Thursday, January 28, 2021

Book Snapshot: "Courage Above All Things: General John Ellis Wool and the U.S. Military, 1812–1863"

A project started decades ago by historian Harwood Hinton and edited/completed after his passing by colleague Jerry Thompson, Courage Above All Things: General John Ellis Wool and the U.S. Military, 1812–1863 (University of Oklahoma Press, 2020) provides us with the first fully comprehensive military biography of one of the most prominent U.S. Army figures of the Early Republic and Antebellum periods. At nearly 400 pages of detailed narrative, Harwood/Thompson's biography examines at great length the general's more than half a century of service that included the War of 1812, the 1846-48 War with Mexico, numerous conflicts with native peoples of the West, and the American Civil War. It is the final 100 pages or so of the book addressing Wool's role in his last major war that will be discussed here.

The volume's Civil War period coverage begins on Chapter Thirteen just after Wool's transfer from California to New York to head the U.S. Army's Department of the East. During the feverish days immediately following the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter, Wool seems to have put to rest most questions about his advanced age (he was 77 when the war broke out) and presumed decline in necessary energy and mental acuity when he aggressively secured arsenals and depots, directed troop movements, organized arms and munitions shipments to numerous states, shipped tons of supplies to the nation's capital, and even chartered and outfitted ad hoc warships to escort transports and blockade Virginia waters. Less commendable was the awarding by Wool's department of lucrative army contracts to the general's nephew, John Griswold (a Democrat who later switched parties and supported the Radical Republican agenda in Congress).

With his department placed on solid footing and the nation's capital secured, Wool lobbied for active service at the front and was assigned a new department based at Fort Monroe on the tip of the Virginia Peninsula. He replaced the previous commander, Benjamin Butler, after the politician-general's embarrassing setback at the Battle of Big Bethel. At his new front-line command, Wool labored hard to improve the fort complex's land defenses, sustain Butler's contraband labor and support programs, regulate travel and mail between the lines, and work through the difficult process of prisoner exchange. Made independent of the Army of the Potomac at his own insistence, Wool agreed to cooperate with General George McClellan's drive up the Peninsula but would bristle when doing so had any whiff of his being directly subordinated to the junior officer. Oddly, among his many private complaints about McClellan's generalship were charges of organizational and logistical incompetence, the two skills even McClellan's harshest critics uniformly concede to have been great professional strengths. On the naval side, Wool's relationship with Flag Officer Louis Goldsborough did not go smoothly, and each held a dim view of the other. The energetic Wool did have strong ideas about how the Virginia campaign should have been waged, and he repeatedly advocated for a Southside operations against Richmond via Norfolk and Petersburg. However, it would take Lincoln's arrival on the scene in May 1862 (the president finally forcing Goldsborough to provide direct naval support to Wool) before a movement on Norfolk could finally be launched. Interestingly, the Hinton/Thompson account of the post-landing confusion that held up the army's initial advance along the roads leading into Norfolk credits Wool for unsnarling things while Steve Norder's version of events recently published in Lincoln Takes Command: The Campaign to Seize Norfolk and the Destruction of the CSS Virginia (2020) instead portrays Wool as contributing to it.

While the book's treatment of Wool (at least in the Civil War sections) is highly laudatory, it does not overlook the general's faults. If one uses this book's characterization of the general's Fort Monroe tenure as a template for imagining how he might have fared in leading a larger command in the field, it could be argued that Wool's extreme punctiliousness over issues of rank, his penchant for lecturing fellow officers, and his inability to work smoothly with the navy might easily have limited his effectiveness, even if his superannuated yet robust constitution held up to the increased strain.

In expressing Wool's most unadulterated views on people, politics, and events, the authors make good use of the general's wartime correspondence with his wife, Sarah. While Wool was very vocal in his public support of the administration and the Union war effort, privately the general seethed in his letters to his wife over Lincoln being the wrong man for the job. He also voiced very grave reservations about how the war was being conducted by Lincoln's War Department and the army's leading generals (much of his ire being directed toward McClellan). Wool's feelings about Lincoln did not change much over time, but they also did stop him from publicly campaigning for the president's second term during his semi-retirement (actions Wool surely considered dutiful, though also doubtlessly colored by his intense disdain for McClellan and especially the peace wing of the Democratic Party).

