Book Review: Union Command Failure in the Shenandoah: Major General Franz Sigel and the War in the Valley of Virginia, May 1864


by David Powell

El Dorado Hills, Ca.: Savas Beatie, 2019. Pp. xii, 234. Illus., maps, append., biblio., index. $29.95. ISBN: 1611214343

How Bad was Union Command in the Valley in 1864?

The Battle of New Market suffers from no lack of drama, interest, or importance. The ramifications of the May 1864 engagement were substantial. All three of the previous works are told largely from the Confederate point of view. The dramatic part played by the Virginia Military Institute Cadets on that stormy afternoon couldn’t help but come to dominate the story. But what of the Federals, and especially their commander, Franz Sigel? Sigel has been painted as more of a caricature than a commander, with almost every postwar account portraying him as an obvious incompetent - each of his decisions traditionally introduced as proof of battlefield negligence. The rest of the Federal force are reduced to little more than innocent victims of Sigel’s blundering. David Powell’s Union Command Failure in the Shenandoah Valley: Major General Franz Sigel and the War in the Valley of Virginia, May 1864, provides the balance that has so long been needed (page xi).

Powell, well-known for his award winning trilogy on the Chickamauga Campaign, lays out the above challenge in his new book’s introduction, and then proceeds to deliver on that challenge. This book is the first study of the 1864 spring campaign in the Shenandoah Valley from a Union perspective. The other three studies mentioned in the book’s introduction include Edmund Turner’s The New Market Campaign, May 1864 (Whittet & Shepperson: Richmond, 1912), William C. Davis’ The Battle of New Market (Doubleday: New York, 1975), and Charles Knight’s Valley Thunder (Savas Beatie: El Dorado Hill, California, 2010), and each concentrated its focus on the Southern perspective. True to his word, Powell (ironically a VMI graduate himself), examines the entire campaign from the Union point-of-view.

Broken down into nine chapters, the book does a masterful job of exploring the campaign from the strategic level, starting with how it fit into U.S. Grant’s overall 1864 strategy, how Sigel was chosen as Union commander in the Shenandoah Valley, how the secondary campaign by Major General George Crook fit in, and how U.S. Grant’s role in the planning of the campaign evolved, etc. It continues down to the tactical level of regimental movements across the New Market battlefield.

The author’s writing style is excellent, making it easy, even for the casual student of the Civil War, to follow the strategic and tactical movements and how they influenced each other. Eight excellent original maps by David Friedrichs accompany the text, also making it easier for the reader to understand the main flow of the narrative and the movements of the opposing armies. The book is also nicely illustrated, containing photographs of nearly all of the principal participants on both sides.

Powell’s research is very solid and, for the most part, well footnoted (which is absolutely essential for any book on an historical subject that wants to be taken seriously). The bibliography is quite lengthy for a study that runs slightly more than 200 pages. Powell packed a lot of information and analysis into a relatively short work and it is well worth the read.

Further, Powell more than proved his overall thesis:

"Blaming everything on Franz Sigel strikes me as far too simple an explanation for what happened on the Federal side of the line during that rainy, thunderous afternoon. It is by no means my intention to seek to rehabilitate Sigel as the undiscovered military genius of the American Civil War. I do, however, think there is a great deal to be learned about why he made the choices he did, and a close reading of history offers up valid reasons for many of those decisions. Sigel made significant mistakes, and those mistakes cost him the battle, but up to that point he had also achieved much of what the Union higher command expected of him—a fact that goes largely unrecognized in the extant literature" (pages xi-xii).

Powell’s Union Command Failure in the Shenandoah Valley now properly fills that gap.


Note: Union Command Failure in the Shenandoah is also available in audio- and e-editions.


Our Reviewer: Eric Campbell has worked as a ranger-historian for the National Park Service for thirty-four years, at a variety of sites, including twenty-four years at Gettysburg National Military Park. He has been the chief of interpretation at Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park, which interprets all of the Civil War sites in the Shenandoah Valley, since 2009.  Eric's review originally appeared in The Journal of the Shenandoah Valley During the Civil War Era (Vol. III, 2019), a publication of Shenandoah University’s McCormick Civil War Institute, and comes to us with his permission and that of Journal editor Jonathan A. Noyalas.

StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Eric Campbell   

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