In the world of Civil War publishing, the last few seasons have been great: important, fresh titles asking for rethinking on key assumptions and, each in its own way, an end to the current , false consensus.
The University Press of Kansas was good enough to send me an advance copy of The War within the Union High Command by Thomas J. Goss, due out in October. Goss attacks the picture of political generals that has been given in military histories and he develops a couple of important themes not generally accepted by most military historians: (1) all Civil War generals were political (2) the requirements on a general often exceeded (and far exceeded) military operations.
As his publicist points out: "With Union armies poised to launch the final campaigns against the Confederacy in 1864, three of its five commanders were “political generals”—appointed officers with little or no military training." How could this happen? The military historian might say that with the lengthening of the war, the political pressures on Lincoln increased, with a correspondingly higher need for political appointments to military duty.
Goss would argue that the three out of five (Butler, banks, Sigel) were there because of their consistent contributions to the war effort. He gently asks conditioned readers to broaden their view of this civil war to include the possibility of political ends being served by political means, even in uniform. "Goss challenges the traditional idea that success was measured only on the battlefield by demonstrating significant links between military success and the achievement of the Union’s political objectives."
Union generals operated in a politically charged environment; their fortunes might rise or fall based on the ups and downs of their political godfathers; they succeeded or failed based on their support in D.C.; the political capital they created (or lost) for their sponsors dictated the course of their careers ... absolutely. Goss does a good job in taking readers through the basics in this, including examinations of the patronage behind McClellan, Burnside, Banks, Butler, Pope, and Sherman. I would have gone much deeper than Goss, but the broad audience is not ready for a deep study of patronage.
In a field where we have hardly gotten beyond military explanations for events, this line of argument would be too much to expect of a new author, and so we are grateful to Goss for at least trying to expand the boundaries of our analysis.