Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Review - "Politician in Uniform: General Lew Wallace and the Civil War" by Christopher Mortenson

[POLITICIAN IN UNIFORM: General Lew Wallace and the Civil War by Christopher R. Mortenson (University of Oklahoma Press, 2019). Hardcover, 5 maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xiii,198/298. ISBN:978-0-8061-6195-2. $34.95]

By any estimation, Indiana's Lew Wallace led a colorful life. For many he's best known as the author of Ben-Hur, but others see his time in uniform as his most important contribution to society. While popular focus on the dismal military performances of other Union politician-generals like Benjamin Butler, Nathaniel Banks, and Franz Sigel still unjustly colors general impressions of the group as a whole, Wallace demonstrated real ability at multiple levels of command. At the beginning of the Civil War his political lineage, militia background, and Mexican War experience led to an appointment as Indiana's adjutant general, and he quickly and efficiently filled the state's obligations for troop contributions. At the head of the 11th Indiana, a zouave regiment he raised, Wallace achieved an early measure of fame with an aggressively conducted minor victory at Romney, Virginia in 1861. Sent out west, the newly minted general quickly moved up the western theater high command before becoming embroiled in controversy related to his day one performance at Shiloh. Sidelined from further front line duty for an extensive period of time, Wallace nevertheless impressed others over the next two years with his administrative energy and prowess. Most notably, he rallied the defenses of the Ohio River line in 1862 and led with distinction the army's Middle Department during its deepest crisis moments of 1864. His military reputation was partially redeemed at the July 1864 Battle of Monocacy, which was a clear tactical defeat for Wallace but arguably a strategic success that materially aided the defense of Washington. After the war, he became a celebrated author and was territorial governor of New Mexico during the Lincoln County War.

All of these events and many more are recounted in impressively thorough, yet refreshingly compact, fashion in Christopher Mortenson's Politician in Uniform: General Lew Wallace and the Civil War. Over the past decade, a number of authors, among them Gail Stephens, Kevin Getchell, and Charles Beemer1, have examined Wallace's complicated military legacy. All vary in focus and scope. While Beemer only covers the 1861-62 period and Getchell narrowly examines the Grant-Wallace relationship, Stephens addresses the entire breadth of Wallace's military service. However, Mortenson's study can justifiably lay claim to being the most comprehensive treatment to date of Wallace's wartime activities both on and off the battlefield. Of this group, Mortenson is also the author most consistently critical in his assessment of Wallace as man and officer.

A prominent theme addressed in all Civil War studies of Lew Wallace or any other high-ranking political general is the very real tension and even outright mutual disdain that frequently existed between citizen-officers and their West Point trained peers and superiors. Mortenson's examination largely discounts the two-way aspect of this conflict as a major factor behind Wallace's seeming inability to get along smoothly with West Pointers. Even Wallace's most ardent defenders concede that the Indiana general was often his own worst enemy when it came to army relations, but Mortenson goes a step further in seeing Wallace himself as far and away the chief source of his own problems. In the author's view, Wallace's rough and aggressive outward expressions of martial manhood and honor made him personally offensive to those around him and drove deep wedges throughout the war between the general, his military superiors, and powerful politicians who could otherwise have advanced Wallace's ambitions.

Mortenson favors trying to understand Wallace's mindset and actions through the interpretive lens of Amy Greenberg's competing masculinities ("martial" vs. "restrained") and Lorien Foote's "gentlemen" and "roughs" conception of nineteenth-century expressions of manhood2. According to Mortenson, Wallace's personal values favoring physical strength, fierce independence, aggression, and bravery led him to reject the more restrained expressions of manhood that his teachers and father3 tried to instill within him early on. The author also sees Wallace's clashes with professional military officers as grounded within these conflicting masculine sensibilities, with the easily offended Wallace chafing under the more communal, regimented, and hierarchically respectful masculine order that West Point imposed upon its graduates. It's an interesting and on some levels persuasive conceptual framework of comparison, but the author's enthusiasm in applying it to nearly every choice Wallace made during the war, often attributing internal motivation for particular actions solely to Wallace's desire to prove his martial manhood, seems excessive. Generalizing these differences between West Point generals and the political appointee Wallace does seem appropriate to a point, but the war does also provide plenty of examples of glory-obsessed professionals who fumed under restraint from above, rejected strict subordination, got along poorly with their peers, and bypassed proper chain of command when is suited them.

With the details of Wallace's Civil War military career well documented at this point, differences that set the book apart from other recent studies are primarily those of interpretation. Unlike some authors and historians, Mortenson clearly believes that Wallace's difficult nature outweighed his battlefield usefulness. All of the points he raises in the book in support of this determination have merit, but it does seem that he too breezily discounts professional prejudice as a major factor underpinning some of the complaints about Wallace and the consistent efforts on the part of Grant, Halleck, and others after Shiloh to keep Wallace out of another active command. In recounting Wallace's record in the service as he rose quickly from regimental to division commander, the author consistently follows his descriptions of what could be regarded as positive (even impressive) battlefield accomplishments with one or more qualifications critical of some aspect of the general's behavior or attitude. Narrative and analytical emphasis is almost uniformly placed on the latter. For example, rather than highlighting Wallace's prominent role in restoring the crumbling Union line at Fort Donelson and seizing a key piece of ground later in the day, Mortensen instead directs reader attention more toward the alleged tardiness of Wallace's assistance and his intemperate response in the heat of battle to an order from Grant (who did not know of Wallace's actual capture of the aforementioned forward position) to retire. While there is nothing necessarily objectionable about this practice, and repetition as a tool for persuasion certainly has its place, the pairing of so much arguably trivial nitpicking to Wallace's run of early successes carries the risk of creating an overall numbing affect on the reader that diminishes the impact of the most piercing observations while also painting the author as having overexacting standards. Indeed, while Mortenson works hard to justify his conclusion that Wallace was a "failed division commander," the harsh assessment lacks expected nuance.

