Political generals then and now

Reading a newspaper article today on a couple of sitting generals (called in the report  "toxic," and pawns of the White House) got me thinking about a difference in types.

Our modern chateaux generals are creatures of specific politicians with no political force of their own. There are a number of Civil War generals who were political in just that same, simple, one way.

However, most of the political generals labeled as such in the Civil War were political figures in their own right and although many advantages of appointing them are beginning to be discussed, one thing they delivered is never mentioned.

Years ago, going through the Democrat papers of that day while in Boston's main library, I was struck by the obsessive amount of reporting on Ben Butler's little commands and their doings. Every day brought a substantial report, often outweighing the combined war news of other commands. All operations were painted in the most favorable light and overshadowed news of any contemporary battle elsewhere.

This kind of hometown bias gave Lincoln's Administration a glow in newspapers that would be ill disposed to him otherwise. The ongoing publicity payoff for these kinds of appointments must have been much higher than for appointing Cabinet officials from this or that place.

Does any newspaper follow the doings of a general today? The generals are disposable, anonymous salarymen, from nowhere, going nowhere. Their political utility is simply that of delivering political outcomes and complementing politicians' analysis and aims.

A president might do well to appoint actual politicians (or celebrities) to some high commands, following Lincoln in this.


The McDowell Papers: A special one-time offer to readers of this blog

It has been a long time since regular readers of this blog have received a free offer. The time has come to repay loyalty and sustained interest with this very special opportunity.

If any of you will locate the McDowell papers for me, I promise to write a fair-minded, informative, very useful biography -- the first ever -- of this major Civil War figure.

On the other hand, if I have to find these papers myself, I will write a cranky, opinionated, unreadable biography out of an abundance of irritation. You know I am capable of that, so spare yourselves by putting in a little research and elbow grease now to avoid crushing disappointment later.

You know how to reach me or you know someone else who knows how. Find the papers, belay your excuses and get to it. Claim your free prize!


Here are two clues to help you find the McDowell papers.

Clue no. 1 Harry Smeltzer pointed me to this remark:
I was long in hopes of getting access to some papers left by General McDowell which are said to contain information of importance as to his relations with the authorities at Washington; unfortunately, I was unable to persuade those who have charge of them to let me see them.
That is from Robert Matteson Johnston in his 1913, Bull Run; Its Strategy and Tactics, a damn good read, btw. What is Johnston referring to?

Clue no. 2 This is a nugget from my failing memory. Tom Rowland once told me (IIRC!) that his own McDowell bio was stymied because the McDowell daughters had burned their father's papers. Believable, yes. But true?

Claim the prize!

This is a limited time offer and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. If I had graduate student assistants, you, the general public, would never even have a chance at reaping these generous rewards. Act now and I will throw in, absolutely free, some meager scraps of my own research.

What are you waiting for?


FDR as Lincoln? Well, define "Lincoln"

Thirty years after enjoying Nigel Hamilton's three-volume Montgomery bio, it was a pleasure to meet him in the flesh at the Army & Navy Club where he spoke of his new book last night.

This is a revisionist presentation of FDR and it appears Stimson and Marshall, among others, are going to take some hits.

I only mention this social affair because in the Q&A, perhaps three of the six questions pertained to the Civil War.

Those questions came from an entirely non-historical mindset. They were questions from ACW literature, not history, they were based on fanciful memes and Hamilton, and actual historian who does research and tries to solve problems, adamantly pushed back against them.

My regret is that he pushed against the memes themselves rather than the mindset that reads history this way. As a polite man and as a guest in a special setting, perhaps he needed to hold back a little.

The questioners were trying to understand FDR against the notion of Lincoln finds a general. One fellow actually broached the name of T. Harry Williams.

Hamilton vigorously countered that in no way was FDR a passive, hands off president looking for someone to carry major decisions for him. (I do like the implicit Lincoln criticism here!) He gave many counter examples to this. It seemed the questioners were a little disconcerted by his repeated assertions on this point.

Hamilton seemed familiar with the ACW literature (at least the Centennial stuff). He also shared with us some nice first-hand Monty and Churchill anecdotes.

I could have tied things up with a query of my own: Do you think Churchill indulged Monty out of the Prime Minister's personal conviction that Lincoln had done an injustice to McClellan?

That particular ACW question would have been too arcane for the occasion.