Thursday, February 15, 2018

Review of Utley - "THE COMMANDERS: Civil War Generals Who Shaped the American West"

[The Commanders: Civil War Generals Who Shaped the American West by Robert M. Utley (University of Oklahoma Press, 2018). Hardcover, 10 maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:223/255. ISBN:978-0-8061-5978-2. $29.95]

Robert Utley's The Commanders appraises the Indian Wars careers and national impact of seven high-ranking Civil War generals. Criteria for inclusion in the study are very specific and cause some famous Indian fighters like George Armstrong Custer and Ranald Mackenzie to be left out (though both are frequently mentioned in the text). In order to be considered, a prospective officer must have reached the grade of volunteer and/or regular army major general (or the equivalent brevet promotion) during the Civil War, and at some time during frontier army service been elevated to the rank of brigadier general and appointment to a department command. The seven men meeting these conditions are Christopher Augur, George Crook, Oliver Otis Howard, Nelson Miles, Edward Otho Cresap Ord, John Pope, and Alfred Terry.

The Commanders begins with a brief but illuminating survey of the state of the U.S. Army immediately following the end of the Civil War and its national organizational (department and division) structure. In addition to day-to-day items of concern such as clothing, equipment, pay, and hygiene, the opening section discusses the sometimes bitter feelings and practical problems surrounding the brevet system left over from the Civil War. Congressional hostility and periodic cuts in the funding and size of the army were also major anxieties of the time. One of the greatest challenges confronting the Frontier Army generals was the stifling hold the Washington staff bureaus had on practically every material aspect of army supply and management. This left the isolated field generals of the West having to conduct their difficult campaigns without the ability to control their own logistics.

Each general is assigned his own chapter in the book, with professional activities divided into discrete Civil War and western army sections. Though one might quibble here and there with some of Utley's summary details and assessments, the Civil War sections are generally solid and offer insights into individual strengths and weaknesses that are useful in understanding subsequent successes and failures in the West. Among other things, the generals are rated for battlefield leadership and ability, helpful or harmful personal habits and traits, administrative capacity, attitudes toward Indians, and chain of command harmony. Of course, all of these judgments are highly subjective and certainly some views are more strongly supported than others with examples explicitly cited in the text, but the near-nonagenarian Utley writes with great authority, having devoted an entire illustrious career to researching and writing Frontier Army history. He's the author of many standard works in the field, among them Frontiersmen in Blue: The United States Army and the Indian, 1848-1865 and Frontier Regulars: The United States Army and the Indian, 1866-1891, and his opinions surely represent the condensed knowledge of a lifetime of scholarly pursuits in the field.

Unlike the book's relatively detailed descriptions of the military careers of its subject generals, how these men "shaped the American West" is presented mostly in terms of overarching theme. On an individual basis, Crook influenced the greatest number of western tribes and in more ways than any other general. Others facilitated western expansion by protecting emigrants, miners, and railroad crews while also publicly promoting the development of the West. While General Ord's actions often roiled both U.S. and Mexican authorities, the book accords him significant credit for making the border region safer for American settlement. While Utley might have usefully expanded upon this particular aspect of his study, he does make it clear that military leaders heavily influenced the future of the West.

According to Utley, effective department leadership required two very different sets of skills. A department head had to fight Indians (either in person or by directing campaigns from headquarters) but he also had to master essential administrative, public relations, and personnel management tasks made all the more difficult by the American West's extremes of geography, climate, and distance. Thus in creating his ultimate ranking list in the final chapter, the author quite appropriately takes both desk and operational generalship into account.

Curiously, Christopher Augur earns Utley's top spot as department commander, primarily on the strength of the general's exceptional administrative and personnel management skills, but his chapter is also the shortest one in the book (this is almost surely the inevitable consequence of Augur's limited Civil War record combined with the lesser narrative appeal of being the quintessential desk general). On purely military grounds, Utley rates Crook as the most innovative in his tactics and conduct of operations, but Miles as clearly the best Indian fighter of the bunch (but all before he served as department brigadier general). Howard proved to be a "moderate success" as both field commander and administrator.

The others—Terry, Ord, and Pope—were primarily desk generals. In Utley's view, Terry was an excellent headquarters general but, unlike what occurred during his brilliant Civil War career, his one foray into the field during the Indian Wars was a disaster. Even so, how much blame Terry should assume for Custer's defeat remains hotly debated to this day. The author makes a strong case that Pope's time as department commander, while perhaps not wiping away the stain of Second Manassas, at least went some distance toward reaffirming his reputation as a competent officer. According to Utley, Pope's sympathetic actions toward the Indians during his time in command also make him worthy of regard as a "humanitarian general." In Utley's estimation, Ord was an indifferent administrator who largely benefited from the victories of independent-minded subordinates. However, his saving grace (though Utley still plants Ord at the very bottom of his list) was his forging of friendly relations with Texas congressional politicians who later proved effective in blocking further military cuts. That Utley's ranking exercise can be drastically reordered based on which major criteria is emphasized affords ample evidence of the general futility of overall "best" or "worst" rating lists (and the reason why so many historians eschew them), but it does serve as an effective reminder of the many hats a Frontier Army department commander had to wear and how rare it was to find a person who could expertly don all of them.


  1. Wouldn't Canby have fit Utley's criteria?

    1. It didn't say anywhere that I recall if he was being selective in his list or attempting something all-inclusive. There could have been some minor additional criteria that excluded Canby or maybe Utley just thought there weren't enough Indian Wars data points in his postwar service to make an interesting chapter. Canby held mostly Reconstruction posts before being sent to the West Coast and getting murdered only a few short years in.

      BTW, I let it go this time (you didn't engage in any kind of attack under the veil of anonymity) but please adhere to the commenting rules regarding signed posts in future. Thanks!

  2. This looks interesting to me. Years ago I read Utley's High Noon in Lincoln: Violence on the Western Frontier on New Mexico's Lincoln County War. It was an impressive piece of historical writing.


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