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Generals in Politics

Abandoned by Lincoln: A Military Biography of General John Pope

by Wallace J. Schutz, by Walter N. Trenerry
University of Illinois Press, 243 pp., $32.50

Damned Yankee: The Life of General Nathaniel Lyon

by Christopher Phillips
University of Missouri Press, 287 pp., $26.00

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.”1

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.”2

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 as a regimental commander in the Mexican War. He earned esteem as an outstanding secretary of war during the Franklin Pierce administration in the 1850s. Lincoln, by contrast, had almost no formal education. His only military experience was a two-month stint as a militia captain during the Black Hawk War in which he saw no combat “except against the mosquitoes.”

Yet historians almost unanimously rank Lincoln higher than Davis as a commander in chief. Such a ranking is inevitably shaped by the outcome of the war. Few historians, perhaps, would go so far as the late David M. Potter, who suggested that “if the Union and the Confederacy had exchanged presidents with one another, the Confederacy might have won its independence.”3 Most historians would now agree: Lincoln was more eloquent than Davis in expressing war aims, more successful in communicating with the people, more skillful as a political leader in keeping factions working together for the war effort, better able to endure criticism and work with his critics to achieve a common goal.

Lincoln was flexible, pragmatic, with a sense of humor to smooth relationships and help him survive the extraordinary stress of his job; Davis was austere, rigid, humorless, with the type of personality that readily made enemies. Lincoln had a strong physical constitution; Davis suffered ill health and was frequently prostrated by sickness. Lincoln knew how to delegate authority to cabinet officers and military administrators; Davis went through five secretaries of war in four years, and spent a great deal of time and energy on petty administrative details that he should have left to subordinates. A disputatious man who insisted on proving that he was right, Davis sometimes seemed to prefer winning an argument to winning the war; Lincoln was happy to lose an argument if it would help win the war. Davis’s well-known feuds with two of the South’s leading generals, Joseph E. Johnston and P. G. T. Beauregard, undoubtedly hurt the Confederacy’s war effort.

Steven Woodworth’s study, Jefferson Davis and His Generals, does not dispute these judgments; indeed, it reinforces many of them. Woodworth’s main concern is with the western theater of the war, defined as the Mississippi Valley plus the states of Tennessee and Georgia. This is appropriate, for it was in this theater that the Confederacy lost the war while it maintained a stalemate in the east (defined mainly as Virginia) until the very end. In the east Robert E. Lee made Davis look good as commander in chief, while a succession of mediocre or overcautious Union commanders in the east made Lincoln look bad. Not until Lincoln put his winning western team of Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan in charge of the entire war in 1864 did the Union cause take a decisive turn toward victory. But it probably would not have taken that turn had not a series of Confederate defeats and retreats during the previous three years yielded to the Union armies 125,000 square miles of southern territory west of the Appalachians.

To assess Davis’s responsibility for this loss is Woodworth’s purpose. During the 125 years since the guns ceased firing, many memoirists and historians have undertaken the same task. Their appraisals have tended to fall into one of two sharply opposed camps: Davis’s admirers and Davis’s critics. One camp blames incompetent, self-serving, or willful generals and Davis’s political opponents for Confederate disasters; the other blames Davis himself, sometimes almost echoing Davis’s contemporary southern critics who called him at one time or another “false and hypocritical … miserable, stupid, one-eyed, dyspeptic, arrogant tyrant … cold, haughty, peevish, narrow-minded, pig-headed, malignant … a little, conceited, hypocritical, sniveling, canting, malicious, ambitious knave and fool.”4

Woodworth considers the many biographies of Davis “a disappointing lot. It is doubtful that any other historical figure has been the subject of so much poor scholarship and poor writing.” Woodworth has written a lucid, well-informed, temperate, and balanced study—so balanced that at times he sounds banal. Davis had a sound grasp of strategy—but he slighted the west in favor of Virginia. His “decision to allow Lee to go north” in the invasion that led to Gettysburg, instead of reinforcing the western armies under Joseph Johnston “was a grave mistake”—yet Lee and his army were the Confederacy’s best, so “it is hard to fault Davis for betting on this combination rather than the vague and inscrutable Johnston.” Davis was hardworking and conscientious, “but it can also be said that the Confederate president’s frail health and habit of working and worrying himself sick were among his major shortcomings,” for on many occasions he was ill abed when vigorous leadership was needed. Davis was “hesitant and indecisive…. Such vacillation on the part of Davis can be seen somewhere in most of the Confederacy’s great failures”—but, on the other hand,

He made many good decisions at a time when a mistake would have been fatal…. Few could have done so well…. If every southerner—or even all of the South’s generals—had performed as well as Davis did, it is difficult to imagine how the South could have lost.

