Civil War Book Review: Victors in Blue: How Union Generals Fought the Confederates, Battled Each Other, and Won the Civil War

Victors in Blue How Union Generals Fought the Confederates Battled Each Other and Won the Civil War Castel SimpsonCastel, Albert.  Simpson, Brooks D. Victors in Blue: How Union Generals Fought the Confederates, Battled Each Other, and Won the Civil War (University Press of Kansas, 2011). 374 pages, 10 photos, 10 maps, notes. ISBN: 978-0-7006-1793-7 $34.95 (Hardcover).

What ONE Union general, other than Grant, could have defeated Robert E. Lee?  How should the victorious Union generals be ranked in terms of direct war winning influence?  How did the Union win the war with so much infighting among its military leaders?  Veteran Civil War author Albert Castel answers these questions and more, with an assist by Brooks Simpson, in Victors in Blue: How Union Generals Fought the Confederates, Battled Each Other, and Won the Civil War.

My first experience with Albert Castel was his seminal work on the Atlanta Campaign, Decision in the West.  Castel’s use of present tense in that book was at first very difficult to get used to, but once this novel experiment was accepted what followed was an excellent overview of the Atlanta Campaign.  Ulysses S. Grant expert and fellow Civil War blogger Brooks Simpson is professor of history at Arizona State University.  Simpson helped Castel with the last five chapters of the Victors in Blue.

Victors in Blue, as Castel makes clear in the Preface, is not full of original takes on the generals covered.  With that said some of the views Castel uses have been obscured by the mountain of literature on men like Grant and Sherman.  As a result, he calls this an exercise in “interpretative archaeology.”  The book is not focused on tactical detail, instead looking at the big picture of campaigns and focusing on how leaders conducted operations.  As a result entire campaigns are covered in chapters of twenty or so pages each.

Now that we have covered what the book is not, let’s take a look at what it is.  According to the author the book does three things: providing short accounts of battles which decisively affected the Civil War’s outcome, looking at the performances of the winning generals in those battles, and examining the infighting of Northern generals and how this affected ultimate victory.  As a result the book is not necessarily for beginners.  Readers should have at least rudimentary knowledge of most of the major campaigns of the Civil War to truly enjoy this work to the fullest, though the maps and well written text will allow newer readers to take something away too.

This book, while somewhat scholarly in tone, is aimed squarely at armchair generals who are constantly participating in the exercise of ranking Union and Confederate generals at various online venues.  The following is a slightly paraphrased set of criteria used by Castel to do what many of us have done, rank the generals in some sort of order:

  1. If a winner, did he contribute decisively?  How so?
  2. Why did he win?  Superior skill, greater strength, brilliant feat by one or more subordinates, enemy blunders, chance, or a combination?
  3. What were his objectives?  What did he do to realize them?
  4. Did he accomplish what could be reasonably expected?  More?  Less?
  5. If less, what could he have done to accomplish more based on info at hand, and why didn’t he do it?

Each chapter examines a decisive campaign through the eyes of the Northern generals responsible for its execution as well as rivals which stood in the way, be they subordinates, superiors or sometimes both.  Where Victors in Blue really shines is in examining official telegrams and letters and explaining what two or more generals were possibly thinking when they composed or received these communications.  Some chapters have been told many times and a consensus opinion has been strongly formed, with Halleck and Grant’s issues after Fort Donelson being a perfect example.  Others, including Castel’s take on what Sherman really won at Atlanta and his opinion of the only Northern general aside from Grant who could have won against Lee, are more surprising.  As expected this story is filled with Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan, but it’s the other commanders behind the “big three” and Castel’s opinions of them which make this a truly fascinating book.  While the top three are pretty standard, some of his choices will absolutely surprise you, especially on one general not particularly well thought of today.

I’d love to see a similar volume entitled “Losers in Gray: How Confederate Generals Fought the Union, Battled Each Other, and Lost the Civil War”, though it would have to be a two part book.  Obviously one volume would be devoted to the cuddly Braxton Bragg, while the other would relate the squabbles of Jefferson Davis.  Everything else could be fit into an appendix at the back of volume two.  Castel’s writing is filled with a snarky quality which made me laugh more than once while shaking my head in agreement.  Probably my favorite example comes from page 273: “Lee…struck the Yankees on July 28 at what became known as the Battle of Ezra Church, mainly because there was nothing else to name it after except a road with the unusable name of Lickskillet.”

The maps in this book are not all that detailed.  Nor do they need to be given the subject matter.  Most cover large areas of operations and generally help the reader refresh his or her memory with regards to the major campaigns.  Castel uses end notes at the end of the book rather than the end of each chapter and without an accompanying bibliography.  The notes rely on the Official Records for a key portion of the book, the official dispatches sent and received by various commanders.  Castel also gives credit to different authors whose opinions of various commanders are relevant to the discussion at hand.  The index is standard and allows readers to quickly skip to favorite generals.

Victors in Blue, while technically breaking no new ground, does what Castel intended.  The generals who most contributed to the Union war effort are examined critically, the war winning campaigns are discussed at a high level, and the author shows how a little bad luck can take a general from a potential war winner to a forgotten man in a backwater assignment.  This book is written in an accessible format for readers of all stripes and should appeal to a wide range of Civil War students.  Victors in Blue does what many readers enjoy in ranking the war winners and their contributions.  While some conclusions will be considered standard, enough surprises await readers to make this a worthwhile new addition to the long list of Civil War books on the market today.  Castel has written an appealing and fascinating book and brought together various thoughts on major Union commanders in one place, enriching our understanding of just how the Union was able to win the war in spite of the bickering of its top military men literally from start to finish.  I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the military and political aspects of the Civil War.

This book was provided gratis for the purposes of this review.

The links to the product reviewed in this article are affiliate links. If you buy this product after clicking one of my links, I’ll make a small amount of money.  The possibility of earning something from the affiliate link has not influenced the objectivity of the review and my opinions are honestly offered.


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