[Corps Commanders in Blue: Union Major Generals in the Civil War edited by Ethan S. Rafuse (Louisiana State University Press, 2014). Hardcover, maps, notes, index. 308 pp. ISBN:978-0-8071-5702-2 $45]
In Corps Commanders in Blue: Union Major Generals in the Civil War general editor Ethan Rafuse has assembled quite a collection of writers, with a good balance among armies and regions. The volume's contributors consider the corps level careers of eight prominent Union generals, most subjected to closer examination in the context of a specific campaign. There is John Hennessy on Fitz John Porter, Tom Clemens on J.K.F. Mansfield at Antietam, Kenneth Noe on Charles Gilbert at Perryville, Christopher Stowe on George Gordon Meade as corps commander, Steven Woodworth on James McPherson during the Vicksburg Campaign, Mark Snell on William Franklin in the Trans-Mississippi, Rafuse himself on Joe Hooker in North Georgia, and finally Brooks Simpson on Hancock and the Overland Campaign. Rafuse also contributes a brief but insightful introduction to the development of the corps level of command during the war and an appreciation of all the political baggage that often went with the job.
Just how consequential the political element could be is front and center in John Hennessy's essay on the rise and fall of Fitz John Porter. Much has been written about Porter's close association with George McClellan, his able handling of V Corps on the Virginia Peninsula and during the Seven Days, and the controversies surrounding his role during 2nd Bull Run that later led to his court martial and dismissal from the service. Hennessy ably highlights the main points of Porter's service and subsequent trials, emphasizing that an innocent man was convicted on politically motivated charges while also reminding readers how the general's careless speech and writings made him one of his own worst enemies.
More politically astute was George Meade, who wisely kept his Democratic convictions to himself, staying out of career killing disputes while cultivating army and politician friends who might support his professional advancement. Christopher Stowe summarizes Meade's competent six months as a corps commander in fine fashion. According to Stowe, while Meade projected an offensive mindset to his colleagues and superiors and successfully navigated the policy transformations wrought by an especially turbulent 1862-63 political period, he never fully reconciled himself to the reality of civilian criticism and interference with military commanders.
Joseph K.F. Mansfield is best known for being mortally wounded during the opening moments of his XII Corps attack at Antietam (and little else) but Tom Clemens helpfully reminds us that Mansfield was generally held in high regard by his peers. Graduating 2nd in his class at West Point, Mansfield directed the construction of many coastal defense projects as an officer in the Corps of Engineers. His Mexican War performance was highly praised and his inspection tours of army posts beyond the Mississippi River were lauded for their keen analysis and attention to detail. Unfortunately, this "staff officer" reputation could not get him a prominent field command in the early moments of the Civil War, though he was placed in command of the Department of Washington. While most Civil War writers contend that Antietam was Mansfield's first taste of command in the field, Clemens notes that the general had previously led brigade and division sized formations in SE Virginia before being assigned to XII Corps in September 1862. Ultimately, we'll never know how Mansfield would have performed as a corps commander or how high he could have risen.
In an extraordinary move to fill the command void in the wake of the murder of William "Bull" Nelson by fellow Union general Jefferson C. Davis, Charles Gilbert was promoted from captain to acting corps commander by Don Carlos Buell when Buell found existing options personally unpalatable. Kenneth Noe's essay traces Gilbert's ascent to corps command and equally precipitous fall after his abysmal performance at the Battle of Perryville. It is easy to pile on the seemingly undeserving Gilbert for his personal and professional flaws but Noe prefers to view Gilbert's failings as just one among many in a dysfunctional Union response to the 1862 Kentucky Campaign.
It is common for leaders at the top, be they army commanders or business CEOs, to play favorites with subordinates and Grant and Sherman protege James McPherson is the subject of Steven Woodworth's essay. An objective case for the rapid advancement of the inexperienced McPherson to corps command for the Vicksburg Campaign would be a difficult one to make. With his account of Grant carefully doling out responsibility to McPherson and being personally present during the biggest moments (like Champion Hill), Woodworth demonstrates the value of a professionally nurturing command atmosphere to the development of young officers. He contrasts this environment with that of O.O. Howard's initiation to corps command, a situation in which Howard was placed in difficult circumstances and made a scapegoat for failure. That said, both Grant and Sherman could act in an exceedingly petty manner toward junior officers they didn't personally like or trust, only grudgingly conceding praise when due and magnifying the significance of relatively minor foibles and mistakes. Ethan Rafuse's chapter on Joseph Hooker and XX Corps during the Atlanta Campaign highlights just such a situation. Rafuse's account of XX Corps's record during the campaign is excellent, concise and razor sharp. He makes a strong case that the military performances of Hooker and his command were among the very best in Sherman's army group. However, Sherman did not see it that way, constantly criticizing Hooker on rather weak grounds and consistently withholding praise and credit. Of course, Hooker himself deserves some responsibility for the poisonous relationship with his open criticism of his commander and foolish manner in which he allowed his ego to make him believe he could win a power struggle with Sherman.
In taking on the much maligned figure of William B. Franklin, Mark Snell deserves credit for eschewing the well trodden battlefields of Virginia to instead assess Franklin's tenure as head of XIX Corps in the Trans-Mississippi. Snell's assessments of Franklin's leadership in 1863-64 campaigns in Louisiana and Texas are fairly conventional but the author also frequently emphasizes the general's continued faith in conciliatory policies directed toward civilians caught in the path of war, an attitude in stark contrast to that of the westerners in Nathaniel Banks's Department of the Gulf. Distinct from the rest of the Red River Campaign literature which concedes to engineer Franklin no credit for the success of the wing dams effectively used to convey the navy over the falls at Alexandria, Snell reminds readers that Franklin's approval and support were key to the project.
Finally, Brooks Simpson assesses the performance of Winfield Scott Hancock during the Overland Campaign. He astutely points out that prior to 1864 Hancock didn't have any real record as a corps commander on the offensive. The general is properly celebrated as a Gettysburg hero but his role there was reactive and more of a high level "fire brigade" floater than true corps commander (direction of II Corps being largely left to John Gibbon). Hancock's handling of II Corps during the Overland Campaign introduces serious doubt as to his level of competence, questions that only increased during the ensuing Richmond-Petersburg Campaign. How much the Gettsyburg wound hampered the general's style and his ability to fulfill his duties is open to debate but Simpson also notes that Grant bears much responsibility for running II Corps into the ground with repeated placement of Hancock's men at the point of Grant's spear.
In general, the essays are not weighted heavily with revisionist interpretation or new information that might enhance or rehabilitate traditionally constructed reputations. Instead, the essays in Corps Commanders in Blue are solid, well researched glimpses into the range of intellectual, military, personal, physical and political challenges of Civil War corps command, all examined through the lens of a select group of major generals and illustrative campaigns. As so, the volume is highly recommended.
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