This evenhandedness leaves one confused about where Woodworth really stands. Was Davis a good commander in chief who failed only because his task was hopeless? The reader must decide. The author’s only clear answer is that Davis did a better job than most of his generals in the western theater, who were caught up in rivalries, jealousies, backbiting. On three important occasions intra-Confederate feuding turned southern tactical successes into strategic defeats—after the battles of Perryville (October 8, 1862), Murfreesboro (December 31, 1862–January 1863), and Chickamauga (September 19–20, 1863). In each case a clique of corps and division commanders set themselves against the Confederate commanding officer General Braxton Bragg, each side blaming the other and intriguing to get one another removed from command. These unseemly rows landed on Davis’s desk and twice caused him to make the long trip from Richmond to army headquarters to try to straighten out the mess.

Woodworth finds fault with Davis for allowing personal friendship to prevent him from purging incompetent or malcontent generals. There is nothing new in this; historians have long criticized Davis for keeping Bragg in command long after he had forfeited the confidence of his army. But Woodworth offers a startlingly new interpretation: he defends Bragg and damns his adversaries. Davis, he argues, was right to keep Bragg—he should have kept him longer—but wrong in not firing or transferring Bragg’s foes, especially Leonidas Polk. Woodworth is the only historian I know of who has championed Braxton Bragg. In contrast to his equivocating analysis of Davis, with Bragg he goes out on limb and takes a stand: Bragg was probably the Confederacy’s best general in the western theater, certainly better than Joseph Johnston, Davis’s nemesis who finally succeeded Bragg in command and retreated all the way to Atlanta before Davis removed him—six weeks too late, in Woodworth’s judgment.

The author’s critical dissection of the defects of anti-Bragg generals gives his book an analytical bite lacking in the discussion of Davis himself. But the defense of Bragg is unconvincing. Nearly every corps and division commander who served under Bragg—as well as many junior officers and men in the ranks—considered him a martinet, quarrelsome and acerbic in personality, moody and unpredictable in action, a man who unfairly blamed others for his failures. Can they all be wrong? It seems more likely that there was indeed something wrong with Bragg.

A similar verdict of “not proven” must be imposed on the effort by Wallace Schutz and Walter Trenerry to rehabilitate the reputation of Union General John Pope. He too was relegated to the scrap heap of failed Civil War generals after the humiliating defeat of the army he commanded at the Second Battle of Bull Run, August 29–30, 1862. A measure of Pope’s image is that the two things most remembered about him were first, that he wrote he was dispatching important orders from “headquarters in the saddle,” which caused wags to comment that his headquarters were where his hindquarters should have been (an ancient military joke), and second, that another general remarked, upon receiving an order from Pope, that “I don’t care for John Pope one pinch of owl dung!”

Schutz and Trennery provide plenty of evidence for those traits of Pope that failed to endear him to colleagues—boastfulness, argumentativeness, a scheming ambition that pulled political strings to get ahead, a tendency to undercut rivals by snide insinuations. But they maintain that Pope was more sinned against than sinning. After being brought to Virginia following his success commanding a small army in the western theater, Pope got off on the wrong foot with his eastern troops, saying that their record compared unfavorably with that of the western Union armies. He then made another serious mistake when he openly criticized General George B. McClellan and his Army of the Potomac, which Lee had just driven away from Richmond in the Seven Days battles. McClellan did not like Pope in any case and this incident may have had an effect on his reluctance to help him in battle. When McClellan was ordered to transfer his troops to northern Virginia to reinforce Pope, he delayed and held back. McClellan even suggested that while Pope was fighting Lee near Manassas it might be best “to leave Pope to get out of his own scrape” and keep all of McClellan’s own troops in the Washington defenses.

