Book Review: Failure to Pursue: How the Escape of Defeated Forces Prolonged the Civil War


by David Frey

Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2016. Pp. viii, 404. Notes, biblio., index. $39.95 paper. ISBN: 1476666695

Why Didn’t Civil War Generals Follow Up their Victories?

Former Marine and attorney Frey, who maintains the Civil War Rumblings website, examines a very neglected, yet arguably critical failing of most Civil War commanders, their consistent failure to effect a robust pursuit after a victory in the field, and that despite their deep rooting in Napoleonic warfare.

Frey examines nearly 20 major operations. Seven of these are in the West, notably Shiloh, Chattanooga, and Nashville, and a dozen in the East, including both Bull Runs, the Seven Days, Antietam, Gettysburg, and Grant’s ’64 campaign. He concludes that in all but two of them the winning side – whether Confederate or Union – either failed to attempt a pursuit or made only half-hearted efforts to carry one out. Frey does not attribute such failure necessarily to inept leadership or faintheartedness, although that may have been a cause at times.

Frey discusses many factors that hampered the ability of the armies to follow up victory – the lack of fresh troops (particularly cavalry), poor staff work, difficult communications, weather, and more – all contributed. He reminds us that the armies began the war with inexperienced troops and commanders, an improvised organization, an amazing shortage of trained staff personnel (after all, no one, including Regular Army veterans, had any experience in managing such massive armies), and, at least early on, the sense that one or two battles would resolve the issue in relatively short order. Frey argues that the most outstanding examples of an effective pursuit were those of George Thomas after Nashville and U.S. Grant after Five Forks.

While marred by an unfortunate total lack of maps, Failure to Purse is an important contribution toward our understanding of why the war dragged on so long.

Note: Failure to Purse is also available as an e-pub, ISBN 978-1-4766-2713-7


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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