Book Review: The Commanders: Civil War Generals Who Shaped the American West


by Robert M. Utley

Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2018. Pp. xii, 244. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $29.95. ISBN: 0806159782

Civil War Generals in the Indian Wars

A distinguished historian of the frontier army, in what is apparently his last work, the late Robert Utley gives us a look at the lives and careers of seven Civil War major generals who went on to hold senior posts in the “Indian Fighting Army”. His object is to seek clues to their strengths and weaknesses by comparing their experiences during both phases of their careers.

What emerges from this approach is often surprising. Some officers who had rather lack luster careers during the Civil War, proved more effective in the Indian Wars. George Crook, for example, had not acquired a distinguished record in the Civil War, but did well on the Plains, a matter which was also the result of his being probably the general most sympathetic to and best liked by Native Americans. Other officers, who had outstanding careers in the conventional war of 1861-1865, proved unable to grasp the nature of warfare in the West, while a few – Nelson A. Miles, Alfred Terry – proved reasonably able in both theatres, and some equally inept in both, such as John Pope.

Among the generals less successful in the Civil War, particular note should be made of Oliver O. Howard, the “Christian General”, who proved remarkably lacking in sympathy for Indian culture, which could worsen matters, yet still turn in a reasonable performance.

While telling the stories of these men and their comrades, Utley also throws light on the varying nature of war in the two conflicts, as well as the ever-shifting nature of national policy toward the First Americans.

‘The Commanders’ is an excellent book for its insights into the varying ability of these officers to adapt to the changing nature of war.  This is also a matter worthy of study by modern generals, and one which troubles some military thinkers, concerned about the long-term effects on the institutional experience of the armed forces in America’s recent conflicts – protracted, low intensity, irregular warfare against “non-state actors” – in contrast to large scale conventional conflict with a peer or near-peer opponent. 


Note: The Commanders is also available in several e-editions.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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