the early war aims and the political divisions that bedevil the North through the war.

The CCW’s first victim was General Stone, the first hero General Fremont.   The CCW’s major villain was General McClellan, closely followed by General Meade.  Generals Pope, Banks, Butler and Hooker all enjoyed the support of the CCW at one time or another.  A simplistic view of military science, coupled with a hatred of West Point and a political litmus test, lead the committee members a series of poor decisions.  The author fully explores this maneuvering until after Gettysburg.  Rightly, Lincoln had ceased to listen as Grant assumed command and protected his people from the CCW.  Hancock easily deflects their investigation.  The attack on Sherman, for Johnston’s initial surrender document, backfires and forces a makeup hearing.  However, from 1861 to Gettysburg the impact on the Army of the Potomac is substantial and created numerous unsolved problems.  This is the heart of the book.  The author does an excellent job in very clear prose laying out the issues, personalities and results.  While the CCW is not all-powerful, they do have an impact on Lincoln, official Washington and the military.

The best work the committee did is investigating Fort Pillow and the condition of Union prisoners of war.  While they never solved anything and some of their recommendations bordered on barbaric, they helped rally the North late in the war.

The story unfolds chronologically following developments as they occur.  This organization works very well, allowing us to see the development of positions and understand the reasons or lack of reasons for them.  The author has no agenda other than showing what went right and what went wrong.  He is very fair in his evaluation of the committee members and their actions.  He gives them less power over Lincoln than others, explaining his reasons for this very well.

For the Civil War hobbyist, I will say this is a “must read” book.  Intelligent and balanced, this provides a look at the political war in an easy fun to read book.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Charlie Bell September 28, 2009 at 2:21 pm

I am looking forward to reading it.

The History Man
http://wwwhistoryman.blogspot.com/

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