Thursday, October 3, 2013

Simpson: "THE CIVIL WAR IN THE EAST: Struggle, Stalemate, and Victory"

[The Civil War in the East: Struggle, Stalemate, and Victory by Brooks D. Simpson (Potomac Books, 2013). Softcover, map, photos, notes, bibliographical essay, index. Pages main/total:152/177. ISBN:978-1-61234-628-1 $19.95]

Inattentive readers might be tempted to dismiss Brooks Simpson's The Civil War in the East: Struggle, Stalemate, and Victory as yet another brief and forgettable secondary source reliant tackling of a big subject. On the other hand, those mindful of just how few serious volumes examining military strategy exist in the Civil War literature may just find in their hands the most cogent military-political synthesis and analysis yet of existing eastern theater scholarship. Simpson's work also challenges in a persuasive manner the presumed consensus on a variety of military related topics.

Throughout his study, Simpson reminds readers that all military campaigns, especially those fought by democracies, are constrained by the political needs of those responsible for national policymaking, the willingness of the civilian population to support the war, and the resources available to conduct the war. Except in the case of Henry Halleck, the author studiously avoids the exaltation of heroes and the dismissal of goats, instead offering fair assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of the major political and military figures associated with the high commands of both sides. As an example, Simpson, in contrast with the literature's overwhelmingly fawning view of Lincoln's war leadership, presents the president's flaws as having significant negative consequence to the national war effort. For instance, Lincoln's willingness to bypass the established chain of command, and his frequent encouragement of many officers to do the same, facilitated a peer environment where conspiratorial backstabbing among the generals of the Army of the Potomac became acceptable. In another section, Simpson criticizes Lincoln for his stubborn, war long insistence that Lee's command was the Army of the Potomac's proper target, not any fixed geographical point of military, political, economic, or logistical significance. It's a neverending argument in the literature, but the author is correct in chastising Lincoln, and most historians and writers today, of being far too wedded to one choice or the other, when some mixture of both depending on particular circumstances seems the best solution. Lincoln's myopia in this regard essentially shrank the eastern theater to the overland corridor between Washington and Richmond, rejecting after 1862 the strategic potential of jumping off points located along the Virginia tidewater and the coastline of the Carolinas. This is a view shared by others and it also forms an effective counter to the argument by Lincoln partisans that he was an exceptional learner as Commander-in-Chief. One might even consider this tunnel vision as having a disastrous effect on the Union war effort in the East, the situation altered only by the arrival of Grant in 1864. The above examples are just a reviewer selected sampling, a few pieces chosen from among an entire host of dispassionately addressed topics.

Of course, when an author relies on a limited number of publications to offer both an up to date synthesis of the secondary literature and a reinforcement of the writer's own views, a ruthless search and selection of the best available representative works is key to the process. In this regard, Simpson displays considerable skill, populating his notes with older works of enduring value as well as the best of more recent revisionist studies. It was a bit disappointing not to see Russel Beatie's Army of the Potomac series specifically referenced anywhere in The Civil War in the East (at least not that I recall), but a survey of Simpson's views on the Lincoln-McClellan relationship in the early war period gives one the impression that wide areas of agreement might exist between the two authors.

Simpson's book also highlights several areas of enduring deficiency in the literature. Civil War scholars and readers would greatly benefit from the creation of similar volumes for the western and Trans-Mississippi theaters*, both of which had military complications (i.e. pervasive guerrilla warfare) different in scale and substance from those found in the East**. The Civil War in the East also serves as a useful reminder that a better critical analysis of Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief is needed. Also, in this study, Simpson joins other historians (among them Gary Gallagher) in arguing that, even though one can make a strong case that the western theater was more decisive, the eastern theater held primacy because it was perceived as so by the soldiers, press, civilians, and politicians of both sides

I would have no hesitation in recommending The Civil War in the East to any reader seeking an analytical top-down history of the fighting in the eastern theater. Indeed, there is no other work that I would rank above it in terms of thoughtful scrutiny of the meaning of the eastern campaigns as a collective whole to the overall course and conduct of the war.

* - or, even better, a single volume covering the war's entire geographical expanse similar to what Donald Stoker recently attempted.
** - Beyond brief mention of John S. Mosby's influence on disrupting communications in west-central Virginia, Simpson does not mention guerrilla warfare at all in his study of military strategy in the East.

[this book was first published in hardcover in 2011 as part of Praeger's Reflections on the Civil War Era series]

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review.

    The comments on Democracies at war reminded me of a anecdote from Charles Wainwright's wonderful book 'A Diary of Battle' (edited by Nevins) that I recently read that when McClellan was relieved from command some of the Europeans that were with the Army of the Potomac were really stunned that such a beloved commander could be relieved without the Army marching on Washington and demanding that he be restored to command. Wainwright had to tell them that just wasn't the way things were done in America that we had to have more order than that.

    I would encourage readers that after they have read overviews like Simpson's and the other books that you mention that they dig deeper into the story especially of the Army of the Potomac with primary source material. Something like Wainwright's book is a really exceptional look at the workings of the army. Also, Swinton's early work on the army is still quite stunning especially since he didn't have access to the official records yet.



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