Abandoned by Lincoln: A Military Biography of General John Pope
Damned Yankee: The Life of General Nathaniel Lyon
The most famous aphorism in Carl von Clausewitz’s classic study On War defines war as the continuation of politics by other means. In the American Civil War this was true in more ways than the one Clausewitz had in mind, the prosecution of national policy by armed force. The Civil War was precipitated by a political event—the election of Abraham Lincoln as president—in the world’s most politically conscious society. It was fought mainly by volunteer soldiers who elected many of their officers. Most of these soldiers were also legal voters who helped elect governors, congressmen, and presidents during the war. The governors and presidents appointed regimental colonels and army generals, often for political rather than strictly military reasons.
Promotion up the ranks sometimes seemed to have more to do with one’s political connections than with military merit. Some of the “political generals” appointed by both Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln turned out to be disastrously incompetent. West Point professionals deplored the consequences of this unprofessional practice while conceding its necessity to mobilize huge citizen armies from an almost nonexistent peacetime military infrastructure. “It seems but little better than murder to give important commands to such men as Banks, Butler, McClernand, Sigel, and Lew Wallace,” lamented the Union Chief of Staff Henry Halleck, the quintessential West Pointer, “yet it seems impossible to prevent it.”
But as the war went on, some of the political generals (though not those named by Halleck) became toughened and competent soldiers. So did many of the men they led and the company officers elected by these citizen soldiers. And in any case, most of the top commanders in the Union and Confederate armies were West Pointers who had served many years in the peacetime army and in the Mexican War. Moreover, these professionals were not immune from politics. Many of them used political connections to promote their own careers or thwart their rivals. The internal politics of the professional officer corps could be more intense than anything in civilian life. “Personal jealousies and professional rivalries, the bane and curse of all armies, have entered deeply into ours,” lamented Union Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles at a low point in the Northern cause. Too many generals “are more ready to fight each other than the enemy.”
Each of the three books under review concentrates on army politics: the interplay of personality, politics, and strategy in explaining military success or failure—mostly failure. Each book challenges a reigning orthodoxy—explicitly in the biographies of John Pope and Nathaniel Lyon, implicitly in the study of Jefferson Davis and his generals in the western theater of war. But each of these challenges falls short of overturning orthodoxy.
The presidencies of Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln were almost wholly given over to war; their functions as commander in chief absorbed most of their time and attention. Davis seemed much better qualified for this task. He was a West Point graduate. He won praise …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.