Review: Lincoln’s Political Generals

by James Durney on April 12, 2010 · 0 comments

Lincoln’s Political Generals
by David Work

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press; 1st Edition (July 15, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0252034457
  • ISBN-13: 978-0252034459

The 19th Century glorified the idea of the citizen solider!  The idea that courage and patriotism are a substitute for training, tactics and supplies enjoyed wide acceptance.  The Spoils System controlled Civil Service during this time. Dismissal of the losers and hiring the winners after an election is accepted and expected policy.  Add a civil war to the citizen solider ideal and the spoils system.  Mix in political considerations, personal ambitions, raising armies and sustaining public support.  The result makes awarding general’s stars to political figures a requirement.  Lincoln understood this and was willing to “pay” for support from important politicians and community leaders with general’s stars.

David Work takes a close look at Lincoln’s reasoning, promotions and handling of sixteen generals appointed for political reasons.  The logic of the promotion is apparent.  Rewarding important Republicans, securing the support of important Democrats or ensuring ethnic support is the reason in all cases.  These generals are a mixed bag.  Banks and Butler, important politicians, never seem to succeed in the field.  After the requirement for their support passes, Lincoln allows their removal from active commands.  Sigel, Meagher and Schurz secured the support of the Irish and German communities.   Sigel, for all his failures, is so popular that Lincoln must give him command after command.  Fremont, the darling of the Radical Republicans, fails quickly and disappears.  McClernand creates problems even as Lincoln is withdrawing his support until Grant is secure in dismissing him. These are the best known of the group.  Logan, Blair, Dix and Wadsworth serve throughout the war compiling good to excellent records.

The combat portion of the book is by year and theater, allowing the reader to follow the development or lack thereof as both individuals and as a group.  This organization brings the full weight of the political pressure to the forefront.  Fremont is the quickest failure while having one of the strongest pressure groups.  Sigel is a protracted failure with many problems both on and off the battlefield.  The large German community continues to support him forcing Lincoln to give him command after command.  Banks and Butler present a different set of problems with uneven performance but never completely failing until late in the war.  Histories tend to overlook the successful political generals or down play the political aspects of their appointments.  This book performs a real service in seeing how Logan, Blair and Wadsworth were able to learn the art of war.  The author spends as much time on the successes as the failures, giving us a balanced picture.

The chapters “Quasi-Civil Support”, “Slavery, Freedom, and Black Soldiers” and “Exerting Political Influence” are more important than the combat chapters.  These chapters look at the contributions the political generals made off the battlefield.  In many cases, these contributions overcame battlefield mistakes prolonging their time in the army.  In other cases, this was their major contribution to winning the war.  The seven-page Conclusion is excellent and could be a stand-alone article.

This valuable book is fully footnoted with formal portraits of the men.  The author writes well with a good narrative style.  This is an easy fun informative read and is highly recommended.

Editor’s Note: Jim is a highly ranked reviewer of American Civil War histories on many book seller’s sites.

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