The Civil War Generals – Book Review
The history of the United States entered a radically new chapter on April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina. That shot launched the United States into four years of bloody civil war. The War Between the States forever changed the political landscape of the United States and in many ways continues to impact the nation to this day.
We’re in the midst of the 150th anniversary of this seminal event in American history; yet while history buffs and history-related media venues realize the significance of this event, the American public at large seems far too interested in the antics of Honey Boo Boo and Dancing with the Stars to take notice. We cannot but pause here to call to mind George Santayana’s maxim: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The 100th anniversary of the Civil War was almost the exact opposite of what we see (or have not seen) today. General-interest media at the time brimmed with stories about the Civil War. Interest in the Civil War reached a zenith during this period, resulting in an explosion of scholarship and new books. In many ways, the 100th anniversary of the Civil War “popularized” the study of military history. Given this stark contrast in remembrances, those new works about the Civil War published during this anniversary period are welcome indeed. It’s even better when these books are like those of Robert Girardi’s The Civil War Generals: Comrades, Peers, Rivals in Their Own Words.
The US military of 1860 was an army woefully unprepared to fight a major war. Its total roster included only 16,367 men and officers. Of its 1,108 officers, only five held general officer rank—one major general and four brigadier generals. These five averaged seventy years of age, from the “youngster” Joseph E. Johnston (age 54) to the “old man” Major General Winfield Scott (75). Further, even among its senior ranks, the vast majority of Army officers serving on the eve of the Civil War had commanded nothing larger than a company-size formation. With the outbreak of war, the situation changed almost overnight. On top of this, the armies of both sides found themselves with an insatiable demand for senior leaders—some even fresh off the street with little or no military leadership experience. By war’s end some thousand men (historians disagree on the criteria for being included on a list of general officers in the Civil War, so numbers vary) served as general officers in both the Union and Confederate armies. How did these men rise (or not) to the challenge? How were they viewed in the eyes of their contemporaries? Girardi answers these important questions in his fascinating book, The Civil War Generals.
Girardi divides this work into four main sections: quotes by Civil War generals on generalship itself, quotes about Union generals, quotes about Confederate generals, and “composite quotes” that refer to more than one general in a single quote. Backing up the work are a series of appendixes consisting of a short (but welcome) map section, a list of sources for the quotes, and a listing of major battles, with the names of the generals present on each side. Additionally, Girardi provides us a thorough bibliography and a helpful index. Taken together, the work is very solid.
The quotes themselves provide an interesting and often intimate glimpse at how the men who commanded the Civil War were viewed at the time by those around them. Some commanders very clearly met the bar of wartime leadership, such as Major General Grenville M. Dodge: “He possessed rare practical intelligence, intense and untiring energy, was courageous to a fault, resourceful and efficient and as a soldier in the civil war, a railroad engineer and manager…he proved himself a most valuable officer to the service in the West” (p. 54). Others, such as Brevet Major General John A. McArthur, didn’t quite live up to expectations: “He is a shrewd Scotchman, trustworthy rather than brilliant, good at hard knocks, but not a great commander” (p. 55). Some are downright amusing: “General George B. Crittenden is a Kentuckian, about fifty-five years of age…he is generally considered to be an excellent and reliable officer when free from the influence of alcohol and gay company…This vice is too prevalent among talented men of the South” (p. 205).
In summary, Girardi’s book is an excellent contribution to Civil War literature. The work lends itself to either being read straight through or reading quotes at random. The book will also serve as an excellent reference resource. Civil War buffs in particular will greatly enjoy this book.
Steve Schultz is a former active duty Air Force officer and pilot. Currently living in southwest Florida, he is a freelance writer and an adjunct professor of history.