The state of Civil War history, part 1 of 5.

Lincoln Finds a General is not only the title of a book, it gives us in four words everything we know about civilian management of the Civil War. For a long time it has been all we have ever cared to know.

In 1941, with public interest in Abraham Lincoln rising, T. Harry Williams offered the public an unusual book, Lincoln and the Radicals. With great sympathy towards Lincoln, he showed a seesawing political struggle for military control of the war lasting several years up until Lincoln lost his grip for good. Williams took particular interest in General George B. McClellan's career, McClellan serving as a case study of how political operations against specific generals could serve anti-Lincoln purposes.

This was an idea similar to one developed in J.G. Randall's important Lincoln biography, the first volume of which appeared in 1946. Randall wrote chapters headed, "Behind McClellan's Lines," "McClellan's Demotion Assists Lee," and "The Breaking of McClellan." There is a sense, in both these books, that McClellan embodies Lincoln's early war policies and that they made a sympathetic and complementary team.

In 1949, on this wave of Lincoln interest, a mathematician named Kenneth P. Williams wrote that first volume of a five-part work, Lincoln Finds a General, an apologia for what appeared to be Union experiments in military leadership. Williams told a story from the President’s imagined perspective and cast as Lincoln's antagonists neither Rebels nor Radicals, but his own failed Union generals, principally George B. McClellan. It was striking in its Unionism, on one hand, and in maligning loyal U.S. commanders, all the while praising the Rebellion's own military cadres. (There have been many more cases of Unionist schizophrenia since then.)

In 1952, the other Williams, T. Harry, produced an extended essay, Lincoln and His Generals, in which he developed Grant, Sherman and McClellan into archetypes that could illustrate gradations of military merit. The work seemed derived from a much earlier study by J.F.C. Fuller. However, there were now echoes of Kenneth Williams in this work, which was a greater commercial success than Lincoln and the Radicals. Read carelessly, Lincoln and His Generals provided a purely military interpretation of changes in Union commanders, with Lincoln finding a winning general by the end of the book. Actually, T. Harry Williams never repudiated his claims made in Lincoln and the Radicals, writing a defiant introduction to later editions and standing by his conclusion that Lincoln lost control of the war to a faction in his own party. His Generals book was a popular anomaly.

Kenneth Williams’ Lincoln Finds a General was more influential than Lincoln and the Radicals, however. It showed civilian influence on the war as a simple thing. Did the general give Lincoln satisfaction or not? Plot a curve over time. Was he successful or not? Plot another curve. Did Lincoln relieve a general? Compare the curves to find out why. Call this the geometry of military history.

In this type of narrative (and it quickly became a type), congressmen or cabinet members were remote, irrational actors who briefly appeared now and again to promise blessings or threaten sanctions. They were as impersonal and ephemeral as weather. Lincoln survived their sporadic and feeble political challenges to successfully conclude the war. Time and money wasted? Human cost? Well, these were matters of military bungling and of generals squandering opportunities. So the story goes, or shall we say, has gone ever since.

The Williams' books were products of their time, being tokens of reader interest in Lincoln rather than in the Civil War per se. They had middling sales and marked no sort of publishing revolution. The writer whose success did shift publishing, and who helped drive an actual Civil War revival, the writer who created a military history centered view of the war, was Bruce Catton. His influence is with us still. [Continued tomorrow.]