[McClellan and the Union High Command, 1861-1863: Leadership Gaps That Cost a Timely Victory by Jeffrey W. Green (McFarland 800-253-2187, 2017). Softcover, 2 maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:185/214. ISBN:978-1-4766-6573-3. $35]
As we all know, the campaign and battlefield leadership abilities of various famous Civil War generals remain topics of earnest debate in the literature, but Jeffrey Green's McClellan and the Union High Command, 1861-1863 aims further up the chain of command to address theater-level strategy, specifically why the Union juggernaut failed to achieve early victory in the East. The popular villain of this period remains General George B. McClellan, but Green convincingly sees the Union high command derailed by the failings of a much broader group of military and civilian leaders, whose undefined roles and clashing ideologies, aims, egos, and ambitions rendered rapid success elusive.
The book's first chapter capably covers the parallel military traditions that existed during the antebellum republic. On one side was a professional military establishment governed by the science of war (later embodied by West Point and its graduates) and leading a small regular army. Existing at the same time, and frequently operating in direct opposition to the assumptions of military professionalism, was the traditional American democratic distrust of standing armies. From this viewpoint, during national emergencies the country would rely on an expansible army of militia and volunteers, as well as the natural genius of citizen-generals to lead them. As seen by the development of the Third System of American defense policy, both traditions would be maintained side by side through much of the first half of the nineteenth century.
As the following chapter shows, the above military traditions would immediately clash during the Civil War and contribute mightily to Union high command dysfunction. In an atmosphere of intense mutual distrust, Radical Republican elements of the political leadership chastised the Democrat-heavy military establishment for being too soft on the enemy. They would lobby powerfully for what would later be known as "hard war," while the Lincoln administration and the army would initially see eye to eye on a more conservative military policy of conciliation. This contentious milieu worked against consistent and coherent military planning.
The binding theme of Green's study revolves around the repeated violation by all parties involved (president, cabinet, lawmakers, and generals alike) of the integrity of the chain of command, the consistent unity and integration of which was necessary for the Army of the Potomac to function both in field and as the instrument of the civilian leadership and policy makers. General McClellan repeatedly bypassed General in Chief Winfield Scott to confer with Lincoln directly and failed to appreciate that his high-profile job had a significant political component that could not be safely deflected. Worse, Lincoln himself constantly went around the chain of command and, in doing so, created a toxic environment that meant army officers of all ranks felt themselves free to approach him directly without conferring first with their immediate superiors. As the book well demonstrates, this bore bitter fruit when the generals of William B. Franklin's Left Grand Division (Franklin himself and generals Smith, Cochrane, and Newton) conspired against army commander Ambrose Burnside and directly approached the president seeking Burnside's ouster. Lincoln also allowed Joseph Hooker, no stranger to intrigue himself, to skip communication with General in Chief Henry Halleck and report to the president directly, which created obvious problems in the military chain of command. The president also constantly interfered in field operations (to the army's great detriment on the Peninsula and in the Shenandoah in 1862), and had a almost irrational opinion over what was required to safeguard the capital. Senate and House Radicals sought the removal of those generals deemed insufficiently aggressive or loyal, and the prosecution of Democrat-generals like Charles Stone and Fitz John Porter created a fearful and mistrusting officer corps that some argue was rendered extra-cautious by such malignant threats from above. All of these factors made it impossible for the Army of the Potomac to operate in an efficient manner during the first half of the war.
Green does remind us, though perhaps not forcefully enough in the book, that simple institutional and individual actor inexperience could often explain high command disruption just as readily as willful malice and naked ambition. All occupants of the chain of command, from the commander in chief down to the lowest ranking general, were learning highly complex jobs on the fly (most without the benefit of any particularly useful precedent). Given that so many Civil War leaders were essentially defining their roles in a near vacuum, serious mistakes on the scale of those that occurred were likely inevitable events.
Getting back to McClellan specifically, historians generally acknowledge that Lincoln's interference hamstrung McClellan's army on the Peninsula to some degree or another, but they still assign the vast preponderance of responsibility for the defeat to the general's mishandling of military operations. Green compellingly resets the scale to apportion more equitable blame between the army commander and the civilian leadership.
The author's statements in the conclusion that "(t)he failure of the Peninsula Campaign also demonstrated that fighting offensively in the East was the wrong strategy" and, in this, "both Lincoln and McClellan had got it wrong" (pg. 184) are both curious in that Green himself concedes earlier in the book that political realities (especially given the close proximity of opposing capitals) made active offensive operations in the Virginia theater imperative. Green is also a bit inconsistent on the issue of waging a conservative war as being "unrealistic" and never able to lead to victory. Beyond being a classic case of arguing backward from a known result to speculate on an untried unknown, it also unduly discounts the immense political pressures placed on Lincoln, especially in regard to his war effort's critically important loyal proslavery Border State constituency, to adopt a more limited approach to the war in the early period. Perhaps the greatest drawback of Green's analysis is its lack of recognition that the other side also had 'something to do with it'. The book's insightful enumeration of the Union cause's self-defeating "leadership gaps" is certainly instructive, but it might also be true that the highly motivated and well-led Army of the Northern Virginia was a contributing factor at least as important to Union failure to achieve victory during the first two years of war.
To what degree Green's argument collection enters into promised 'new areas' of debate will likely depend on the background of the reader. None are entirely original to the point that well-read students will not recognize existing related observations and discussions in print, but, as with all in-depth examinations of complicated questions, there are always individual differences when its comes to arrangement and weight of factors involved. Admirably avoiding the tired but still popular narrative of a brilliant Lincoln who created early on the conditions and formula for military success in the East only to have a series of promising commanders fail him until he 'found a general' in U.S. Grant, the book demonstrates an uncommon appreciation of the complexity of sources behind the Union high command's startling dysfunction during 1861-63. Green's ultimate conclusion that an ineffective high command was the primary factor among many in the Union's failure to achieve early victory in the East is compelling in many ways. Recommended.