Thursday, May 29, 2014

Schmiel: "CITIZEN-GENERAL: Jacob Dolson Cox and the Civil War Era"

[Citizen-General: Jacob Dolson Cox and the Civil War Era by Eugene D. Schmiel (Ohio University Press, 2014). Softcover, photos, notes, select bibliography, index. Pages main/total:284/353. ISBN:978-0-8214-2083-6 $26.95]

Given Major General Jacob D. Cox's more than solid Civil War combat record and his deep influence on the historiography of the conflict through his many writings, it's surprising more hasn't been written about him. In his seven decades of life, Cox went in and out of a number of careers and avocations. In addition to being a fine soldier, he was a divinity student, lawyer, politician, cabinet secretary, amateur scientist, law school professor, university president, and historian. All of these phases of the Ohioan's life are covered in Eugene Schmiel's biography Citizen-General: Jacob Dolson Cox and the Civil War Era but the book wisely focuses on Cox's Civil War career, his historical writings, and his political offices, the first two exemplary in scope and accomplishment and the last perhaps a great lost opportunity.

Cox and Schmiel find themselves in agreement that the general's best moments were during the battles of South Mountain and Franklin. However, one should not overlook Cox's 1861 Kanawha Campaign because of its small scale. In a largely independent role, his successful campaign, after the initial mishap at Scary Creek, was one of the ablest offensive operations conducted by any Union general during the first six months of the war. Schmiel's summaries of Cox's campaigns are solid overall, though one might wish for more detailed insight into Cox's style of generalship. Cox, a political general, was able to cultivate effective working relationships with high ranking professional army officers, an important trait absent in many high ranking officers drawn from civilian life, and earned their respect to the degree of their appointing Cox to critical positions of great authority (ex. co-leading the IX Corps during the Maryland Campaign and commanding the line at Franklin) and listening to his advice. With Schmiel accepting Cox's justifications and excuses for IX Corps's poor showing at Antietam, both subject and biographer seem equally dismayed as to why Cox was basically sidelined between Antietam and the Atlanta Campaign. They really shouldn't be. Regardless of whether Cox with good reason felt let down by McClellan for not keeping a key subordinate informed of the situation beyond the Army of the Potomac's far left or in denying IX Corps support from the army reserve, in an uncertain situation a corps commander is responsible for attending to his own flank protection. There's really no adequate excuse for getting surprised and rolled back by a vastly inferior force. Even if one considers Burnside (who was overseeing Cox on that day) more at fault, it was a bad moment to be in nominal command.

Given that the state of Ohio was the cradle of presidents during the post-bellum period, why Cox was unable to use his own rank and achievements, which were superior to all but Grant's, to catapult himself into the highest office in the land is deserving of analysis. Schmiel persuasively attributes Cox's comparatively modest political ceiling (he was a one term governor and Grant's Secretary of the Interior) to several factors. While a Democrat-hating Republican (albeit of the more conservative wing), Cox consistently refused to toe the more radical national party line. Politicians possessing strong independent streaks, and who also fail to be publicly guarded in promoting unconventional opinions, frequently get into trouble with those party power brokers necessary for their advancement, and Cox's skepticism of black suffrage and support for internal colonization of ex-slaves damaged his political potential. As Interior Secretary, he was also a tireless opponent of the spoils system, instead advocating true civil service reform. He failed in the crusade after butting heads with party leaders and Grant himself and ultimately resigned. It is common for admiring biographers to present their subject as an island of selfless integrity amid an ocean of corruption and compromised principle, but in this instance exaggeration appears to be minimal, as Schmiel offers numerous comments from political friends and foes alike disdaining Cox's impractical idealism. Of course, Cox's own general officer appointment straight from civilian life was political patronage, a contradiction not commented upon by Schmiel and seemingly lost on Cox himself.

Schmiel also thoroughly details Cox's lasting contributions, through a series of books, articles, and review essays, to Civil War military historiography and remembrance. According to the author, the general's writings were better researched and less self serving (at least early on) than the typical memoirs and histories written by Civil War generals and politicians. In later works, Cox, realizing the hard learned truth that leaving the promotion of one's own achievements to others is a sure way to be relegated to historical oblivion, would directly address his personal role in the war. In publishing as with politics, Cox's outspoken desire to tell the uncompromised truth as he saw it led to the loss of previous friends and supporters like Emerson Opdyke and John Schofield. Schmiel notes the one exception in this regard being William T. Sherman, whose faults and mistakes were consistently glossed over by Cox. In general, Cox's extensive series of publications held their ground in the age's acrimonious "battle of the books." As his biographer maintains, Cox's writings are serious scholarship, their place in the footnotes and bibliographies of countless modern studies a testament to their lasting value. Citizen-General is an important biographical treatment of a man whose rather modest place in the popular imagination belies an enviable record of notable influences on 19th century America.

More CWBA reviews of OUP titles:
* Kansas's War: The Civil War in Documents
* Do They Miss Me at Home?: The Civil War Letters of William McKnight, Seventh Ohio Volunteer Cavalry
* Missouri's War: The Civil War in Documents

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