Wednesday, August 26, 2009


[Lincoln's Political Generals by David Work (University of Illinois Press, 2009). Cloth, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total: 234/287. ISBN:978-0-252-03445-9 $34.95]

While the reputations of the volunteer political generals appointed to high command by Abraham Lincoln continue to suffer in the popular literature, recent scholars have placed less emphasis on the high profile military failures of these men and more on the consideration of their contributions in the spheres of civil administration and politics. Thomas Goss1 and now David Work in his new book Lincoln's Political Generals reject the traditional military-centric interpretation, arguing instead that a host of factors (military and non-military) need to be applied to any proper assessment of those in command. Both Goss and Work believe the president's pragmatic strategy of appointing politicians to posts of the highest military responsibility was an overall success.

One of the difficulties in examining the relative merits of the policy is in defining exactly what made an officer a political general. Another is determining the scope of the inquiry -- does one do an in-depth study of a small number of generals or a necessarily more cursory glance through a larger sample. In both cases, selection bias is a significant concern. Goss's 2003 study involved a small number of generals (six), while Lincoln's Political Generals looks at sixteen general officers2. Whereas Goss took great care in categorizing his generals, Work applies no strict parameters to his own selection criteria, but he does come up with a well balanced regional, political, and ethnic representation. Also, while Goss's study examined at length the dual (professional-amateur) military tradition in America, Work avoids repeating this developed theme and instead expands upon several other important points pertaining to the military and non-military roles of politicians in uniform.

While one might quibble with some of his battle and campaign details and interpretations, Work's narrative supports several insightful observations. The author's mostly judicious summaries of each general's military career clearly demonstrate that political generals appointed to substantial independent commands (e.g. Fremont, Banks3, Butler, and Sigel) almost always failed. Only two generals, Blair and Logan, were successful corps commanders, and only Logan really showed any potential for army command. On the other hand, significant battlefield success could be had when political generals were placed in subordinate positions. Also, Work found low initial rank a good predictor for future military success among the politician soldiers. Gradual increases in command responsibility tended to nurture the command abilities of professional and amateur alike. Good examples of this fruitful progression can be found with Logan, Blair, and Wadsworth, but, overall, the evidence is quite strong that political generals were best limited to brigade and division level postings.

Political generals could contribute, and even excel, in areas of civil administration (e.g. Butler in New Orleans). They could also promote and/or shape the political policies of the president (e.g. Butler again, Dix, and Schenck), undertaking critical tasks in the areas of emancipation policy, draft enforcement, and wartime reconstruction. Even so, by their independent actions, these officers could be political hindrances, too. While one finds much evidence that political generals performed their best service to the Union cause in administrating military districts and departments (as opposed to direct combat roles), given their mixed record overall, it would be difficult to sustain a general argument that politicians were better than professional military officers in these roles.

Command harmony could also be problematic. The placement of West Point trained officers under politician generals in the hopes of steering the latter in the right direction had its share of spectacular failures4. Most of these relationships failed due to opposing egos, personalities, and prejudices, and no satisfactory solution to this problem was ever developed.

Work also writes of the role of political generals in accelerating the enrollment and use of black troops. In forcing Lincoln to respond to radical measures before he was ready, the direction of government policy was often shaped by these generals. As politicians, they were also expected to periodically return to their districts and stump for the war and for the election of administration-friendly representatives. Interestingly, Work concludes that, while some indirect effect on constituent voters was possible, there is little concrete evidence that these generals were able to effect political conversion to any significant degree (the exception being the transformation of the Egypt region of southern Illinois from solid Democrat to slightly Republican).

All of this brings us back to how one goes about determining whether the experiment in political generals was a "success". No great calculus has been developed, and it remains unclear whether the consequences of the military failures (often great) of those placed too high in seniority were really outweighed by perceived gains in administrative capacity or a host of other intangibles. Nevertheless, the debate over the presence of politician generals in the Union army's high command will go on, and David Work has provided readers with an ably argued and thoughtful discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the practice. Lincoln's Political Generals is the best work on the subject to date, and is recommended reading for all Civil War students.

1 - The War Within the Union High Command: Politics and Generalship During the Civil War (Univ. Press of Kansas, 2003).
2 - Nathaniel Banks, Benjamin Butler, John A. Dix, Daniel Sickles, James Wadsworth, Stephen Hurlbut, John Logan, John McClernand, Robert Schenck, Frank Blair Jr., James Denver, John C. Fremont, Carl Shurz, Franz Sigel, Thomas Meagher, and James Shields.
3. Some of the military assessments rendered in the text (e.g. Banks in particular) are a bit dated, embodying the harshly negative traditional interpretations gleaned from standard works, with opinions unleavened by the findings of more recent revisionist studies of excellent quality.
4 - Respected professionals William F. Smith and Quincy Gillmore were placed under Butler prior to the Bermuda Hundred Campaign, and William Franklin and A.J. Smith under Banks for the Red River undertaking. In both cases, command coordination was abysmal, leading to campaign failures of great consequence to the Union war effort.


  1. Sounds like an interesting book. Does Work get into the fact that most professional officers failed when appointed to substantial independent commands (Rosecrans, Buell, McDowell, McClellan, Pope, Burnside, Hooker) too?

  2. No, he doesn't, but I think Goss did (IIRC). It is an important point for all of us to remember that nearly all CW officers, pros and amateurs, failed at some point. But there were also significant successes achieved by the professionals listed in the previous comment. These highlight moments were not really matched by the political generals of comparable rank. One can rightly argue that both groups had low points, but it seems to me the real difference was in the upside (even given a disparity in opportunity).


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