Books I am reading

Grandmaster Emmanuel Lasker (right) developed his observations about chess games and players into more general propositions about people, psychology, social dynamics, and life. I was hoping, when I started it, that Jeremy Silman’s The Amateur’s Mind: Turning Chess Misconceptions into Chess Mastery would shoulder the Laskerian burden of delineating a general description of amateurism, one that could be used to explain aspects of my Civil War reading. No paradigms here; just matches and self-help advice. This reading will not be completed.

Mark Neely builds his reputation one book at a time and with each book he takes more risk. With The Union Divided he explores party strife and its effects on the Union War effort. This is not a study that will sit well with the old thinking. It shows poisonous Northern politics permeating everything to do with the war; it resurrects elements of the Democratic critique of the management of the war; and it smudges the halo over the Republican Party. But it also tries to do too little, spending just 200 pages on a theme worth 1,000 at least. Work undone: Neely fails to trace the currently popular memes and themes of ACW writing back to their roots in the editorial pages of the Republican press of that time. Most Civil War history appearing today is history writing, but not history per se, and most of its "findings" and "conclusions" are mere political rhetoric from 140 years ago, dressed in the same fragmentary evidence and partisan handling of sources. Likewise, Neely toys with elements of the Democratic critique of Lincoln’s mismanagement of the war – good, most readers have never seen a shred of it – but without giving readers the complete accounting, which is a huge missed opportunity. (Readers are vaguely familiar with peace Democrats, also with the idea that Democrats wanted a negotiated settlement, but they have been thoughtfully protected from the more mainstream War Democrats’ critique of Lincoln’s military management of the war.) Neely paints for readers the outlines of a darker political reality than is found in the general run of Unionist histories. Also good. That aggressive party building in wartime incurs unnecessary risks and intensifies suffering needs to be understood and reflected in accounts of the Union effort.

John M. Schofield and the Politics of Generalship must send shivers down readers' spines. Politics! Generalship! Why that's apples and oranges - generals can't be political! Yup, this looks to be even more fun than Mark Grimsley’s Hard Hand of War, which grabbed squirming Civil War readers and forced the cod liver oil of politics down their unwilling gullets. General Schofield, for his part, was immersed in a pot of boiling political oil from the early war on, his Missouri command providing local, state, and federal form to every military consideration and decision. His memoirs – which run longer than this bio – show a political sensitivity capable of memorializing such oblique incidents as Grant telling him (Schofield) dramatically in early 1864 that he would not let the Administration "McClellanize" him (Grant’s word) once he arrived in the East. Schofield is one of those rare generals who arrives at the end of the war with rank and office comparable to that held at the start of 1862 – a fascinating window into the matter of personal growth under the stress of war. Downside: this is a biography. Upside: it’s analytical. Downside: the Civil War is over in about 100 pages. Upside: Schofield spent decades applying ACW lessons in civil-military relations to the postwar world. Gary Gallagher, the UNC Press editor responsible for this acquistion, deserves a salute.

Commanding the Army of the Potomac by Stephen Taafe was an impulse buy based on blurbs by Brooks Simpson and Steven Woodworth. It’s going to be an interesting read but I am in the throes of buyer’s regret. The secondary sources list, for example, will make you weep; time has stood still for this gentleman as there is not much new under the sun in Taafe country. The core of the problem he sets himself is typical. The Centennialists, recall, tried to answer all Civil War controversies and issues comprehensively through the use of storytelling techniques placed at the service of an 1862 New York Times editorial writer’s sensibility. The gaps and failures are embarrassing, however much you love your Nevins, Williams, Catton, Sears, and McPherson, so the game for their followers has been to work within that old general narrative framework to solve problems left behind by the masters. One of the more famous of these has been defined as – roughly – why was the AoP so screwed up? The short answer has always been "McClellan!" and Taafe here chips in to fill out the details by explaining how one man could screw up an entire army for years after he had gone. The answer is personal psychology (hello, Sears!) and mass psychology (hello, impossible generalization). Do have your psychohistory meters calibrated before picking this tome up, dear reader. And did we mention that McClellan only appointed his friends to command. (Yes, that gem appears as I have rendered it on page 215.) Despite it’s title, this is as much or more about corps commanders and Taafe has the good sense to try to trace the military and political patronage of this class of leader. His efforts are botched, however, by continuous solicitation for the old American Heritage editorial policy. And so he cannot – for instance – properly characterize the well-documented relationships of Sumner, Keyes, Heintzelmann, and McDowell to Lincoln. Nor will the author bring himself to violate the Centennial taboo that prohibits mention that these were pre-war Republicans and abolitionists; nor could he report (see Lincoln Day by Day) the level of social interaction with the president long before their appointment to corps command; and best of all, Mr. Taafe is not going to mention that the corps commanders appointed under McClellan were the only division commanders polled who stood against a water approach to Richmond. Never mind Sumner’s and McDowell’s blood relatives (Republicans) in the government, you can't choose your relatives and therefore we absolve historians from ever mentioning such things. And so, these corps commanders appear on the scene magically, as if washed ashore by the time and tide of Regular Army promotion. For Taafe, at this late date in the historiography of the ACW, repeats the Centennial wisdom that they were appointed because of their seniority in rank and opposed by McClellan because they were not his friends. Peacetime seniority implies some sort of orderly, impartial process but we are here talking of seniority in rank derived from Lincoln’s commissioning, and promoting, and dating commissions and promotions. Sins of commission, meet Taafe's sins of omission: the book fails, like so many before it, torecord that Lincoln created the date of rank for four generals he socialized with, who were Party members, and who went on the record against McClellan's plans prior to their appointments. And so it goes in a new book explaining how corps commanders got to where they were.

Upside: writers like Taafe inspired the creation of this blog. That's one good outcome, anyway.