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Albert Castel, best known for his seminal work Decision in the West (1992), has once again made a positive contribution to Civil War historiography. Victors in Blue tells the story of the generals who won the Civil War. Each man he discusses has had at least one biography, the majority wrote postwar memoirs, and the battles he details have all had numerous pages written about them. What makes Castel's work unique is that he examines how the generals who reached the highest ranks of the Union command made it there. It is a story of politics, rivalries, and, of course, war.
What Castel shows is that to understand how Ulysses S. Grant became the top Union general at the end of the war or how a man who won great victories like George Thomas gets left behind, you have to look at the whole picture. The sometimes overly simplistic narrative of Grant's rise to the top, that he simply kept winning, does not stand under the close scrutiny that Castel gives it. There are numerous factors that Castel examines. Grant had to overcome a commanding officer who did not like or trust him. His victories at Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Fort Donelson could have been career enders had there not been other events over which he had no control. Castel demonstrates the common-sense argument that one cannot understand the career of a man like Grant or any other Civil War [End Page 593] general without putting him in the context of his allies and rivals.
Castel uses published sources almost exclusively. He uses the generals' memoirs, published collections of letters, and what other historians have written. That, however, is to be expected in this kind of work. Castel is offering a new way to look at oft-examined events and that does not necessarily involve finding long-forgotten sources in dusty archives. What Castel has done is to take well-researched puzzle pieces and fit them together into an interesting picture.
Castel might be criticized for concentrating purely on the generals of the North when he could have been writing about the common man and social movements. That is, after all, out of fashion. His arguments successfully counter such criticisms. He shows that the decisions of a handful of men, sometimes based on purely personal or political reasons, had a profound effect on millions of people and the future of this nation.
Victors in Blue is the work of a senior historian who not only tries to give the reader a new way of looking at a well-trodden subject but also offers us his opinions accrued from decades of writing and research. In those opinions, there is plenty of material to spark debates and controversy. His argument that Rosecrans was one of the great generals of the war and that only bad luck and poor relations with his superiors kept him from being the senior general at the end of the war is sure to spark debate. He is also rather harsh on Sherman and Grant, showing that so much of their success had little to do with their military skill but with good luck and events outside of their control. He also offers an interesting evaluation of Halleck, arguing that Halleck's career stalled simply because Lincoln did not understand the role of a chief of staff. Lincoln expected him to take personal command of the Army of the Potomac in addition to his responsibilities to all Union forces.
Castel's work is extremely well written and entertaining. It is one of those rare books that can be enjoyed by the novice and yet still offer a great deal to the professional. [End Page 594]
Wesley Moody teaches history at Florida State College at Jacksonville, Florida. He is the author of Demon of the Lost Cause: Sherman and Civil War History (2011).