Richard Sommers’ fame as a historian rests on forty years of service as the Senior Historian of the Army Heritage and Education Center, Carlisle Barracks, PA. His enduring contribution to civil war scholarship rests with his first publication, Richmond Redeemed (1981), a massive study of the Fifth Federal Offensive against Petersburg. This work set a new standard for tactical study of civil war battles and was the first of a new genre of narrative history, the ‘micro-tactical’ history (still a popular genre, represented by works such as Henry Pfantz’s Gettysburg the Second Day, and Dave Powell’s very recently published three volumes on the battle of Chickamauga).
Challenges of Command in the Civil War, first of a two-volume set, provides a distillation of his thoughts about Generalship in the American Civil War. The book is written in two parts, each composed of chapters that are nearly self-contained essays. All of them were written separately as lectures or papers delivered to the United States Army War College and various Civil War convocations. The first half of the book discusses the generalship of Grant and Lee, and these five chapters use examples drawn almost exclusively from the 1864 Virginia Overland and Petersburg Campaigns. Mr. Sommers writes more about Grant than Lee, but in discussing Lee he makes a very interesting argument: That Lee was not being overly-parochial or short-sighted when insisting on remaining in Virginia with his army throughout the war, but was correctly recognizing that Virginia, the most populous and economically developed southern state, was the actual heartland of the Confederacy.
His discussion of Grant’s generalship, the subject of four of the first five chapters, is an excellent review of the general’s strengths and weaknesses as a commander. Sommers’ does not consider Grant a genius, but delivers a very complete appreciation of Grant’s broad perspective, persistence, adaptability, and his mastery of logistics. Sommers also highlights Grant’s ability to learn from mistakes and take corrective action. Grant continuously modified his tactical and operational methods until he found the winning combination; first in the west and then in the east.
The second part of the book covers the origins and careers of Federal Army Corps Commanders between 1862 and 1865. In this section Sommers’ makes a very useful distinction between “political generals” and “citizen-soldiers.” Using chapters focused on the Battles of Antietam, Gettysburg, and the Fifth Offensive against Petersburg he shows how the senior Federal leadership changed from 1862 through 1864: From older men to younger, from career Regular Army and former politicians to citizen soldiers, from men raised suddenly and with no preparation into supreme command to men who had time to develop professionally before taking senior positions in the army. He provides very detailed background information, wartime service, and the post-war accomplishments of a very large number of Federal officers. He also provides a very short evaluation of each man.
Finally, there is one chapter devoted to those Civil War Generals (Union and Confederate) with Revolutionary War commanders as ancestors. This should interest the genealogist’s among us.
Sommers’ interpretations were developed through considerable research and consideration of other historian’s opinions, but he does not compare or contrast his ideas with those of other historians. He is at the climax of his career, and is stating his conclusions. This is a useful book for anyone interested in the generals and the generalship, mostly Federal, of the eastern theater of the American Civil War. The second volume of the set will be published soon, and will deal with grand strategy, strategy, and operations.
Reviewed by David Lady