Book Review: Lincoln's Political Generals


by David Work

Urbana/Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009. Pp. ix, 287. Illus, notes, biblio., index. $34.95. ISBN: 0252034457

A look at the roles of sixteen "political generals" in the Civil War, to evaluate Lincoln's use of "political" criteria when handing out volunteer commissions to men such as Franz Sigel, John C. Frémont, Ben Butler, John Logan, John McClernand, Thomas Meagher, and Dan Sickles. 

The author, who has published widely in Civil War studies, opens with a discussion of the reasons that prompted Lincoln to commission these officers.  Work defines a "political general" as one who did not gradate from West Point, and omits USMA alumni who returned to the colors, though some were probably just as poliutical as anyone else.  Some of these "political generals" were commissioned because as "War Democrats" they helped unify the nation, while others were so rewarded because they promoted recruiting in loyal states, and others because they helped cement the loyalties of important ethnic groups, such as the Germans, Scandinavians, and Irish, and so forth, and some because they happened to have prior military experience.  Rather than give the reader a separate treatment for each of the men in his study, Work uses a narrative year-by-year overview of the war with a focus on the activities of these officers, a superior approach, as it provides background and nuance to his critique of their performance.  Although the absence of maps makes understanding some actions very difficult, this approach is excellent. In an important, though secondary observation, Work notes that political considerations in generalships was not unique to the Union, though it has generally received more attention in the literature.

Work's concludes that while some of these officers were inept in the field, on balance the Union cause benefited from their services, because they helped unify the nation, mobilize it full resources, and, in several instances, did prove capable commanders.  A valuable book for anyone interested in the Civil War or command. 

Reviewer: A.A. Nofi   

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