Two of McClellan’s divisions that did fight at Second Bull Run were commanded by Fitz John Porter, who made no secret of his contempt for Pope. Pope was a Republican; McClellan and Porter as well as several other highranking officers in the Army of the Potomac were Democrats; Schutz and Trennery show how the the Union command in Virginia had become deeply embroiled in partisan politics as well as personal antipathies. During the first day of the battle near Bull Run, Porter disobeyed Pope’s order to attack the right flank of Stonewall Jackson’s corps because, he later said, there were other Confederate troops facing his front lines that would have raked his flank if he had tried to obey the order. For this, Porter was subsequently court-martialed and cashiered from the army. The verdict was reversed twenty years after the war when a new hearing decided that Long-street’s corps had indeed arrived in front of Porter’s force—though Porter could still be criticized for doing nothing while the rest of Pope’s army was fighting desperately nearby. But the conclusion expressed by Schutz and Trenerry goes far beyond the evidence:

If Porter had attacked when he should have, Jackson’s line would have collapsed and Pope would have won his battle…. The real cause of [Porter’s] inaction was almost certainly a tacit understanding among the Democrats of the Army of the Potomac not to allow Pope a victory that would make him overshadow the Democrats’ idol, McClellan.

Lincoln might have agreed with part of this interpretation; he told his private secretary that McClellan had “acted badly in this matter…. [He] wanted Pope defeated.”5 Yet the President kept McClellan in command of the combined armies and exiled Pope to Minnesota to fight Indians. This was Lincoln’s “abandonment” of Pope. From the account of Schutz and Trennery, it looks that way. By retaining McClellan in command, Lincoln acted against the advice of a majority of his cabinet. But the President really had no choice. The troops were on the edge of mutiny against Pope, whom they hated for his tendency to denigrate them; they idolized McClellan. “There is no man in the Army who can lick these troops into shape as well as” McClellan, said Lincoln. “If he can’t fight himself, he excels in making others ready to fight.”6 This was true; it was the dilemma Lincoln faced as commander in chief, a dilemma not fully resolved until he brought Grant from the West a year and a half later. He could not have resolved it by keeping Pope in command, as the authors seem to think. Their analysis has moved Pope’s reputation one small notch higher, but stubborn facts that they overlook or minimize prevent it from going further.

Christopher Phillips, far from wanting to rescue the reputation of General Nathaniel Lyon, wants to darken it. A wiry, headstrong Connecticut Yankee, Lyon was unusual among professional army officers for having strong convictions against slavery. Lyon’s service in Kansas territory during the border wars between antislavery settlers and Missourians who tried to force slavery into the territory intensified his dislike of what he termed “the overbearing domination of the pro-slavery people.” When the Civil War began, Lyon was a captain stationed at the US arsenal in St. Louis, the largest arsenal in the slave states, containing 60,000 muskets and other arms whose possession would be a prize of incalculable value to the Confederacy. Missourians had rejected secession, but their secessionist governor hoped to overturn that decision and to seize the arsenal for the South. He reckoned without Lyon and Frank Blair, brother of Lincoln’s postmaster general and a congressman from St. Louis, who pulled strings in Washington to get Lyon promoted to command over the heads of two higher-ranking officers in Missouri, both of them suspected of Southern or at least neutralist sympathies. Lyon enrolled St. Louis Unionists into federal service and captured the camp of the pro-Confederate militia. This action set off riots in the city that subsided only after four soldiers and forty-four civilians were killed.

These events divided and inflamed Missouri. Efforts by conservatives to arrange a truce between Lyon’s Union forces and Confederate sympathizers who had joined a pro-secession militia broke down when Lyon told the governor that

rather than concede to the State of Missouri for one single instant the right to dictate to my Government in any matter…. I would see you … and every man, woman, and child in the State dead and buried. This means war.”7

Lyon drove the militia to the southwest corner of Missouri where, reinforced by Confederate regiments from Arkansas and Louisiana, they hammered the outnumbered Unionists in the battle of Wilson’s Creek on August 10, 1861. Lyon fell dead of a bullet in the heart. The first Northern general killed in the war, he was lionized as a martyr-hero who had saved Missouri for the Union.

