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Thursday, Nov. 5, 2009 07:16 pm

Lincoln brought politics into the war? Really?


Poor Abraham Lincoln. Even in his 200th birthday year, the guy is still being sliced and diced, his every action scrutinized in an estimated 100 new books that have hit the shelves since the Lincoln Bicentennial festivities kicked off two years ago.

Case in point is David Work’s just published military history of Lincoln’s Civil War appointments, Lincoln’s Political Generals. In it we learn that (gasp!) Lincoln often made political appointments when he chose who would lead the North’s armies and regiments.

Really? Didn’t Doris Kearns Goodwin already nail that concept in her Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln? And hasn’t the story of Lincoln the politician been told numerous times in detail by everyone from Billy Herndon to Mario Cuomo?

Apparently there’s still more to say, and Work does so in some 234 pages with an index and end notes that stretch for another 50 pages. The book is jampacked with information and research, so much so that the reader can have a hard time connecting with the large of cast of characters who served, and often confounded, the commander-in-chief.

That’s not to say Work isn’t good at what he does. Lincoln’s Political Generals is well written and certainly belongs in the canon of literature on the Civil War and Lincoln’s leadership. It’s a huge subject, and an important one. Work studies 16 “political generals” appointed by Lincoln, employing an analysis of their careers.

Their names are not familiar to the casual reader. Even history buffs might have trouble placing men like Denver, Dix, Sigel, McClernand, Meagher, Schneck, Schurz and Wadsworth, although I confess a certain fascination with Major General Dan Sickles who, while serving as a congressman, shot and killed his wife’s lover in broad daylight within sight of the White House but won acquittal in court. A New Yorker, Sickles initially defended peaceful secession and promised his Southern friends his state would never wage war against any other state in the union. Shortly afterwards, he flip-flopped, vowing New Yorkers “would go anywhere to protect the flag.”

Good leaders, and good politicians, grasp what they’re up against, and for Lincoln the challenge of gearing up for war was formidable. Work reports that, politics aside, there were simply not enough professional officers available to command the huge volunteer army being raised. That left Lincoln little choice but to grant commissions to civilians, often making generals out of politicians who had no military training or experience. Lincoln’s need for manpower was so great, one of his secretaries describes it as “going hunting for generals.”

Work illustrates that the numbers tell the tale. Even though, at the beginning of the war, there were 1,700 available West Point graduates, he says the North was only able to secure the services of 754 of them. It was a number far too small to lead the 16 armies, 43 corps and more than 2,000 cavalry and infantry regiments that would eventually assemble.

Work stresses Lincoln’s political skills and instincts, whether it’s in dividing his general appointments among Republicans and Democrats, or including important ethnic groups such as Germans and Irish. Lincoln knew the war had to be a national undertaking, but he also needed political support. Positions of command were a logical source of patronage, and Lincoln, always harried by job seekers, needed leaders for his army of volunteers.

Not surprisingly, critics of Lincoln’s appointments abound. General William Averell, a West Point graduate, summed up Lincoln’s citizen generals’ performance as “largely a record of blunders and disasters.” Work ranks them on a scale between mediocre and competent, depending on how much they were able to learn on the job. Often the jump to corps command proved beyond the ability of most of the political generals, but Illinois’ John A. Logan gets high marks, in part because he had the opportunity to serve as a corps commander with the pros, like Sherman and Grant.

Julie Cellini is a freelance writer who worked on the content team that created the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

Lincoln’s Political Generals by David Work. University of Illinois Press, 320 pp.


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