In carrying out its goal of evaluating the entirety of Wallace's Civil War career, the book does not dwell obsessively on Shiloh nor does it exhaustively reengage with all of the debates surrounding Wallace's performance during the battle. Defenders of Wallace will certainly not find the kind of ally in Mortenson that they do in Stephens, Beemer, Stacey Allen, and others. With some important aspects of the Shiloh controversy such as the timing and content of messages between Grant and Wallace forever shrouded in mystery due to lack of surviving documentary evidence, the author clearly is persuaded most by the Grant and Grant staff version(s) of events. Mortenson is additionally little impressed with Wallace's management of the far right flank during the April 7 counterattack. It was a steady performance that some believe to be still unfairly overshadowed by the negative repercussions surrounding the previous day's events.

Recent groundbreaking scholarship from David Work, Thomas Goss, and others has convinced most Civil War scholars to reconsider the value of political generals to the Union war effort on and off the battlefield. Their views on expanding the criteria used to assess the positive contributions of Civil War generals—to include their roles in rallying political support for the war, maintaining public morale, recruiting for the army, and administering military departments—have reached wide purchase. As someone who agrees with that line of thinking, Mortenson conveys in the book a strong appreciation of Wallace's series of accomplishments beyond the battlefield. Wallace did well in rapidly organizing the first wave of Indiana recruits, but he is also appropriately criticized in the book for refusing to do additional mid-war recruiting at the behest of Governor Morton. The author perceptively notes that Wallace, in doing so, missed a good opportunity to advance his own cause in obtaining another field command through negotiating personal command of the new regiments (similar to what General McClernand was able to pull off, at least for a while, in Illinois). By all accounts, Wallace did well in managing the defense of Cincinnati in 1862, but the author is even more impressed with how skillfully the general juggled military and political concerns after he was placed at the head of the potentially volatile Middle Department. In that capacity, Wallace successfully oversaw two critical Border State election cycles in 1864, maintained cooperative relations with the state governments in his department, and opposed the Confederate raid on Washington better than anyone could have expected given how deeply his command was drained of mobile troop strength in support operations in Virginia. In one of his relatively rare moments of unqualified praise, Mortenson sees Wallace as the only one in the Union high command, military or civilian, to have possessed a clear grasp of the military situation north of the Potomac during the crisis phase of Jubal Early's raid on Washington. Both Grant and the War Department recognized Wallace's Monocacy defeat for what it was, an important sacrifice that created precious time needed to strengthen the Washington defenses and allow for reinforcements to arrive. Wallace's exemplary Middle Department tenure did at least temporarily put him back in the good graces of Grant and Secretary Stanton, but past mistrust was too difficult to overcome. As the author keenly observes, while Wallace's stint at the head of the Middle Department at last demonstrated that he could learn from his earlier mistakes, the change in attitude and behavior occurred too late for him to secure a command at the front during the closing stages of the war.

The book covers at some length Wallace's aborted peace mission in Texas and his efforts, during and after the Civil War, to supply Mexican liberals in their own internal war against the French-installed regime. Mortenson also discusses Wallace's role in two of the most noteworthy legal proceedings stemming from the war. He was the second-ranking member of the military tribunal that oversaw the trial of the Lincoln assassination conspirators and was court president of the military commission that tried the capital case against Andersonville commandant Henry Wirz. While his actions may not have been entirely in keeping with the best practices of blind justice, he in both cases secured what the government wanted and the people expected.

Christopher Mortenson's Politician in Uniform presents itself as the first study to fulfill the literature's longstanding need for a full and truly balanced examination of General Wallace's Civil War career. The reader doesn't necessarily have to see it quite that way in order to appreciate the effort and admire the scholarship that went into it. At the very least, Mortenson constructs a strong alternative to the recent spate of works much more positively supportive of Wallace's military record, particularly over the first half of the war, and largely forgiving of his many flaws. Whether they agree with them or not, certainly all future authors writing about Wallace will have to contend with Mortenson's arguments4. Contributing materially to both Civil War biographical studies as well as ongoing debates over how best to assess the role and value of political generals, Politician in Uniform is a fascinating study that deserves a wide readership. Recommended.

1 - In order of publication, Shadow of Shiloh: Major General Lew Wallace in the Civil War (Indiana HS Press, 2010) by Gail Stephens [review], Scapegoat of Shiloh: The Distortion of Lew Wallace's Record by U. S. Grant (McFarland, 2013) by Kevin Getchell, and Charles Beemer's "My Greatest Quarrel with Fortune": Major General Lew Wallace in the West, 1861-1862 (KSU Press, 2015) [review].
2 - See Amy S. Greenberg's Manifest Manhood and the Antebellum American Empire (Cambridge UP, 2005) and Lorien Foote's The Gentlemen and the Roughs: Violence, Honor, and Manhood in the Union Army (NYU Press, 2010).
3 - Wallace's father was one of those West Point graduates who resigned after only a short period of service (one year) to pursue other ambitions, in his case law and politics. He was elected governor of Indiana in 1837. One wonders to what degree (if at all) Lew Wallace's perception of West Point officers was first painted by his sometimes strained relationship with his father, who by Mortenson's account was much his son's opposite in temperament.
4 - If someone were to inquire about the "best" study of Lew Wallace's Civil War career to date, I would highly recommend a complementary pairing of Stephens and Mortenson. Each has unique strengths, but they also represent different sides of the same coin when it comes to many important aspects of Wallace's military service .

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