Thursday, February 7, 2019

Booknotes: Politician in Uniform

New Arrival:
Politician in Uniform: General Lew Wallace and the Civil War by Christopher R. Mortenson (Univ of Okla Press, 2019).

It's easy to see why Lew Wallace's life story still fascinates many Civil War readers and authors. For a politician-general he demonstrated real ability during the early war period before becoming embroiled in controversy at Shiloh. Sidelined by powerful critics, Wallace achieved a redemption of sorts at Monocacy in 1864. After the war, he became a celebrated author and was territorial governor of New Mexico during the infamous Lincoln County War. Even so, it is quite remarkable that, by my count, at least four major studies of Wallace's military career have been published over the past decade. Far more consequential officers have received only a fraction of that amount of attention. The newest examination is Christopher Mortenson's Politician in Uniform: General Lew Wallace and the Civil War.

From the description: "Where previous accounts have sought to discredit or defend Wallace’s performance as a general in the war, author Christopher R. Mortenson takes a more nuanced approach. Combining military biography, historical analysis, and political insight, Politician in Uniform provides an expanded and balanced view of Wallace’s military career—and offers the reader a new understanding of the experience of a voluntary general like Lew Wallace." Though I didn't get the chance to read it, the title of Getchell's 2013 study fairly trumpets the author's purpose, but I thought the excellent Stephens (2010) and Beemer (2015) military biographies were very even keeled in their warts-and-all assessments of Wallace's Civil War career.

Every author examining the topic has quickly come to the conclusion that Wallace possessed personality and character flaws that often made him his own worst enemy. More from the description: "A natural rivalry and tension between West Pointers and political generals might have accounted for some of these difficulties, but many, as Mortenson shows us, were of Wallace’s own making. A temperamental officer with a “rough” conception of manhood, Wallace often found his mentors wanting, disrespected his superiors, and vigorously sought opportunities for glorious action in the field, only to perform poorly when given the chance."

Finally: "Despite his flaws, Mortenson notes, Wallace contributed both politically and militarily to the war effort—in the fight for Fort Donelson and at the Battle of Shiloh, in the defense of Cincinnati and southern Indiana, and in the administration of Baltimore and the Middle Department. Detailing these and other instances of Wallace’s success along with his weaknesses and failures, Mortenson provides an unusually thorough and instructive picture of this complicated character in his military service. His book clearly demonstrates the unique complexities of evaluating the performance of a politician in uniform." I don't know about you, but I'm up for another Wallace book.


  1. Odd. Wallace is starting to generate as many biographies as Grant. I'm not sure what need is being filled at this point. Meanwhile, more important figures - Hooker and Rosecrans come to mind - haven't been the subject of a biography in many decades.

  2. I've heard of an upcoming Rosecrans biography, but cannot remember the author. John is correct; Hooker desperately needs a new bio as well.

    Andy Papen

    1. Andy: I checked. It appears that David Moore covered Rosecrans in a 2014 volume published by McFarland (which always raises a caution flag for me). The Amazon listing has enthusiastic reviews by Rose and Varney which must be taken with the usual dose of salt, given their not always supportable pro-Rosecrans/anti-Grant agendas. It doesn't appear that Drew reviewed it, so far as I can tell. Hooker clearly should be dealt with from a more modern perspective.

    2. John,
      I didn't get very far into it before realizing it wasn't going to be something I wanted to finish.

      I also wracked my brain for old news about someone working on a Rosecrans bio and couldn't come up with anyone.


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