The state of Civil War history, part 3 of 5

The idea of a Union high command must strike many readers as strange. We know there was an Abraham Lincoln and we know there were generals. Where was the high command?

It was not a chartered institution. The high command was an alternating cast of primarily political players that sponsored careers and campaigns, drafted plans and proposals, that made decisions, and that took charge on many war issues. Abraham Lincoln was a member -- occasionally absentee -- of this motley body.

The way the Civil War narrative has been framed by Catton, by American Heritage, and by the remaining exponents of the AH editorial line makes the idea of a Union high command very strange indeed. This is because of the distraction quotient involved in charting who's in, who's out, what are the plans, who's cooking up what with whom, and so on. This does not make for good storytelling at all. It smacks of what pop Historian A. Nevins dismissed as "dry-as-dust history."

The reader of Cattonized history has absolutely no idea that General Ethan A. Hitchcock after being offered Grant's command in the West, then McClellan's command in the East, was made head of the Army War Board and chief of staff of the Secretary of War's military cabinet; that during his term, he vetted every military decision the government made. Hitchcock who?

General Hitchcock is but one small emblem of the truth that an accurate account of the management of the Civil War is far, far outside almost anyone's current working model. He represents a little alarm bell, one indicating a malfunction in the story structures we have been buying.

There is matter of the Democratic political general, John McClernand, visiting Antietam field with Lincoln. What was he doing there? His aide says he was selling a plan; he would raise troops to capture the Mississippi valley and McClellan would command those troops. Only McClellan had enough authority to honestly and fairly manage a subordinate trio of McClernand, Grant, and Sherman, McClernand's aide said. After McClernand left, McClellan told General Darius Couch that he would be transferred to the West soon and that he would be selecting key subordinates to take with him. Again, this is a little example, of excised history, not to be found in the master narratives where it would be considered a meaningless detour.

When the detours are all marked on the great map of the Civil War, clear patterns emerge, patterns that tell us what the options were, who presented them, how they were selected, when, and for what purpose. The patterns portray shifting power structures, changing plans, and the decisionmaking apparatus running at full throttle. Why you would discard this material in favor of storytelling is a direct comment on your sensibilities as an historian.

Which brings us to the matter of McClellan's Secret History.

[Continued tomorrow.]