Tennessee Valley Civil War Round Table

Education and Preservation


Challenges of Command in the Civil War: Generalship, Leadership, and Strategy at Gettysburg, Petersburg, and Beyond, Volume I: Generals and Generalship

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

Richmond Redeemed: The Siege at Petersburg, the Battles of Chaffin’s Bluff and Poplar Spring Church, September 29 – October 2, 1864

This was a pioneering study of an important military operation: in1980 the author’s approach to Civil War history was praised for its originality and value to serious students of the war. Richard Sommers was the first historian to write a tactically detailed narrative of a Civil War battle for the general audience. He was also the first historian to write about the Petersburg Campaign (aside from incidents such as the Battle of the Crater) since Major General Andrew Humphries, a participant in the campaign, wrote his history in 1883. Richmond Redeemed won numerous awards and is still regarded the definitive study of Grant’s Fifth Offensive against Petersburg and Richmond. Richard Sommers has inspired many other historians to write about Civil War battles from the tactical, small-unit, and personal points of view.
As already stated, this book analyzes Grant’s Fifth Offensive (September 29 – October 2, 1864), primarily the Battles of Chaffin’s Bluff (Fort Harrison) and Poplar Spring Church (Peebles’ Farm). The Union attack north of the James River at Chaffin’s Bluff broke through Richmond’s defenses and gave Federals their best opportunity to capture the Confederate capital. Fierce fighting by four United States Colored Troops brigades earned their soldiers thirteen Medals of Honor and marked Chaffin’s Bluff as the biggest, bloodiest battle for African-American units in the whole Civil War. The corresponding fighting outside Petersburg at Poplar Spring Church so threatened Southern supply lines that General Lee considered abandoning his Petersburg rail center six months before actually doing so. Hard fighting and skillful Confederate generalship saved both cities, and Richmond was ‘redeemed’ from capture for another half-year.

In the opening chapter, Sommers gives the reader a good idea of how the war was going for both sides at the time of the campaign, and what the opposing generals were trying to accomplish. He maintains the reader’s suspense by, in his own words “…never get[ting] ahead of myself by tipping off readers to the outcome. Readers step lively with the columns of march, charge with the brigades, man the ramparts with the defenders, plan with the generals, and struggle with those commanders to try to fathom the uncertainty of battle and of war.” He draws heavily on the personal accounts of commanders and private soldiers; using literally thousands of letters, reports, and memoirs drawn from over 100 archives throughout the nation.  His maps (and the explanations provided on each map) depict the actions down to regimental level, helping the reader to quickly understand the terrain and the troop movements.

For this Sesquicentennial re-issue of the book Sommers adds several appendixes, including a day-by-day timeline of the offensives and the Senior Officers of the Fifth Offensive, cross-referenced by State, Grade and Command. He has not just re-issued, he has re-written his book, crediting his additions or re-interpretations to over twenty years of “…new research, new writing, and most of all new thinking.” Since 2008, he taught electives and core courses to students at the U.S. Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. War College students are Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps Colonels and Lieutenant Colonels as well as Navy and Coast Guard Captains and Commanders who had demonstrated potentiality to become Generals and Admirals. Sommers presented military history, including the Petersburg Campaign, in their courses. He contributed to the officers development as senior strategic leaders, and gained valuable new insights from them “…through their real-world experience in making military history….” which contributed greatly to his understanding of generalship and high command, adding greatly to the value of his final-chapter’s analysis of the generalship of Generals Robert Lee, Ulysses Grant, A. P. Hill, Gouverneur Warren and the other commanders.

This book is highly recommended to those who want to develop an understanding of “how they fought” during this campaign as well as in the latter part of the war, or who want to understand the very important mid-point of the Petersburg Campaign.


Review by David Lady

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