Sommers, Richard. Challenges of Command in the Civil War: Generalship, Leadership, and Strategy at Gettysburg, Petersburg, and Beyond: Volume 1: Generals and Generalship. (Savas Beatie: May 2018). 288 pages, 80 images, 7 maps, 7 tables, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN: 978-1-61121-432-1. $29.95 (Cloth)
Richard Sommers returns to Savas Beatie, this time releasing the first of a two volume series entitled Challenges of Command in the Civil War: Generalship, Leadership, and Strategy at Gettysburg, Petersburg, and Beyond: Volume 1: Generals and Generalship. The book is a collection of essays which are text versions of presentations Dr. Sommers has given in various venues across the years. While the subject matter is interesting and the author is knowledgeable, the execution of this book has some issues, including repetition in places as well as noticeably excessive alliteration at times. Despite these issues, the end result is a solid book and worth a place in Civil War libraries.
Dr. Sommers is immensely respected for his lengthy service of over four decades with the US Army Heritage and Education Center. In addition, his Richmond Redeemed, either the original version or the second edition recently published by Savas Beatie, exhaustively and definitively covers the Fifth Offensive at the Siege of Petersburg. He retired in 2014, but continues to teach at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and also continues to write and speak about the Civil War.
There have been some negative reviews of this book, including one unfortunate review which contains personal attacks by someone claiming to be the book review editor of a Civil War magazine. Fortunately, I preserved the original review in the comments below the revised review I just linked to. Judge for yourself the merits, or lack thereof, of the reviewer. Given these negative reviews, it seemed important to discuss what this book is here. It IS a book of essays, similar in format and content to what you would see in many collections of essays on the Civil War. The main difference here is that these essays are all written by Dr. Sommers, rather than gathered from a collection of authors. In addition, there is overlap in topics, and in my opinion this overlap is where a lot of the negative reviews are focused. There will be more to come on this later. If you view the book in this manner, as a collection of essays, it delivers as a valuable addition to Civil War literature with some shortcomings.
The book can be divided into three main portions:
- Essays on Lee and Grant
- Essays on Subordinate Generals
- One essay with a focus on the Revolution and the Civil War both
The section on Lee and Grant contains five essays, and there is considerable overlap. The first two essays cover the generalship of Grant and Lee over the course of the entire Civil War. The third covers Grant in the 1864-65 Virginia Campaigns. The fourth covers Grant at Petersburg. And the fifth covers Grant and Lee at Petersburg. This leads to multiple issues of repetition, and many times exact phrases are repeated in multiple essays. For instance, by the time you get through the fifth essay, you’ll have read about both Grant and Lee, or at least one of them, at Petersburg, up to five times. This leads to an uncomfortable feeling when reading. Taken individually, all of these essays are perfectly fine and would make good additions to any collection of essays by multiple authors. Taken together like this, it is problematic. A better solution would have been to combine these essays in a different way, perhaps looking at Grant and Lee prior to 1864, then looking at their performances in the Overland Campaign up to Petersburg, and then focusing on their work at Petersburg over three essays. Another minor issue was the excessive use of alliteration in places. This probably works well when giving a presentation, but it was periodically jarring in print.
The next four essays focus on subordinate generals. First up is a look at the Political Generals of the North. Sommers is not fond of this term to describe these men, and he goes on to cover their war service in a way that was new to me. Typically I focus on campaigns, so it was interesting to see some of these men jump from assignment to assignment for various reasons, often moving to entirely different theaters of war. The last three essays focus on the subordinates of McClellan, Meade, and Grant at Antietam, Gettysburg, and Petersburg, respectively. These follow a consistent template, which some might also feel is somewhat repetitive. Despite that, these essays flow much better than the first five and also provide interesting and useful looks at what happened to these men. It also shows the massive turnover in senior leadership in the Army of the Potomac from late 1862 to early 1865. By the end of the Civil War, George G. Meade was one of only a handful of men left in the leadership of the AotP at division level or higher who served in that role at Antietam.
The last essay, and one which has also been criticized for some reason, discusses known ties between the Founding Fathers and Civil War soldiers. Most readers are familiar with Robert E. Lee’s famous father leading cavalry for George Washington, but there are many more, and Sommers admits he doesn’t have an exhaustive list even now. It was an enjoyable article and provided a different look at some famous and not so famous Civil War soldiers through a new lens.
One very useful feature of this book is the frequent mention of good books for further reading on the various generals mentioned here. Sommers even goes so far as to recommend theses and dissertations on these men if they are the best coverage of a given general to date.
There is one last thing which needs to be done here, and that is to comment on this atrocious review left at Amazon in late June 2018. Let’s just pick a few of the absured comments made there and rebut them:
- “I consider it without any doubt the absolute worst Civil War book I have read in decades.”
- REBUTTAL: This is absolute nonsense. All of the essays in this book are well done, and other than some excessive alliteration, each would be given good marks if it were in a collection of essays by many authors.
- “What Sommers has obviously done is to pull the texts of his previous presentations/lectures on CW subjects and, without any apparent editing to remove any redundancies and leaving in his constant repetitiveness present these presentations as a ‘book.’”
- REBUTTAL: This one comes closest to hitting the mark, but is also hyperbolic and states a fact as a negative. Yes, Dr. Sommers did take a collection of his presentations and convert them to essays for a book. I don’t know about the majority of the people reading this review, but I have never had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Sommers speak. As a result, this book allowed me to take in his presentations in a more permanent way. The one shred of truth is that the book is too repetitive at times and a different editing approach would have helped.
- “After two introductory ‘chapters’ on the leadership of Grant and Lee (shallow, unenlightened, extremely short takes on the leadership of those two iconic CW leaders that readers would get much better insight by reading their Wikipedia entries…”
- REBUTTAL: This “reviewer,” a person who claims to be the book review editor of a “Civil War magazine,” wrote this and apparently means it. To even begin to compare Wikipedia entries to these essays is silly.
- “After wading through that miasma of endless repetition, Sommers perseveres with more of his apparently unedited, re-cycled presentations/lectures that add nothing to our knowledge of the Civil War but merely repeats and repeats what he brought out in his one book, Richmond Redeemed — which was unfortunately republished by Savas Beatie a couple of years ago — Ted Savas, what were you thinking, my friend?!?”
- REBUTTAL: I’ve noted the validity of the repetition before, but this reviewer apparently does not realize the irony of complaining about repetition in a book…repetitively. He goes on to disparage Richmond Redeemed, widely regarded as an exhaustive and definitive account of the Fifth Offensive at Petersburg, and chastises Savas Beatie for “unfortunately” republishing the book. I have nothing to add here. You judge for yourself.
I could go on here, but I’ve given you the “flavor” of what is a ridiculous “review.” I expect these from people who don’t know any better, but a professional reviewer who writes this unprofessional a review should no longer review books for a paying audience.
All in all, Challenges of Command in the Civil War: Generalship, Leadership, and Strategy at Gettysburg, Petersburg, and Beyond: Volume 1: Generals and Generalship is a group of very good essays, which, if read on their own, provide definite value to Civil War readers, especially those new to the Siege of Petersburg. This book serves as a great “jumping off point” to study these men in further detail via the frequent endnotes containing bibliographical information. There is absolutely repetition here, however, and it detracts somewhat from the enjoyment of the individual essays. Combining the first five essays into three and adding some tweaks to the three essays on subordinate generals at Antietam, Gettysburg, and Petersburg would have made this a better received book by all. That said, the repetition does not prevent me from recommending this book as a worthwhile edition to your Civil War library.