Lincoln’s Political Generals by David Work (review)
- Ohio Valley History
- The Filson Historical Society and Cincinnati Museum Center
- Volume 10, Number 1, Spring 2010
- pp. 98-99
- View Citation
- Additional Information
BOOK REVIEWS 98 OHIO VALLEY HISTORY T he fracture between North and South was the clearest manifestation of the intense divisions that beleaguered American society in 1861. But the two geographic sections had a host of divisive issues and sparring groups within their separate borders as well. In the North, these potential schisms were particularly volatile. Class, ethnic, and racial tensions were rife. Republicans and Democrats opposed each other, while struggling mightily to keep the disparate components of their own parties unified. Policy makers differed on how to approach the war and how best to achieve a lasting peace. And in the midst of all, President Abraham Lincoln sought to keep a section together long enough to reunite a nation. In Lincoln’s Political Generals, David Work analyzes one of Lincoln’s solutions to that dilemma. An expansion of Work’s dissertation , which won the Hay-Nicolay Prize of the Abraham Lincoln Association and the Abraham Lincoln Institute, the book examines the Civil War careers of numerous “political generals” (or “citizen generals”). These men were placed in positions of military leadership “primarily on the basis of their political influence” (2). Although a few of these men had prior fighting experience or some military training, their chief credentials consisted of their political ideology or ethnic affiliation. While Work estimates the number of men that could be considered political generals at over one hundred, his sample includes sixteen citizen generals. Of these men, eight were Republicans and eight were Democrats; two were Irish and two were German. Work argues that the political generals “benefited the Federal cause” even if they “compiled mixed records” (5). He defends Lincoln’s selection of the men; there was strong historical precedent for appointing citizen generals , from the American Revolution through the Mexican War, and at any rate there were not enough West Point professionals available to fill the Union’s generalships. But Lincoln did not intend for his political generals to be merely battlefield commanders. Rather, he used them in the war’s many arenas of administration, government , and political negotiation. Lincoln’s Political Generals David Work David Work. Lincoln’s Political Generals. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009. 320 pp. ISBN: 9780252034459 (cloth), $34.95. BOOK REVIEWS SPRING 2010 99 Work concedes that if evaluated solely on their battlefield prowess, most of the citizen generals should be considered unmitigated failures. Amassing an impressive array of papers, letters, and military reports, Work traces the careers of the political generals through the various campaigns and in each of the theaters of war. He finds that the political generals performed best when limited to subordinate commands. When serving under a West Point-trained commander such as Grant or Sherman, citizen generals often functioned competently, and sometimes admirably , as in the case of John Logan. The chief deficiency of the political generals in these situations was their failure to get along with their professional counterparts. Jealousy and suspicion —and sometimes utter insubordination— were common between political and professional military leaders. When holding an independent command, however, political generals operated atrociously. They simply did not have the experience or training adequate for the tasks necessitated by the Civil War, and they did not learn quickly enough on the job to make up for their insufficiencies. In their defense, the same might be said about many of the professional generals. Lincoln, as Work notes, put up with headaches from many of his generals, professional and political, but political generals had more powerful friends with greater access to the president. Lincoln’s greatest shortcoming in his oversight of the citizen generals was not his selection or placement of them, but his failure to remove them from independent commands once they had demonstrated their incompetence for such positions. While Work’s analysis of the political generals ’ battlefield records is well-researched and fruitful, the real payoff of his book lies in his discussion of their influence on policy and occupation . Work devotes the last quarter of the book to the ways citizen generals set the stage for future policies toward black freedmen, ex-Confederates , black soldiers, and Reconstruction. The analysis also considers the ways in which various generals maintained support for the president...