The War within the Union High Command; Politics and Generalship during the Civil War

By Thomas J. Goss

October 2003; 320 pages, 1 figure, 6 x 9
Modern War Studies; Cloth ISBN 978-0-7006-1263-5, $34.95



The War within the Union High Command; Politics and Generalship during the Civil War By Thomas J. Goss
The War within the Union High Command; Politics and Generalship during the Civil War
By Thomas J. Goss

With Union armies poised to launch the final campaigns against the Confederacy in 1864, three of its five commanders were “political generals”—appointed officers with little or no military training. Army chief of staff Henry Halleck thought such generals jeopardized the lives of men under their command and he and his peers held them in utter contempt. Historians have largely followed suit.

Thomas Goss, however, offers a new and more positive assessment of the leadership qualities of these Northern commanders. In the process, he cuts through the stereotypes of political generals as superfluous and largely inept tacticians, ambitious schemers, and military failures. Goss examines the reasons why the selection process yielded so many generals who lacked military backgrounds and explores the tense and often bitter relationships among political and professional officers to illuminate the dynamics of Union generalship during the war. As this book reveals, professional generals viewed the war as a military problem requiring battlefield solutions, while appointees (and President Lincoln) focused more emphatically on the broader political contours of the struggle. The resulting friction often eroded Northern morale and damaged the North’s war effort.

Goss challenges the traditional idea that success was measured only on the battlefield by demonstrating significant links between military success and the achievement of the Union’s political objectives. Examining commanders like Benjamin Butler, Nathaniel Banks, John McClernand, John Fremont, and Franz Sigel, Goss shows how many filled vital functions by raising troops, boosting homefront morale, securing national support for the war—and sometimes even achieving significant success on the battlefield. Comparing these generals with their professional counterparts reveals that all had vital roles to play in helping Lincoln prosecute the war and that West Pointers, despite their military training, were not necessarily better prepared for waging war.

Whether professional or appointed, Goss reminds us, all generals could be considered political inasmuch as war is a continuation of politics by other means. He shows us that far more was asked of Union commanders than to simply win battles and in so doing urges a new appreciation of those appointed leaders who were thrust into the maelstrom of the Civil War.

“Union ‘political generals’ were so inept, the story goes, that they should never have led armies. Not so, says Goss, whose argument is sure to create as much debate among modern readers as it did among wartime participants. . . . An important book.”–John F. Marszalek, author of Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order

“A significant contribution that clarifies and sharpens our understanding of the strengths, weaknesses, and accomplishments of these generals, while at the same time providing a more complex vision of Union command overall.”–Herman Hattaway, author of Shades of Blue and Gray

“A must read for all serious students of the Civil War and the institutional development of the United States Army.”–Albert E. Castel, author of Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864

THOMAS J. GOSS, a major in the U.S. Army with a Ph.D. in history from Ohio State University, taught military history at West Point and is currently a strategic planner for Homeland Defense at U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs.

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