Wool was criticized for his heavy-handed military occupation of Norfolk (even to the extent of his being accused of starving the population in an attempt to cow them into more complete submission), and he was transferred to Baltimore in June 1862 to lead the Middle Department (at that time a geographically large area of responsibility encompassing Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, Delaware, and Virginia's Eastern Shore). According to the book, his switching places with General Dix was not viewed by the normally prickly Wool as official censure, and he apparently cheerfully submitted to the change. In employing a decidedly more moderate stance toward dissent in Maryland (what produced that change in approach is not explained but may perhaps have been as simple as Maryland still being in the Union while Virginia was enemy territory), Wool angered Maryland's radical Unionists and that was apparently his undoing there. If one subscribes to the notion that an administrating general has probably achieved the right balance when no faction among the populace is entirely satisfied, then Wool did his job well before political pressures from the strongest group (the unconditional Unionists) forced his return to New York City in January 1863 to once again lead the Department of the East.

According to Hinton and Thompson, Wool applied his usual energy to visiting all of the states under his juridiction and establishing cooperative ties with governors and other important politicians. He also labored hard to suppress the highly profitable illicit trade that passed through New York. Wool attempted with varying degrees of success to resist pressure from the War Department to strip the forts and garrisons under his command of troops and artillery batteries. Neveretheless, by the time of the New York City draft riots of July 1863, Wool felt he had too few troops to spare to help the city's police forces. It seems that Wool felt the forts defending the city undermanned and vulnerable, as unrealistic as it might sound now, to Confederate raiders penetrating the harbor and wreaking havoc at the docks. Wool could also be criticized for not streamlining chain of command in response to swiftly moving events. Even so, though Wool initially allowed army and militia commanders to bicker over authority, the authors argue that the level of impasse was overblown and resolved quickly. The book's suggestion that there was little more Wool could have done until reinforced (which he was, and the rioting quashed) seems reasonable, although it could be maintained that Wool's reluctance to involve federal forces in crushing domestic rioting was an interpretation of duty not shared by many other Union generals during the war.

The overall response to the riots was criticized in many quarters, and Wool was relieved from his post on July 18 in what would be his final play at departmental musical chairs with General Dix. Far from relaxing his labors after returning home to Troy, Wool, as mentioned above, continued to tirelessly promote the war effort in the region and publicly voiced his support for Lincoln's reelection. In the years immediately following the war, he was subjected to many lawsuits stemming from his actions in Baltimore (mainly regarding false arrest and imprisonment), all of which were eventually dropped. Wool supported moderate Reconstruction, including the application of a more gradual approach to according full citizenship rights and social status to freedmen. He died at his Troy home in November 1869 at the age of 85, a still respected figure. Courage Above All Things is heartily recommended to anyone interested in Wool's activities during the early-war period in the East and the New York City draft riots of 1863. The informative depth found in those sections also certainly creates a favorable impression of what a reader interested in the entirety of Wool's military career can gain from reading the rest of the book.


  1. Now we need a biography of John A. Dix

  2. Drew:

    I bought this book because of my interest in Wool after reading Lincoln Takes Command by Steve Norder (and your review), which has various episodes of the interactions between Wool and Lincoln in the leadup to the taking of Norfolk. Thumbing through this Wool biography, I see barely 3 pages spent on Lincoln’s time in the Norfolk theater and not much direct interaction between Wool and Lincoln. Of course, the late Harwood Hinton did not have the benefit of Norder’s book. As to Wool’s change of heart towards Lincoln, I suspect most people spending much time with Lincoln would come away with a good deal of respect for him. Of course, it did not hurt that Lincoln subsequently praised Wool for the Norfolk campaign and nominated him for a Major Generalship in the regular army! I look forward to reading this book in toto and learning more about Wool. A long overdue biography of a significant but relatively obscure (to most) man. I certainly urge anyone interested in Wool to read the Norder book as well.


    1. I was hoping for a bit more Peninsula coverage, too.


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