Victors in Blue – How Union Generals Fought the Confederates, Battled Each Other, and Won the Civil War
By Albert Castel with Brooks D. Simpson
(Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2011), 362 pages.
Reviewed by Emil Posey, Tennessee Valley Civil War Round Table
This is a book about the maturation of senior Union leadership and how, despite themselves, they managed to win the war. At times it seemed like the Union raised incompetence to an art form – Antietam, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville come immediately to mind – but to be fair, when the Civil War started, both sides had to learn their trade at the larger organizational level (divisions, corps, and armies). Many key leaders, north and south, were West Point cadets, and most of them had gained some experience in large unit maneuver warfare in the War with Mexico. Still, the Union’s learning curve seemed to be shallower, at least as compared to its Confederate counterparts’, and that climb to competence was made against a backdrop of egos, animosities, rivalries, and ambitions. And therein lays the tale Albert Castel and Brooks Simpson tell – “the war within a war that occurred among the top Union generals and how it affected their conduct of military operations.”
This is not a detailed description of the ebb and flow of the war per se. As the authors point out (pg.195), “…the primary purpose of this book is not narration but interpretation designed to demonstrate why certain battles or campaigns were decisive in determining the outcome of the Civil War and thus the status, then and afterward, of the Northern generals who won them or in some cases lost them.” It does walk us through chronologically the major campaigns of the war in both the Eastern and Western theaters, but the central theme is the interplay of relationships among senior Union leaders.
There is much here to intrigue Civil War enthusiasts, particularly those (like me) that have less-than-expert knowledge of the war. The cast of characters was selected on the basis of their contribution to various key Union victories. Discussion then revolves around four more criteria: (1) why he won that battle or campaign (and this can cover a lot of ground, from superior skill on his part, to brilliant feats of arms of his subordinate generals, to sheer chance), (2) what his objectives were and how he set about realizing them, (3) the degree to which he accomplished as much as could be reasonably expected under the circumstances, and (4) if not, what he could and should have done on the basis of information available to him at the time, and why he did not do it. The descriptions of the battles and campaigns are sufficient to put into context the broader discussion of these criteria.
With those criteria, Castel and Brooks have a wide catch. They start with William Starke Rosecrans (and McClellan) and in western Virginia and the Battle of Rich Mountain, which resulted in Robert E. Lee’s failure in his first field command (at least in terms of keeping Virginia whole). They follow this with Henry Wager Halleck and Ulysses Grant. Given Halleck’s position and stature within Union political circles and his disfavor of Grant, it was no minor feat for Grant to persevere to the levels of command that he eventually reached. This interplay alone is worth the price of the book, but they don’t stop there. They go on to discuss William T. Sherman, George B. McClellan, Rosecrans again (actually he makes several appearances), John S. Schofield, George H. Thomas, and Phil Sheridan. There are other players in this story – Joseph Hooker, John Pope, Fitz John Porter, among others – but they are in supporting roles. Depending upon one’s predilections, you might be disappointed at some of these being included and other not, but the plate is full enough.
This is an even-handed and substantive discussion of these Union leaders and the interpersonal relationships that affected their careers. There are a couple of downsides to the book. One is maps. They include maps of each major campaign, but the detail is somewhat lacking and, I have confess, there are never enough maps and never enough detail for me. I also noted a spate of editorial mistakes clumped together towards the middle of the book. These were not typos, but factual statements that are incorrect: Cashtown, Pennsylvania is not east of Gettysburg (it’s about eight miles northwest), Reynold’s I Corps (being led by Abner Doubleday following Reynold’s death) did not deploy east of Gettysburg while in the process of relieve Buford’s troopers on Seminary Ridge, Milliken’s Bend is not northeast of Vicksburg (it’s northwest-to-north), and Porter’s gunboats attacked Grand Gulf on April 29, not May 29. These are not horrendous in themselves, but they do beg the question of how many others escaped my notice.
The biggest let down, though, was the Epilogue, The Victors in Blue – Who and Why. It is all too short. It doesn’t bring the story together. It isn’t climatic. It adds little if anything to the main body.
Still, this is a valuable read (and easily read) with its focus on leaders more than events. For novices and intermediates, it’s a great overview of the war. For those more knowledgeable, even for you it should be well worth your time
This is a volume in the Modern War Studies, a broad series published by University Press of Kansas. Castel is an accomplished Civil War historian and author, with a long list of books to his credit: books about Bloody Bill Anderson, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Sterling Price, William Quantrill, Civil War Kansas, the Atlanta Campaign, and The Army of Tennessee, to name a few. Brooks has contributed to several books as well, on such topics as the first year of the civil war, Gettysburg, Chattanooga and Shiloh, and authored two books on Grant, among others.