But Phillips portrays Lyon as a clumsy dogmatist who smashed the delicate balance of neutrality in Missouri and launched the state into four years of vicious guerrilla warfare. “More than any other single individual,” Phillips writes, “Nathaniel Lyon bore responsibility for this fratricidal tragedy…. Because of his own twisted sense of duty, he plunged … a neutral Missouri into a war … that otherwise might not have erupted.” This argument is untenable. The notion that Missouri could have remained “neutral” is at best naive. Moderates in Maryland and Kentucky also hoped at first to keep their states neutral, but they too were soon “plunged” into the war—and not by Lyon. Neutrality was impossible in such an all-embracing internecine conflict as the Civil War. As border states, Missouri and the others were certain to become the scene of military operations. Their citizens no more had the luxury of remaining neutral than did Robert E. Lee—who would have preferred to—but had to decide to go “either with or against my section.”8 He decided, and so would Missourians if Nathaniel Lyon had never lived.

Phillips attributes Lyon’s behavior not to ideology or patriotism, but to personality. He was “violent, dogmatic,” with an “explosive temper that would [often] rage out of control.” His concept of justice demanded vengeance against evil-doers. This drove his “personal vendetta” in Missouri “wrought by a blind hatred of the nation’s secessionists that obfuscated all other possible consequences beyond the fulfillment of his own personal vengeance.”

Phillips’s grounds for this interpretation, it must be said, consist of about 30 percent evidence and 70 percent creative imagination. The quality of the author’s understanding of military operations, in particular, can be illustrated by his treatment of the campaign that culminated in Lyon’s death. Having defeated the pro-Confederate militia in a skirmish at Boonville and gained control of the Missouri River line, Phillips writes, Lyon had “accomplished all that was strategically necessary to secure Missouri.” Lyon decided to push on after the rebels only because of his need to exact justice through vengeful punishment: “He was no longer directing a military campaign; Lyon was now leading a punitive crusade.” Phillips’s view of strategy is a rather strange one. He evidently thinks that Lyon could have left nearly two thirds of the state open to the enemy and allow that enemy the leisure to regroup and recruit after a defeat. Lyon’s strategy of vigorous pursuit and aggressive offense, as subsequent Civil War experience proved, was precisely the strategy necessary to win the war.

Despite my disagreements with some of the interpretations in these three books, I find them to be among the most interesting and provocative of the continuing flood of studies in Civil War military history. Even when dubious, their arguments challenge the reader to respond by reconsidering conventional opinions about the war and its generals. And in their attention to the national politics as well as the internal intrigues of Civil War armies, they deal with matters that are too often neglected in Civil War studies. It was, as the three books make clear, a war fought by contentious and fallible human beings, not by war gamers on a map.

  1. 1

    Halleck to William T. Sherman, April 29, 1864, in War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, Vol. 34, Part 3, pp. 332–333.

  2. 2

    Diary of Gideon Nelles, Secretary of the Navy under Lincoln and Johnson, edited by John T. Morse, Jr. (Houghton Mifflin, 1911), pp. 1, 114, 109.

  3. 3

    David M. Potter, “Jefferson Davis and the Political Factors in Confederate Defeat,” in David Donald, editor, Why the North Won the Civil War (Louisiana State University Press, 1960), p. 112.

  4. 4

    Quoted in E. Merton Coulter, The Confederate States of America 1861–1865 (Louisiana State University Press, 1950), pp. 375, 386; Emory M. Thomas, The Confederate Nation 1861–1865 (Harper and Row, 1979), p. 142; James Z. Rabun, “Alexander Stephens and Jefferson Davis,” American Historical Review, 58 (1953), p. 307.

  5. 5

    Lincoln and the Civil War in the Diaries and Letters of John Hay, edited by Tyler Dennett (Dodd Mead, 1939), p. 45.

  6. 6

    Lincoln and the Civil War in the Diaries and Letters of John Hay, p. 47.

  7. 7

    Thomas L. Snead, The Fight for Missouri from the Election of Lincoln to the Death of Lyon (Scribner’s, 1886), pp. 199–200.

  8. 8

    Allan Nevins, The War for the Union, Vol. I: The Improvised War (Scribner’s, 1959), p. 10.

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